“Where knowledge ends, violence begins.”

~ Author Unknown

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A display of dominance?

Dominance and the Myths of “Pack” and “Alpha” Terminology

by Valerie Barry

(see links below for more articles and information on this subject)

The term “Dominance” does not relate to a temperament or a personality trait.  It is one of the most misunderstood terms applied to dogs, and it is the term people use to justify their harsh training methods.  “You have a ‘dominant dog’ therefore you must be more dominant than he is and make sure he knows you’re the boss.”

Dominance is situational.  If you’re attending a lecture, the presenter is the dominant person in the room and everyone attending is subordinate.  It doesn’t mean the presenter is a “dominant person” just that he is in control of the lecture and is the expert delivering his knowledge to the attendees.

“Alpha” and “Pack” are other terms frequently and inaccurately applied to dogs and to our relationship with them.  It is commonly thought that dogs are pack animals and we must be their Alpha so they do not presume to take over the Leader of the Pack position.  Again, untrue – dogs are not pack animals.  Dogs, if left to their own devices in a wild state, may form loose social groups but these groups are fluid and there is no one “alpha” in charge. There is no evidence of pack behaviour like that observed in wild wolves.  More often than not, dogs in the wild will simply live a fairly solitary existence in and around human settlements.

The myths of dogs as pack animals and the “dominance theory” began as an extrapolation of information from a poorly done wolf research project in the early 1950s.  Dogs were thought to have descended directly from wolves, therefore, it was assumed that the information gathered from this research project could also be applied to dogs.

There were two problems with this:  (1) the research project was seriously flawed and the information regarding wolves was later discredited; and (2), dogs did not descend directly from wolves.  Dogs, in fact, evolved from wolves but are direct descendants of the Village Dog (Pariah Dog) still seen in places like Mexico, the Cook Islands, and many villages in Africa.  There is a fantastic book by biologist Dr. Raymond Coppinger and his wife, Lorna Coppinger, detailing their research into the modern domestic dog and its origins:  “Dogs – A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution”.

Even our knowledge of wolves has changed drastically in the last 20 years.  Famed wolf researcher David Mech, who is widely considered the leading expert on wolves, now refers to the “Alpha” wolf as the “Parent”.  The previously termed “Pack Leaders” or “Dominant Alpha Wolves” are now called the “Parent Pair” and we now know that the wolf pack functions very much like our human family.  There is no “ruling by dominance” in a healthy wolf pack and very few, if any, violent confrontations among the pack members.

I do think there are some dogs who appear to be “dominant” simply because they always seem to end up with all the bones, toys and good sleeping spots.  These dogs also manage to cruise through life with little or no conflict with other dogs and appear to enjoy a high “status” among other dogs.  I would classify these dogs as the Confident Dog – very confident and socially skilled dogs.  If you have one in your house, you’re very fortunate, because they are easy to have and easy to take anywhere without issue.  They don’t invite confrontation and will do a lot to avoid conflict, but they don’t generally back down if challenged by a socially unskilled dog.  They will only escalate any confrontation to the level necessary to ensure that the proper social balance has been restored.  These dogs make great “teachers” for puppies, adolescents and less socially skilled dogs.

People often think of the “dominant dog” as the one in the park who challenges all the other dogs, jumps on people and steals toys from other dogs.   On the contrary, these dogs are lacking in confidence, often are fearful and anxious, have definitely not been properly socialized nor have they been properly trained by the families they live with.  I would classify these dogs as the Obnoxious Dog – often the Obnoxious Adolescent Dog.

There is another type of dog who may appear to be confident but doesn’t necessarily follow the description above and that is the Risk Taker Dog.  This is the dog willing to take big risks to get the things he really desires.  He is willing to risk personal injury just to get his paws on that bone or that favored toy and will harass the current toy or bone owner into giving it up.  He will risk the wrath of his housemates or friends by trying to engage them in play when they have clearly said “no more play”.  He may have a high prey drive and be willing to tear off into unknown territory simply to continue the thrill of the chase. Generally, the Risk Taker Dog isn’t interested in engaging in violent confrontation but he is willing to risk a lot to get what he truly desires.

I think that all dogs tend to have traits or combinations of traits that make them more or less like the Obnoxious, Confident and Risk Taker Dogs.  There may also be the Peacemaker Dog – sometimes called the Fun Cop in its extreme state!  The Peacemaker Dog has some traits of the Confident Dog but seems particularly concerned about maintaining order and preventing any possibility of conflict.

Do I think that all this information means that we should just let our dogs do whatever they like – not at all!  I think that we are responsible for our dogs behaviour and conduct.  We have a duty to socialize them and train them to live in a human world with all the rules that dogs are bound by.  I think our dogs need good parenting – being carefully taught the rules and boundaries of our homes and our daily lives.  Those rules and boundaries need to be consistently, fairly and humanely maintained. I think that good dog parents have a responsibility to learn all they can about dog behaviour and to apply that knowledge to develop their own rewarding partnership with their dog.

Articles and Links to More Information

Before the “Dog Whisperer” ever aired, it was reviewed by Andrew Luescher DVM PhD DACVB, Director, Animal Behavior Clinic, School of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University and here is what he recommended to the National Geographic at their request:

Additional Links to Information on the terms “Dominance”, “Pack”, “Alpha”  and the use of punitive training methods and equipment: