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 On the Alpha Role, 'Alpha Roll,' Dominance & Dog Training
by Larry Sudduth
 

 


Abstract

This note comments on the ideas contained in the HISTORY & MISCONCEPTIONS OF DOMINANCE THEORY [ABOUT THE ALPHA ROLL], by Melissa C. Alexander, 2001. After an introduction, the appropriateness of ethological considerations with respect to human behavior is briefly asserted. The existence of a study and conclusions ascribed to Dr. L. David Mech is questioned, and observations about dominance in dogs, dog training, and Ms. Alexander's account of a book she reports reading are made. The note ends with suggestions for readers interested in applying seemingly complex concepts to their day-to-day life with dogs and dog training. [Keywords: alpha role, alpha roll, dog training, dominance, man-dog interaction, dog behavior]

Introduction

Many of the concepts described in the HISTORY & MISCONCEPTIONS OF DOMINANCE THEORY [ABOUT THE ALPHA ROLL], by Melissa C. Alexander, 2001, have complicated underpinnings. Her summary treatment of disparate, complex topics is marked by both brevity and ease of reading. Factors that contribute much to the behaviors she addresses, such as the causality (of any specific dog behavior), mechanisms of canine learning, the manner of canine perception, and the nature of canine cognition are addressed only tangentially, if at all. Likewise, the actual nature of Ms. Alexander's relationship with her dogs is not described. In light of so many intangibles, detailed commentary is neither appropriate or merited.

I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Alexander's condemnation of the 'alpha roll.' That said, I disagree with the some of the rationale for the condemnation advanced by her (primarily that also ascribed to Dr. Raymond Coppinger). In my opinion, a dog can be trained to adopt a physical posture -- one that signals submission in other contexts. The success of such postural training can be trivial or difficult, in the same way that training a dog to retrieve can be trivial or difficult. One should not confuse these activities as being anything other than training. Dominance is not being directly established by training the adoption of a posture. Neither is one changing anything about the fundamental nature of the dog, a nature that seems to incorporate the concept of hierarchy in many of its manifestations.

To reiterate, a dog's capability to exhibit a trained posture should not be confused with a dog's submissiveness. The exhibition by a dog of a trained 'alpha-rolled' posture has no relationship to the deference expressed in the behavior of a subordinate dog when it interacts with dogs (or people) it regards as superior. Without the panoply of contextual cues associated with an 'alpha-rolled' posture that indicates submissiveness, e.g., the behavior being exhibited in response to forceful aggression, the posture, in and of itself, has no relevance to a superior-subordinate relationship in the dog's frame of reference.

Critique

Like compulsive methods in general, the compulsive training of a posture (whether or not the dog accords the posture uniquely canine significance in certain contexts), can contribute to the establishment of a dominant role by a handler. Such training can also lead to unanticipated affect. The dog could react to such training as if the trainer is participating in canine dominance-negotiation behavior, e.g., a challenge. In this case, the trainer should be prepared to cope with the dog's normal behavioral response. The trainer should understand what is required to gracefully win such a confrontation. The trainer should, as well, understand how to behave if necessary to resign and lose the confrontation, such that the dog understands that the confrontation is finished. The dog's perception of human factors, e.g., the level of fear and 'force of personality' in the trainer, contribute to the outcome of such encounters.

Although she makes no such assertion, I don't doubt that Ms. Alexander occupies an alpha role with her dogs. I do, however, doubt any direct attribution or relation of this to her training exercises. In this note, I will address neither the efficacy of training dogs via the employment of deferred reward schedules in general, nor the cognition implied by the delayed and conditional aspects of the 'sit-then-act/behave' modality Ms. Alexander describes..

QUOTATION: "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 do it!'"

Dogs aren't wolves and wolves aren't dogs. That said, they share certain fundamental physiological traits and behaviors. Replicable research that has been formally described in peer-reviewed journals indicates that certain extrapolations between dogs and wolves are appropriate. Until other research that has undergone similar scrutiny indicates the contrary, I'll choose to believe that much about dog behavior can be learned from the study and research of wolves' behavior.

