Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Myth

Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Myth

If you’ve been living on this planet anytime in the last 70 years or so, and have not been isolated in the wilderness living the quiet hermit life, then chances are you have heard the term “alpha dog,” probably paired with the term “pack leader.” The idea that inviting a dog into your home means that you have created a pack and therefore must dominate that pack and establish yourself as the Alpha has been popular advice for quite some time. It is given confidently by TV personalities and repeated trustingly by their followers who believe that these people are experts. I know this because I used to be one of those trusting followers. Imagine my surprise when I began to educate myself in pursuit of my current career path, thinking I already knew so much, only to discover that the techniques I thought I should trust were totally malarkey. That’s right, I know it’s a shock. Take a breath and let it sink in. I know it took me a minute to get over it. It turns out there are several problems with the alpha/pack leader approach, also known by those who try to legitimize it as dominance theory. Let’s list some of them shall we?

  1. Alpha Dog theories are based on a study done in the 1930’s based on groups of captive wolves, and are in no way representative of the social groups that wolves form in the wild. Wolf packs in the wild are actually families consisting of a mother, father, some pups, and older siblings that help care for the pups. Conflict does happen, (like it does in any family) but it is not the violent battle for power that people tend to equate with the Alpha through Omega dominance structure that has been popularized. This kind of conflict CAN occur in captivity for a couple of reasons. Captive packs usually consist of random wolves placed together by humans rather than family members. As wolves don’t usually socialize with other wolves outside of their family pack for long, this creates an unnatural social situation for them. To make matters worse, the close quarters that captive wolves are kept in means that they can’t utilize one of their best conflict-busting techniques: leaving. In the wild, if two wolves aren’t getting along, one will leave and give the other some space for a while. In captivity they often can’t give each other enough space, so the wolf getting picked on can’t get away and ends up getting ganged up on. The entire social situation is unnatural, and not characteristic of real pack structure.
  2. Even if Alpha Wolves were as society has painted them to be, we have to remember that DOGS ARE NOT WOLVES (For a run down on how dogs have changed from wolves, check out my other blog on the evolution of dogs). When it comes to social behavior in particular, dogs differ from wolves in that they aren’t actually pack animals at all. In populations of feral dogs, individuals are primarily self reliant. Where wolves form family packs to share the duties of hunting and cub rearing, dogs typically scavenge for food alone and pups are raised by single mothers. This isn’t to say that dogs don’t get together and even share resources at times. But these team ups are usually only for a few days at a time and would probably be better described as friendships than families.
  3. Dogs know we aren’t dogs! To see us as pack leaders, dogs would have to see us as members of the pack in the first place, and dogs are fully aware that we are not simply funny looking bald dogs. As such, dogs socialize with us in different ways than they do with other dogs. Ever met a dog that has totally different reactions to meeting humans than it does to meeting dogs? Yeah, this is why.

So to recap: it is pointless to try to be the Alpha Dog in your pack because wild wolves don’t even have dominant Alphas, dogs aren’t even wolves, and you aren’t even a Dog!

For more information on the history of Dominance Theory and its effects on dogs, please check out the Articles linked below.

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

As humans, we sometimes take for granted this wonderful thing we call the spoken language. The ease with which we are able to communicate important messages to our fellow man is truly spectacular. If there is danger, if we are frightened, if we are in pain, we have words for these things that others can understand instantly and then typically know how to respond. Now for a moment imagine a scenario in which you are in danger or afraid, and the only people you can speak to do no speak your language. What do you do? You would likely resort to some kind of frantic charades. It would probably be frustrating, but in all likelihood the person would be able to get the gist of your body language. Now imagine a slightly stranger scenario in which the only person who can help you isn’t even human and looks on in complete confusion as you babble away in a strange language and contort your body with gestures that would surely make sense to another human, but make no sense to the newcomer.

