Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.
The Very Basic Concern
So… I adopted a dog! I was lonely in quarantine, but now I have a smol ball of joy to keep me company. He’s my angel, and I love him. I heard, though, that I need to make sure he learns to respect me as the “alpha” of our one-dog, one-person pack. I guess I need to practice tough love, or else he may never listen to me. Is that actually true, though? He’s such a sweetheart, and I can’t imagine not just spoiling him.
Basically: Where did the “alpha” dog theory come from, and do I really need to be macho and tough if I want my pup to behave?
The Expert Advice
Zazie Todd, animal psychologist and author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy: When it comes to training dogs, the “alpha” theory is outdated. Originally, it comes from studies of wolves and how they interacted with each other in captivity (which turns out to not reflect how wild wolves normally interact with each other). Then people applied it to dogs, but of course, your dog isn’t a wolf, and they know that you’re not a wolf or dog.
Unfortunately, when people apply this idea to dog training, they tend to use aversive methods, including the “alpha roll,” when they roll the dog over and pin them down. Please don’t try this at home! These days, we know that using aversive methods like this have risks for dog welfare — in terms of stress, anxiety and aggression — and can affect the relationship between the dog and the owner. It’s much better — and very effective — to use reward-based methods. So, if your dog is doing something you don’t like, think about what you’d like them to do instead and use positive reinforcement to train them. You may find it helps to hire a dog trainer (be sure to pick one who uses modern, reward-based training, though).
Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of more than 1,000 essays on animal behavior, including his book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do: The “alpha” concept comes from Rudolf Schenkel. He did a lot of classic studies on captive wolves. The deal is that dogs form packs, just like wild wolves and wild coyotes. But a household group is unlikely to be a pack in the same way in which field biologists would define a pack, and there’s absolutely no reason for a human being to think that they have to be the alpha individual and dominate their dogs, often in a very negative way, by forcing the animals to submit.
I’m very careful about that, because people will say, “Dogs form packs when they can in the wild.” I say, “Yes, they do.” “Well, my dog is a member of a pack — it happens to be the only dog, and there are four humans.” “So, that’s not a pack.”
Wild packs do fight, and there are expressions of dominance. But one thing that surprised a lot of people early on is that they maintain the cohesion of their group in non-aggressive and non-violent ways. Another thing that people don’t pay much attention to, which is huge — I used to see this in coyotes over thousands of hours in the field — is, if you’re a top-ranking animal, the “alpha” animal, you’ve got a lot to lose if there’s a fight. You may beat up someone, but if you get injured and can’t reproduce or maintain your rank, then you’ve lost. You win the battle, but you lose the war. So there’s a benefit for the alpha animal to not fight and maintain his or her position in non-aggressive ways.
It’s just very confusing, for a home dog especially, to be in a situation where one minute they’re loved and the next minute they’re punished or treated in a very negative way. Positive training is the only way to go. It can take longer. It can be a little more difficult. But [“alpha”-inspired training] doesn’t work to form a mutually beneficial bond: You can have a dog in your house who’ll do anything you want them to do, but they’re stressed and living in constant fear. It’s like with a kid: You can have an obedient kid who lives in fear 24/7.
Jessica Pierce, bioethicist and author of numerous books about pets, including Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Possible Life: There’s a complex history, but the basic outline is that a study of behavior in a group of captive wolves was extrapolated to dogs and linked with methods of training (Monks of New Skete and Cesar Millan are notable examples of this) that rely on humans intimidating dogs and using force and punishment as modes of interaction.
There’s a growing database of research into the benefits of positive reinforcement, or reward-based training, and more and more of it shows that force and intimidation are harmful to dogs and to the human-dog relationship. My guess is that in 10 years (hopefully much sooner) there won’t be any dog trainers, behaviorists or dog owners who use punishment as a way to get dogs to do what they want. These methods will appear medieval. Positive training works better in the long run, and it doesn’t leave dogs emotionally and/or physically damaged. There’s absolutely no role for aversive techniques, including the use of e-collars, shake cans, air horns, prong collars, scruffing, “alpha-rolling” and so on.