I presume that Ms. Alexander's intent behind the comment about parenting in the above excerpt is sarcasm. I believe, however, that truer words were never spoken. When comparing the innate and learned behaviors related to parenting among different primate species (e.g., chimps and humans), striking similarities are detected. This, of course, does not mean that human parents should raise their children as if the children were chimpanzees. Rather, it means that there is a lot to learn about human parenting from the scientific study of chimp parenting. Similarly, there is a lot to learn about canine behavior from the scientific study of lupine behavior.

QUOTATION: "Dr. L. David Mech performed a 30-year study on dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley. 19 years of the study was devoted to social behavior of a dog pack. (Not a wolf pack. A DOG pack.)"

I know casually of Dr. Mech's work, by virtue of its publication in journals (and secondarily on the Web). I believe Dr. Mech is regarded by his peers as a subject-matter-expert on wolves and their behavior. I was troubled with some of the conclusions attributed by Ms. Alexander to Dr. Mech in her summary statements about his alleged 'dog-pack study.' This troubled feeling was replaced with disquiet when I read Dr. Mech's personal publication list. During the almost 30 years since 1962 when Dr. Mech was first published, there is no indication of a study that resembles Ms. Alexander's cited study. While the cited study could well exist, and indeed might contain the conclusions related in her article, I can not find a reference to such a study by Dr. Mech.

Note. A correspondent reported that Ms. Alexander's referenced study could in fact be referring to a study conducted by Alan Beck. A quick web search revealed that Alan Beck, DVM published a study titled The Ecology of Stray Dogs. A Study of Free Ranging Urban Animals (1973, Baltimore). I do not know whether Dr. Beck's study was the source of the findings apparently erroneously attributed to Dr. Mech by Ms. Alexander. I will gratuitously observe that the stray dogs about which Ms. Alexander writes seemed to have adopted behaviors that in many respects mimic behaviors found in a wolf pack.

QUOTATION: "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 whole thing."

I am wary of anthropomorphisms when discussing animal behavior. I suggest that the reader exercise the same caution. Uniquely human values are at work when one characterizes animal behavior as "literally giv(ing) the puppy hell" or as "psychological torture." While a marauding wolverine might kill every chicken in the henhouse without eating anything, describing the wolverine as a hen-torturer or hen-murderer is ludicrous. Dogs, for example, can in certain circumstances exhibit mobbing behavior (characterized as some members of a group 'ganging' up on, and attacking, a single animal). This seems cruel and torturous to humans, but I'm certain that this is not a case of dogs 'torturing' another dog. (I'm sure of little else about the behavior, except the need to preclude the occurrence of situations where mobbing could be expressed by my group of dogs.)

What we humans view as torturous can be part and parcel of a normal life for a dog. A dog that kills and eats a squirrel -- or 'even worse,' begins to eat said squirrel while it is still alive -- is horrendous and cruel to us. Some would say that such 'vicious' behavior is torture and undoglike and unnatural. One could anthropomorphize and opine a belief that the squirrel briefly shares our human point of view. I do not share either point of view. I also don't view a cat's 'playing' with a mouse before killing it as torture. I believe it's part of the animals' innate and learned behavior, and accept it as an animal behavior that is not easily accommodated by human sensibilities.

QUOTATION: "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."

To paraphrase, 'Don't do hokey stuff like A, B, and C, do hokey stuff like X, Y, and Z.' To reprise my refrain from above: dogs can be trained; inductive and operant methods can be employed; this is a long and complicated topic. I believe the activities described by Ms. Alexander have much more to do with training than with impacting any dominant-subordinate relationship between a handler and a dog. If "you are proactive enough" to control situational and environmental influences to your dog's behavior, then one can prevent the expression of behavior that would otherwise be expressed, and the converse. Nothing more, nothing less.

