Until very recently, the dominance theory played a main role in the dog training world and how dog behaviour was interpreted. Another term commonly used was the alpha dog theory. It was a widely used and accepted method that was deemed effective when training and interacting with dogs. Terms such as being the Alpha or pack leader are the red thread within the dominance theory. Many years have passed, knowledge has grown and through new research the dominance theory has officially been debunked. But even though proven incorrect, the dominance theory turns out to be a hard concept to get rid off and people, even trainers, still use methods, terms and interpretations based on this theory.
The dominance theory, how it all began
In 1947 animal behaviourist Rudolp Schenkel published a paper named “Expression Studies on Wolves”. For this paper, he studied the behaviour of two packs of wolves that were captive in Basel Zoo. The packs consisted of unrelated wolves in an enclosure of 200 square meters.
The conclusion of his paper was that the wolves had a social hierarchy with at the top the mating Alpha pair which dominated over the rest of the pack members. The fights that were happening in the pack were appointed to pack members wanting to rise in this hierarchy, and the Alpha male and Alpha female would control and suppress all competition and assert their dominance to keep their top position within the pack.
More research was done on wolf packs by different researchers in similar settings which helped popularise the alpha concept, but just like with the research done by Rudolp Schenkel, it was conducted on wolf packs living in captivity, with wolves who were not necessarily related, while living in a small enclosed space.
Wolf researcher David Mech was no different, and his study done in 1970 which led to his book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” became a great success.
Because dogs are closely related to wolves, the deduction was made that dogs would think and behave in the same way as wolves. And so the idea was born that dogs not only need to be punished when something is done wrong, but you as the owner also have to protect your position as Alpha at all times and have to assert your dominant status through harsh methods.
Recent insights show that the dominance theory is outdated and incorrect. Even David Mech has asked his publisher to stop printing his book as it’s outdated, sadly without much success. The term Alpha and the dominance theory have taken deep root into the beliefs about dog behaviour, and it turns out that beliefs are hard to change.
The dominance theory debunked
So how and why was the dominance theory debunked? The biggest flaw discovered in most research done where the dominance theory has been based on, is that the wolves that were observed lived in captivity, in enclosed spaces, in packs that were made by humans. Wolves in the wild turned out to behave very differently, and the consistency of their packs didn’t look like the ones that were created in captivity.
While the packs in captivity consisted mostly of none related wolves, wolf packs in the wild often consist of a female and male pair and their pups (sometimes pups from more years in a row). The parents are in charge simply because they are the parents of the rest of the pack and little to no fights are seen. Naturally, the parents would have control over their pups. Wolf packs in the wild are actually very similar to human families and how they are organised.
Besides that the whole basis of the theory has been proven incorrect because wolf packs in the wild don’t behave like the wolf packs in zoos, the theory is also based on wolves. And simply put, dogs are not wolves. Dogs have very different behavioural motivations than wolves have.
So what does this mean for our dogs?
Dogs are not trying to take over your household or family. We don’t need to force them into “submission” nor think we should be the Alpha or pack leader. We don’t need to be a “dominant” figure in their lives and suppress them. Instead, we need to provide them with fair guidance, set them up for success, and build a relationship based on trust and respect. Training techniques that are based on the dominance theory are outdated and can be detrimental to your dog. Some examples of this are flipping your dog over onto its back, grabbing them in the neck scruff, or having a staring contest waiting till they break eye contact.
There is no evidence that dominance is a character trait in dogs. It’s only a descriptive term of the characteristics of relationships. This means that any form of training to control or correct “dominant” dogs is unsuitable. Even though short-term results might be seen, in the long run these methods will damage the bond with your dog and result in further behaviour difficulties like anxiety and (fear) aggression. Instead of using force, fear or pain-based training, we should find out what motivates our dog and use this to create a relationship based on trust. Scientific research has shown that most aggressive behaviour seen in dogs is caused by using pain, fear, or force when training or handling the dog.
While the dominance theory has been debunked and proven outdated, it’s a very hard concept to get rid of. Using the dominance theory while interacting with your dog will be detrimental to the bond with your dog. The best and most up-to-date training methods for dogs are force free training methods.