We read a lot about “alpha” animals, those who dominate the others around them and punish those who do not comply. But do they actually exist? And do dogs, our domesticated wolves, need that sort of social structure?
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The concept of the “alpha” in a fixed hierarchy goes back to Rudolph Schenkel’s work in the 1940s. Now, Schenkel was a great researcher, but he only had access to captive wolf “packs”; which live in an abnormal environment and do not generally display normal wolf behaviour. By mixing and matching adult captured wolves to create hybrid unnatural social groupings, he observed a lot more aggression than is normal in wolf society. Sadly, he didn’t know that then. And attempts to change the record have failed as this gave rise to a misconception that exists to this day. In reality, while wolves do indeed have a hierarchy of sorts, it is not normally maintained by “dominant” behaviour, aggression, or even competition. Rather, the “top” wolves are typically the parents or older siblings of the rest of the pack.
So the short answer to this commonly asked question is no, dogs do not need “an alpha”. But read on to find out why this is a common misbelief.
Firstly, dogs are not wolves
Dogs evolved from wolves tens of thousands of years ago, and during this time a lot has changed. The dogs themselves have changed into various breeds, with differing needs and different ways of living. We have changed how they are kept, how we look after them and even how and what we feed them.
The process of co-domestication took millennia for wolves and involved genetic changes in the dogs we now have in our lives as pets; but also behavioural (and maybe even genetic) changes in us as we adapted to them. Not only has the way they look changed, but their DNA has altered so they are now very distant from wolves and the direct line back cannot be traced.
The pug or the Labrador in your house bears little resemblance to the ancestral grey wolf. And their behavioural systems are likewise different.
Dogs do have social structures
Yes, in a particular encounter, one dog may be “dominant” over another. However, this is contextual, and as a lot more complicated than a simple top-to-bottom hierarchy governing every single interaction. For example, one dog may seem “dominant” when it comes to a particular fluffy toy, but then “submissive” around water – because he’s not thirsty right now, but loves that toy. These social structures are complex and overlapping, and do not support the existence of a “dog tyrant” ruling everyone else with fear.
In the same way, we humans have complex social structures. But a model of the family in which the parents beat up the children to get them to show more respect is, rightly, illegal, as well as causing major psychological problems for the children later in life. Exactly the same applies to our dogs.
The bottom line
The traditional view of dominance and hierarchy in dogs involving the alpha has been shown to be incorrect and an outdated theory. Training of dogs should not use any methods that incorporate this idea. Instead it should be based on positive reinforcement and working on how a dog will live alongside a human family.
Sadly, the concept of the “dominant” alpha wolf has become attached to a very aggressive – and dangerous – form of so-called “Dominance training” that emphasises bullying or frightening the dog. This actually increases the risk of dog-human aggression – worsening the problem.
Confused? Don’t worry!
Much information online, and even spread by some “celebrity” dog trainers, may still contain material that is conflicting about an alpha in the pack. This can be daunting especially if you have multiple dogs at home and are having some problems. If you would like more information and advice about your dog and its behaviour then please speak to your Vet or a qualified clinical animal behaviourist. They will help with advice, training resources and behavioural assistance as needed.