QUOTATION: 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.

This is the only instance I will give utterance to the single word that most often came to mind as I read Ms. Alexander's article. PUHLEEEZ! Ignore the dogs' hierarchy in your own household? Knock yourself out ... at your own and your other dogs' peril ... and then try to repair the consequences. Uniquely human concepts like parity, equality and egalitarianism are not applicable to dogs. Likewise, reinforcement schedules that are effective while training humans will not necessarily work with dogs. Anthropomorphisms such as those exhibited in the above excerpt are inappropriate, and can even be dangerous -- with the wrong confluence of events and the wrong dog.

QUOTATION: 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) ... [Note, the HTML links are not present in the original article. Nor is mention made that Dr. Coppinger coauthored Dogs: A Startling New Understanding ... with his wife, Lorna, herself an author.]

I first learned of Dr. Coppinger through Ms. Alexander's article. While I am pleased he finds 'alpha rolls' at least as inappropriate as I do, I do not agree with his rationale, at least as summarized by Ms. Alexander. Reviewing a list of Dr. Coppinger's publications (which may or may not be exhaustive), reveals at least one peer-reviewed article related to dog behavior, as well as other areas of study.

QUOTATION: "That pretty much sums it up, don't you think?"

I'd make other comments if I had but the time. Not to try to prove myself right or Ms. Alexander wrong, but to try to further illustrate and reinforce the idea that there is no shortcut to understanding canine behavior and training dogs. One of the easiest ways to go wrong, is to lose sight of the fact that your companion is a dog. Irrespective of any surrogate role that the dog has in your life, it's not a human, a child, or a baby, even if it is loved like one. It is a dog. If it's a working Bouvier, then it is not just a 'dog.' It is an intelligent, assertive, and powerful dog.

It is reasonable for the reader to conclude that I disagree with many of Ms. Alexander's opinions, and that she probably disagrees with mine. That said, readers of her article and this note should not be led to believe -- even inadvertently -- that either article is authoritative in any regard. I firmly believe that an owner can be injured by his/her working dog (to whom the owner is unknowingly subordinate), if the dog believes the owner is attempting to press the issue. I believe that such an injury could happen even though the dog has been trained to sit 'politely' before eating meals or playing fetch.

Conclusion

What should one do, especially the novice, to ensure one has the alpha role with respect to one's dogs? Understand that your role is decided by the dog, and then try to ensure that the dog makes the 'correct' decision. Start with a sound foundation of knowledge grounded in human psychology (so you understand the whats, whys, and wherefores of human actions) and animal behavior (so you gain the benefit of the lifetimes of research devoted to trying to understand the whats, whys, and wherefores of dog actions). Start with reading and comprehending an introductory, college-level psychology textbook and a like textbook on animal behavior.

Add other specific academic and scientific information, the relevance of which is established by your initial studies and your personal inclinations. In my case, my 'advanced' studies focused on movements/schools associated with a psychologist named Piaget, and a behaviorist named Lorenz.

Anyone who puts pen to paper can seem like an expert. Buttressed by a sound academic background (which does not have to be formally earned by attending a college or university), read articles and treatises related to topics of interest that have been published in academia or other circles that foster (and in many cases require) peer review. One of the benefits of peer-reviewed publications is that wheat is winnowed from the chaff by experts. An example of such information is Dr. Mech's note, Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs, that was originally published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, 2000.

Build on this broad, stable foundation of knowledge, by branching out and critically reading ancillary published information. Pre-armed with the relevant knowledge, one can assess information of unknown vintage or heritage, such as the new and novel ideas ascribed to Dr. Coppinger's book by Ms. Alexander. Adopt the credo that printed matter has received more scrutiny than electronically published material, and therefore could be more valuable.

Only after the reader is knowledgeable -- and to a certain extent, jaundiced -- should the musings of authors like Ms. Johnson and me be read and assessed for validity. Understand the concepts that the author is trying to convey, and then see how these concepts stack up against your understanding of the world. Then, and only then, incorporate such musings into your thinking, or not, as is your wont.

