Debunking Dominance

I’ve had 4 enquiries this week in which all of the lovely dog owners have in some way mentioned dominance over their dog, or being the alpha, or working with the dogs pack order… and it makes me really sad and very disheartened and this is why…

I know that we have all heard that dogs live in hierarchical packs, with an alpha pair at the top of this tree and all the other dogs in the group have to bow down and worship this pair and so we MUST strive to become and maintain this Alpha role. But where did this come from?

Well early theories on dog behaviour were based on the premise that dogs were just the same as wolves and will act just like just like a wolf in our home (I don’t know about you but my cocker spaniel is not a wolf!). Early studies of the grey wolf unfortunately provided us with an inaccurate representation on how wolves live in the wild, let alone when we brought them into our families.

In 1947 Robert Shenkel carried out one of the most influential studies of wolves, his findings were based solely on the observation of wolves. He theorised that wolves were constantly in tension for their place within the group of wolves which led to fights as wolves jostled for their place in the “pack”. However this research was flawed in several important ways. Firstly the wolves that were observed were unrelated to one another. This is not how wolves would live in the wild which instead is much more in family groups, in harmony. Any unrelated wolves would not find harmony in the same way and it is this close proximity to unrelated wolves that caused the tension within the groups.

Further research was carried out in a more natural setting by David Mech in the 1980’s who supported the theory that wolves, in their natural habitat, are led by the male and female parents of a group as they are the most experienced and the wild wolf pack was actually more like a family group.

Unfortunately despite this more recent research the theory of dominance has prevailed over the centuries, perpetuated by the media and a minority of popular dog trainers. It has also found its way into common dog training advice such as always going through the door before your dog, or eating some food from their bowl and at worst physically manipulating the dog or causing them pain. What all of these fail to appreciate is that this behaviour does not communicate to the dog in a way they understand and is therefore in some cases pointless and in others is dangerous and leads to a breakdown in the relationship between dog and owner.

So where does that leave my clients who still believe… well my job is purely one of education so we’ll have a chat, I’ll explain why we have moved away from dominance and alpha theories, I’ll explain the actual reasons for their dogs behaviour and move forwards from there.