Are you the Alpha, or Just One of the Pack?

How control affects dog training and how you can use it to train your dog. 

I recently read a comment online from a dog owner that said something along the lines of “you should never let your dog walk in front of you because you need to be the pack leader/alpha.”  It was in response to a loose leash walking workshop I was advertising, and I immediately pictured a scene where I was trying to walk my dog, but remain in front of him.  It was some sort of a walking backwards, tripping over the leash, crash scene that would probably win some sort of award for comedy after the bleeding had stopped.  It didn’t end well for either human or dog. 

I posted a kind reply saying that this line of thinking was actually outdated and that the “pack theory” has been debunked by many studies and by one of the scientists who helped develop the original training theory.  I then gave her several links she could visit to read and study more if she was interested.  She responded, “no, I’m not interested because I want to be in control.”

As many of us have learned, I chose to leave the conversation there rather than the alternative, however, the exchange got me thinking about how much misinformation is out there and how so many pet owners (and several trainers as well) still believe this old, outdated theory.  This theory is very easy to grasp for dog owners and unfortunately, very easy to misunderstand because the entire theory isn’t explained or explored well. 

The Theory Explained

To talk about, and really understand, this theory as a whole, we need to understand a few definitions. 

First off, let’s examine the simple word “pack.”  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “pack” means “a number of individual components packaged as a unit,” so “a pack of wolves” is a good sentence to explain that definition.

From there, let’s look at “familial pack” in relation to wolves.  A familial pack is a group of wild wolves that contains the breeding pair of wolves and their offspring.  Once the offspring are old enough to go on their own, they split away from the pack, find a mate, and start a pack of their own. Sometimes you may find two or three families together.1

Next, the phrase “artificial pack.”  An artificial pack is a pack of captive wolves unrelated to one another.  You typically find this in wolf rescues or other areas where they are forced to stay together where if they were in the wild, they would all go their separate ways.  It will contain several breeding pairs of adults living together.1

We’ll round this off by examining the two more words, “alpha” and “dominant.”  “Alpha”, as laid out by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means, “socially dominant especially in a group of animals.”  So, in a general understanding of pack theory, the alpha is the dominant member of the pack. 

Let’s drill down on that definition.  “Dominant” in a sociological definition means, “controlling, prevailing, or a powerful position especially in a social hierarchy.”  In other words, the alpha is controlling the pack, or making the members of the pack do something because he is the leader. 

With those phrases in mind, the Pack Theory as most dog owners understand it is this:  dogs descend from wolves, live in packs, form hierarchies and the alpha is the dominant dog who controls the group and makes the members of the pack behave in a certain way.  That theory has transcended into dog training so when training your dog, you have to become the alpha.  That way, you can control and make your dog do what you want. 

Breaking it down   

The truth about this thought process requires us to look at it a little closer.  Research has shown that in the wild, when left completely alone, wolves will form familial packs.  The breeding pair and their offspring stay together all for the common goal, survival in the wild.  Through time the adult wolves gently teach their youngsters the ways of the world. When they become adults, they break off, mate and form their own packs.  Since they are together for a common goal, there is no formal hierarchy that forms in a familial pack.  There are two adult wolves working together to teach their young, much like you see in other wild animal families.1,3

If this is indeed true, then why does the term “alpha” come in, and why is it so prevalent?

To answer this question, we have to know the history of this theory.  In the original research of Pack Theory, Konrad Lorenz, an ethologist and animal behaviorist, studied his own dogs, an “artificial pack,” and based his results off of his observations and the German military service dog training at the time.  After observing them, he stated that “If one dog appeared to be more aggressive and powerful (dominant) the other dog would acknowledge this by giving ground or rolling on its back (submission).”1

Around the same time, Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel and other behaviorists were studying captive wolves in zoos and found that wolves in captivity (or an “artificial pack”), fight to gain dominance and therefore become the alpha wolf.2

As of the 1930’s and 1940’s all research indicated that there was some sort of hierarchy happening, so that data was presented as fact for not only all wolves, but it was misconstrued for all dogs as well.  Dog training philosophy began to take shape with this research at the helm.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that researcher’s started to realize the difference between wild wolves, or “familial packs” and captive/unrelated wolves, or “artificial packs.”  Dr. David Mech, a wolf expert and senior research scientist was one of the original people to study the true wild wolf pack.  Originally, he was influenced by the research Lorenz had already completed and he had even referred to leader of the wild wolf pack as the “alpha,” but as his research went on and he began to observe and distinguish the behavioral differences in wild wolves vs. captive wolves, he himself has stated the concept of the “alpha” dog is incorrect.  Wild wolves behave much differently than captive wolves for the simple reason that when several mature and unrelated wolves are forced to live together, tension builds resulting in the fighting behavior labeled as the dominance/alpha behavior. 

Because of the path of the research and history of the theory, the idea of the alpha dog and dominance has transpired, and because it was incorrectly attributed to dog training back in the 30’s and 40’s, there are many old school trainers who still use this concept to train today’s dogs, despite the more current research.  It seems simple to understand so dog owners pick up on it and run with the idea thinking that is how they should train their dog.  The industry is slowly correcting itself, but with modern technology, like TV and social media, old theories have a way of morphing in the name of drama and resurfacing in ways that set progress back.  This has happened in the past and unfortunately, continues to happen with TV shows, social media, and more. 

Dog training

Now that we have a better understanding of the Pack Theory and its history, let’s talk about it through the dog training lens.  In the 21st century, the dogs we bring into our homes have thousands of years of evolution and breeding behind them.  As a result of that evolution, the wolf behaviors we see in the wild are quite different from a domesticated dog (Thank goodness; I wouldn’t want a wild wolf living in my home!), so while dogs still have instinctual behaviors, today’s dogs are not pack animals because there isn’t a need to survive in the wild.  They also are very adept at knowing the difference between a human and another dog, so they have never considered, nor will they ever consider, a human as part of their packs. In other words, you don’t need to become the “alpha.” This is outdated training advice.

Therefore, just like the pack theory research evolved from artificial packs to familial packs and then was disproven through modern research of that time, we know through modern research of our time that dogs learn through making mental connections rather than through an “alpha” dog making decisions and forcing behaviors.  For example, your dog knows that when you get the car keys and/or the leash, that means he/she is going somewhere.  Our dogs make these connections every day regardless if we are actively training them.  They learn our routines and associate what comes next based those routines.  So, if we can take those associations and use them to help the dog understand what we want them to do, we have modern day, scientifically proven, dog training.  The more positive the association we can make, the better our dogs learn. 

It’s through this type of training we build leadership with our dogs and deepen the bond we have with our four-legged friends.  This is the true way of “being in control.”  We don’t need to make sure they never walk in front of us, and we don’t need to dominate them, but rather, what we need to do, is gently guide and show them what we want them to do through those positive associations.  Remove the idea of being an “alpha,” or even a member of their “pack,” because using language like this in any way helps spread the misconception of the pack theory that is prevalent today. 

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