Welcome to the wonderful world of human dog interaction! Dogs aren’t blessed with spoken language like we are, though they do have a small range of vocalizations with different meaning. For the most part they rely on body language to communicate with other dogs and with their human companions. This body language can sometimes be very subtle making it hard to pick up on. And unfortunately even the more obvious body language is often misinterpreted by us because, as humans, we have a tendency to project human traits on to other animals and even inanimate objects. These misunderstandings can be relatively innocuous, but they are also frequently the precursor to preventable dog attacks. The internet is awash in home videos in which dogs and humans (often children) are interacting in a way that the people think is funny or cute, but the dog is clearly, to the trained eye, giving body language that is saying, “I don’t like this. Back off!” I’m willing to bet that the majority of dog attacks in which the owners say, “She’s never done anything like that. It came out of nowhere,” there were actually many signs that the owner simply didn’t understand.

For the safety of ourselves, our families, and the public, as well as the safety and emotional well-being of our dogs, it is important for us as dog owners to know how to read our own dog’s body language. It is also wise for people in general to understand the basics of canine body language so that you can more safely gauge your interactions with dogs you meet because, unfortunately, not every dog owner knows their dog as well as they think they do.

For a run down on the different types of body language and what they mean, I recommend looking over the diagrams and reading the article linked below.

                

The Basics of Dog Training: Do’s and don’ts for a happy, well trained pup

The Basics of Dog Training: Do’s and don’ts for a happy, well trained pup

As much as I love dogs, and as much as it pains me to say this ….no dog is perfect. There, I said it! (But don’t tell my dogs, because they are told that they are my perfect angels). Bring a puppy into your family without giving them any guidance and your life and home can become a bit of a tornado.This is why most of us train our dogs to some degree. You might not take your dog to a professional trainer, or teach them to skateboard (yes that’s an allusion to the picture above) but most dog owners at least attempt to teach their dog to pee outside,or maybe even sit and stay if they’re feeling adventurous!

So here’s the age old question: what is the best way to train your dog? There are many different tricks and tools that have been in vogue over the years, but all dog learning can be boiled down to two concepts that scientist and behaviorist have been studying for over a century: classical and operant conditioning. Classical and operant conditioning describe the ways I which our dogs learn things about the world, with or without our being aware if it. By understanding these concepts we can better understand how our dog is interpreting our efforts at training as well as their world in general.

As you will learn in the articles below, not all conditioning is equal. The use of aversive methods, often called corrections by those that support them, have been proven not only to teach less effectively, but also to increase the likelihood of fearful and aggressive behavior in dogs. Instead, training should focus on positive reinforcement with a bit of negative punishment added in. (Be sure to read the article on operant conditioning as these words mean slightly different things to scientists than they do to the Average Joe.) As a helpful visual, check out the graphic below. When working with your dog, try to stay in the green column and avoid the red column. I promise that you and your dog will be better off for it!

The Evolution of Man’s Best Friend: Why You Shouldn’t Treat Your Dog Like a Tame Wolf

The Evolution of Man’s Best Friend: Why You Shouldn’t Treat Your Dog Like a Tame Wolf

Watch advertisements for canine products and you’ll notice a theme. In commercial after commercial we are shown images of a majestic wolf juxtaposed with a friendly family dog and told that we must buy this product because it would be good enough for a wolf….and your dog has a wolf inside him!

It is true that today’s wolves and our domesticated dogs share a common ancient wolf ancestor, but domestic dogs diverged from their wild cousins thousands of years ago. In that time everything from their physical stature, brain structure, and digestive system to their social behavior have changed. Unfortunately, the perpetuation of many myths about wolves and frequent equation of wolves with domesticated dogs has lead to potentially damaging trends when it comes to our care for and training of man’s best friend.  

Luckily for those who want to do right by their canine family members, scientific research in the past few decades has provided us with a great deal of knowledge on which to base our relationships with our dogs going forward. While some of the finer details of canine history are still debated by scholars, the latest genetic research suggests that dogs diverged from a now extinct subspecies of wolf 30-40 thousand years ago making them the first domesticated animal. Our partnership with dogs started before we settled in villages and before we learned to farm. They travelled with us on our hunts and helped us find game. They provided protection from potential threats, both animal and human. And as is true today, all they wanted in return was kindness….and food.

The partnership between dogs and humans is one that likely shaped the course of human history, which is probably no surprise to anyone who has shared their life with the descendants of those first dogs.

For more information on the evolution of dogs and how they differ from wolves, you can read the articles linked below.

For an in depth read on canine evolution from its beginning to the present and the roles dogs play in our lives today, I highly recommend the book, Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger.

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