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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.