alpha/dominance model was born out of short-term studies of wolf
packs done in the 1940s. These were the first studies of their kind.
These studies were a good start, but later research has essentially
disproved most of the findings. There were three major flaws in
- These were short-term studies, so the
researchers concentrated on the most obvious, overt parts of wolf
life, such as hunting. The studies are therefore unrepresentative
-- drawing conclusions about "wolf behavior" based on about 1% of
- The studies observed what are now known to
be ritualistic displays and misinterpreted them. Unfortunately,
this is where the bulk of the "dominance model" comes from, and
though the information has been soundly disproved, it still
thrives in the dog training mythos.
For example, alpha rolls. The early researchers saw this behavior
and concluded that the higher-ranking wolf was forcibly rolling
the subordinate to exert his dominance. Well, not exactly. This is
actually an "appeasement ritual" instigated by the SUBORDINATE
wolf. The subordinate offers his muzzle, and when the
higher-ranking wolf "pins" it, the lower-ranking wolf voluntarily
rolls and presents his belly. There is NO force. It is all
A wolf would flip another wolf against his will ONLY if he were
planning to kill it. Can you imagine what a forced alpha roll does
to the psyche of our dogs?
- Finally, after the studies, the researchers
made cavalier extrapolations from wolf-dog, dog-dog, and dog-human
based on their "findings." Unfortunately, this nonsense still
So what's the truth? The truth is dogs aren't
wolves. Honestly, when you take into account the number of
generations past, saying "I want to learn how to interact with my
dog so I'll learn from the wolves" makes about as much sense as
saying, "I want to improve my parenting -- let's see how the chimps
Dr. Frank Beach performed a 30-year study on
dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley. Nineteen years of the study was
devoted to social behavior of a dog pack. (Not a wolf pack. A DOG
pack.) Some of his findings:
- Male dogs have a rigid hierarchy.
- Female dogs have a hierarchy, but it's more
- When you mix the sexes, the rules get mixed
up. Males try to follow their constitution, but the females have
- Young puppies have what's called "puppy
license." Basically, that license to do most anything. Bitches are
more tolerant of puppy license than males are.
- The puppy license is revoked at
approximately four months of age. At that time, the older
middle-ranked dogs literally give the puppy hell --
psychologically torturing it until it offers all of the
appropriate appeasement behaviors and takes its place at the
bottom of the social hierarchy. The top-ranked dogs ignore the
- There is NO physical domination. Everything
is accomplished through psychological harassment. It's all
- A small minority of "alpha" dogs assumed
their position by bullying and force. Those that did were quickly
deposed. No one likes a dictator.
- The vast majority of alpha dogs rule
benevolently. They are confident in their position. They do not
stoop to squabbling to prove their point. To do so would lower
their status because...
- Middle-ranked animals squabble. They are
insecure in their positions and want to advance over other
- Low-ranked animals do not squabble. They
know they would lose. They know their position, and they accept
- "Alpha" does not mean physically dominant.
It means "in control of resources." Many, many alpha dogs are too
small or too physically frail to physically dominate. But they
have earned the right to control the valued resources. An
individual dog determines which resources he considers important.
Thus an alpha dog may give up a prime sleeping place because he
simply couldn't care less.
So what does this mean for the dog-human
- Using physical force of any kind reduces
your "rank." Only middle-ranked animals insecure in their place
- To be "alpha," control the resources. I
don't mean hokey stuff like not allowing dogs on beds or preceding
them through doorways. I mean making resources contingent on
behavior. Does the dog want to be fed. Great -- ask him to sit
first. Does the dog want to go outside? Sit first. Dog want to
greet people? Sit first. Want to play a game? Sit first. Or
whatever. If you are proactive enough to control the things your
dogs want, *you* are alpha by definition.
- Train your dog. This is the dog-human
equivalent of the "revoking of puppy license" phase in dog
development. Children, women, elderly people, handicapped people
-- all are capable of training a dog. Very few people are capable
of physical domination.
- Reward deferential behavior, rather than
pushy behavior. I have two dogs. If one pushes in front of the
other, the other gets the attention, the food, whatever the first
dog wanted. The first dog to sit gets treated. Pulling on lead
goes nowhere. Doors don't open until dogs are seated and I say
they may go out. Reward pushy, and you get pushy.
Your job is to be a leader, not a boss, not a
dictator. Leadership is a huge responsibility. Your job is to
provide for all of your dog's needs... food, water, vet care, social
needs, security, etc. If you fail to provide what your dog needs,
your dog will try to satisfy those needs on his own.
In a recent article in the Association of Pet
Dog Trainers (APDT) newsletter, Dr. Ray Coppinger -- a biology
professor at Hampshire College, co-founder of the Livestock Guarding
Dog Project, author of several books including Dogs : A Startling
New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution; and an
extremely well-respected member of the dog training community --
says in regards to the dominance model (and alpha rolling)...
"I cannot think of many learning situations
where I want my learning dogs responding with fear and lack of
motion. I never want my animals to be thinking social hierarchy.
Once they do, they will be spending their time trying to figure out
how to move up in the hierarchy."
That pretty much sums it up, don't you think?
copyright 2001 Melissa C. Alexander