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Why the ‘Alpha Dog’ Philosophy Doesn’t Work

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Have you ever heard that you have to be the “alpha dog” in your household “pack”? Or that your dog needs to respect your authority, and if there’s any question of his fealty in the form of jumping up, couch sitting or leash pulling, you should reclaim your position with a show of force?

The idea that dog owners need to establish dominance over their dogs through heavy-handed physical means in order to maintain the balance of power has been around for far too long. Even though the fundamentally-flawed captive wolf studies that spawned this philosophy have long since been debunked, the “alpha dog” concept is still considered a viable training option in some circles.

The question is: why? Why do some people still resort to pain and intimidation to train their dogs when we now know that dog-friendly, scientifically sound methods provide better results?

Dominating Our Dogs: Why Do We Do It?

Do we use these training methods because humans are hardwired to want to dominate? It’s unlikely. Dr. Christine Marston, a licensed psychologist, says that there’s much disagreement in the psychology field on dominance, but humans seem just as prone to cooperate as they are to dominate.

“Perhaps physical domination is the most basic, simplistic way of organizing groups and competing for resources,” she says. “Being socially dominant involves much more complex skills like persuasion, leadership, intelligence and social skills.”

So does that mean that, because they require less strategizing, alpha techniques are easier to use? Perhaps. If your dog jumps on you when you get home, it’s more straightforward to knee him in the chest to get him to stop rather than working on “sit for greeting” training.

If your dog is leash-aggressive, delivering a series of collar corrections to curb his reaction to a neighbor dog is quicker than the incremental steps needed for true behavioral modification. These easy-to-enact alpha techniques seem to deliver results that justify the means.

Addressing behavioral challenges (like leash reactivity and jumping up) with dog-friendly methods require a game plan, because true behavioral change–not the behavioral suppression that’s a part of alpha methodology–takes time.

Why Alpha Techniques Don’t Work

Suppressing an unwanted behavior with alpha techniques doesn’t alter the dog’s desire to perform it–just try walking a reactive dog past a neighbor dog without a choke collar and you’ll likely see the behavior come back with a vengeance.

On the flip side, investing the time to desensitize that same dog to other dogs will actually change his emotional state when he encounters them, making him less likely to resort to his barky defense.

Sadly, to many, the perceived efficiency of physically dominating a dog into submission trumps working through a behavioral modification protocol that’s better for the dog in the long run.

The core problem with alpha-style training, aside from the fact that it’s scientifically unsound, is that it damages the most precious part of your relationship with your dog: the trust you share.

Pet parents who resort to smacking their new puppy under the chin for nipping, or collar correct their dog for straying off course during a walk aren’t partners in the training process, they’re unpredictable dictators who see every small infraction as the precursor to a coup.

A strong bond with your dog is based on mutual respect, trust and empathy. Trying to be an alpha and using pain-based techniques undermines those very aspects.

How to Move Forward

If we take a step back and realize that our dogs don’t view us as members of their pack they need to overthrow and recognize that behaviors like jumping, pulling, and barking aren’t attempts to dominate us, it no longer makes sense to try to be the alpha. And think about it … why would anyone invite a four-legged, tooth-filled power struggle into their home anyway?

Dogs aren’t our competitors for household resources, they’re our dependents for their every basic need, from filling their bowls to opening the front door. The feared canine uprising in the alpha version of our relationship with dogs won’t get far without opposable thumbs.

We say it so often that it’s trite, but dogs are our best friends. So why would we hurt them in the name of training? The “science” behind the alpha theory is long debunked, the results achieved from alpha-style training are questionable and the potential damage to the dog-human bond is great.

We owe it to our dogs to get rid of the outdated concepts of hierarchies and dominance and recognize that training with our brains, not pain, is the only way to keep the household peace.


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Victoria Schade is a dog trainer, author & speaker who has contributed to The Washington Post, Martha Stewart, and other publications.