Everyone wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to die. There is no shortcut to understanding working dogs or their behaviors. It's not necessarily fun or even easy, either. But don't let the apparent complexity scare you away, or detract from the fun that dog ownership should be. If I had to offer one single item of advice, it would be to view with suspicion everything that an author exhorts to be the truth -- except of course the conclusion to this note. <grin>

1 September 2001
Arlington, Virginia, USA


ABOUT THE AUTHOR. I'm a computer geek who sometimes finds the time to train my dogs in the German-originated sport of Schutzhund. For twenty-odd years I owned and trained exclusively Rottweilers. Then I met Butch Henderson, Sheila Cronan and others who know and hold the Bouvier des Flandres breed in high regard as a working dog. I was especially impressed when watching Butch and his dog, Brinks, work and trial in Schutzhund.

I now own two Rottweilers and a Bouvier. I'm regularly reminded that my Bouvier is 'smarter' than other dogs that have enriched my life in the past. All of my dogs are intact males that joined my household at two-year intervals when they were around ten weeks of age. They are kept in my home unless they must be kenneled because I have to travel. These working dogs with strong temperaments peaceably coexist -- albeit sometimes only at my insistence -- in part because I control situational and environmental aspects such that the dogs should not 'feel the need' to display overtly aggressive, confrontational behaviors.

People who perceive a similar basis for some dog behaviors and comparable behaviors of wolves might comment that this 'pack' coexists peaceably for some of the same reasons as does a wolf pack.

  • Such folks might opine that the peace would evaporate if I introduced a bitch or a bitch's influence (such as proximity to a bitch in heat) into the mix.
  • They might link the peaceableness of this group to my controlled, gradual introduction of only puppies into the group (and ensuring that puppy/group interactions only take place under my oversight).
  • They might express the belief that the stability and lack of overt aggression in this 'peaceable pack' could be rocked if I tried to introduce an adult member into my group.

I'd have to agree with such folks. I'd also point out that there are other similarities between some aspects of my group of dogs, and corresponding aspects of a pack of wolves.

There are a number of sound reasons that this group of dogs coexists, chief among them my management of the dogs' environment and situations -- availing myself of that uniquely human capability to predict possible future outcomes based on observing present events. This should not be confused with soothsaying or necromancy. Knowledge is the key.

  • Experiential knowledge. One must observe and learn the manner that one's dogs can be expected to behave in a variety of situations, and pay attention to your dogs in all their activities and actions. The dog should be the focal point of your observations, which can be difficult.
  • Academic knowledge. One must learn the academically accepted factors that contribute to the expression of behavior, cognition, and learning in man and dogs and their close relatives.
  • Theoretical knowledge. One must review and learn from the reports of the observations of others. From such observations and their descriptions and studies, come new hypotheses and alternative points of view. These hypotheses and resultant theories are tested by the community (academics, researchers, and practitioners like us dog trainers/owners). If it stands up to such scrutiny, the resulting proven theory will eventually be incorporated into the corpus of academic knowledge.

Popular knowledge is not mentioned above. The true validity of hot trends and new topics are difficult for me to assess, except perhaps retrospectively. I don't ignore these concepts, but I don't let them be a principal determinant in establishing my actions.

The concept of the alpha role in dog ownership has for some time been fodder for the popular press. Perhaps in part as a result of some of this popularity, I believe my dogs view me as their Alpha, and further, that my alpha role results from my attempts to communicate with them in a manner that they can 'understand,' among a variety of other reasons. It seems only logical that I might more likely succeed learning to communicate in a manner that a dog can understand, than the converse. After all, we humans are smarter than dogs ... right?

(To overstate the obvious, the quotations from Ms. Alexander's article -- with its prominent copyright notice -- are excerpted for the purpose of criticism as envisioned by the doctrine of fair use.)

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