Dominant Alpha Humans Don't Garner Dogs' Respect and Trust

Dominance "training" causes stress and is a dog's worst nightmare.

Posted May 27, 2020

"Taken together, all these studies support the view that dominance hierarchies are common in domestic dogs. Furthermore, they strongly contradict the previously held notion of lack of social structure in this species...which was never supported by detailed analysis of social interactions." —Roberto Bonanni et al., "Age-graded dominance hierarchies and social tolerance in packs of free-ranging dogs

I receive numerous emails and have many conversations that center on the general questions, "Do dogs actually form dominance relationships?", "Do dogs form packs?" and, "Are there alpha dogs and wolves?" It's essential to get things right, and the answers to these questions are: "Yes, dogs do form dominance relationships." "Yes, some dogs do form functional packs just like their wild ancestors, wolves, and wild relatives such as coyotes and jackals." "Yes, there are alpha individuals, but it's essential to use the word 'alpha' very carefully."  

A recent essay by Ian Lecklitner, "Do I need to be the 'alpha' if I want my dog to respect me?" along with a number of emails from people who read his piece, motivated me to expand on a few topics related to what we know about dominance among dogs and dominance in dog-human relationships, pack formation in dogs, what "alpha dog" really means, and the negative effects of alpha-oriented, fear-based, punishment training. 

Social dominance in dogs is real, but has been widely misunderstood.

Research clearly shows that dogs, like numerous other animals, are highly sentient and deeply emotionally beings who form dominance relationships, often linear in nature. Detailed data show that it's not a question of if dogs form dominance relationships, but rather why dominance has evolved and what sorts of relationships are established. All said, dominance in dogs is a well-established and undebatable fact.1 In 1981, primatologist Irwin Bernstein (and many others since) have convincingly argued that we need to be very cautious about throwing out the baby with the bathwater, because the concept of dominance is useful despite potential complexities and subtleties. Relying on a single and unambiguous meaning of dominance is misleading and simplistic

Pack formation in domestic dogs

Ample data also clearly show that free-ranging domestic dogs form functional packs and social networks that often resemble packs and networks that are established and maintained by wild canids. A pack can be defined as a distinct and stable group of individual animals who hunt, forage, travel, rest, and defend resources together. Packs also engage in cooperative breeding. Packs are usually a mix of family members and outsiders who have been able to join the group. They can also form when lone individuals join forces. Below, I've included a number of references about pack social dynamics and social networks marked with an asterisk (*).

Where did the phrase "alpha dog" originate and what's it all about? 

The “alpha” concept comes from the work of Swiss ethologist Rudolf Schenkel, who did a lot of classic behavioral research on captive wolves. Whether one likes or dislikes the use of the phrase "alpha individual" to refer to a high-ranking individual, when used carefully as a description of a social encounter or social relationship, it can and does convey a good deal of information. When it's used recklessly, as it often is, it doesn't.2 Unfortunately, the word "alpha" gets loosely thrown around and it's no wonder people get confused about what it really means. For example, "being alpha" is not synonymous with "being aggressive" or "being mean." 

One thing that surprises a lot of people is that while wild pack members do fight and there are expressions of dominance, they also quite often maintain the cohesion of their group in non-aggressive and non-violent ways. There's a good reason for this. For example, if you’re a top-ranking individual in a group or pack—the “alpha” animal—you’ve got a lot to lose if there’s a fight. You may beat up another individual, but if you get injured and can’t reproduce or maintain your rank, you’ve lost a lot. In a nutshell, you've won the battle, but you've lost the war.

There are benefits for alpha animals not to fight and maintain their position in non-aggressive but assertive ways. This is why a variety of clear and unambiguous ritualized social signals communicating threat, submission, and appeasement have evolved in a wide variety of species. By clearly communicating intent, potentially harmful or fatal social encounters can be avoided. 

Alpha-inspired dominance training doesn't really work

Detailed research on free-ranging dogs in different locales shows that dogs form packs, just like wild wolves and wild coyotes. However, a household group of a dog(s) and their human(s) is unlikely to be a functional pack in the same way field biologists would define the term. There really are no data to support that a dog or two living with humans really form a tight multispecies working pack in the same sense as do some free-ranging dogs or their wild relatives.

From a practical point of view, there’s absolutely no reason for a human being to think that they have to be the "alpha" individual and dominate their dog by training or forcing them to submit and change their behavior. It can be very confusing for a homed dog especially to be put in a situation where one minute they’re loved and the next minute they’re punished or treated in very negative ways.

Positive training is the best and only way to go. Sometimes, it can take longer and it can be a little more difficult than dominance-based methods. It's especially important to treat dogs with great care when they're having a tough time or going through their teenage years. And, it's always important to remember there are marked individual differences among dogs and to respect each dog for their unique individuality, personality, and what they want and need. 

"Alpha-inspired" training doesn’t work to form a mutually beneficial bond based on respect and trust. You can live with a dog who’ll do anything you want them to do because you're the dominant alpha, but they’re stressed and living in constant fear on top of the stress of having to have their life controlled by you and other humans. Alpha humans, similar to hyper-aggressive nonhumans, may win the battle, but lose the war. They get what they want at the expense of building respect and trust. 

Along these lines, in Lecklitner's piece, dog expert and Psychology Today blogger Zazie Todd notes, "Unfortunately, when people apply this idea [being the alpha] to dog training, they tend to use aversive methods, including the 'alpha roll,' when they roll the dog over and pin them down...These days, we know that using aversive methods like this have risks for dog welfare—in terms of stress, anxiety, and aggression—and can affect the relationship between the dog and the owner. It’s much better—and very effective—to use reward-based methods. So, if your dog is doing something you don’t like, think about what you’d like them to do instead and use positive reinforcement to train them."3

Likewise, renowned bioethicist and Psychology Today blogger Jessica Pierce notes: "There’s a growing database of research into the benefits of positive reinforcement, or reward-based training, and more and more of it shows that force and intimidation are harmful to dogs and to the human-dog relationship...These methods will appear medieval. Positive training works better in the long run, and it doesn’t leave dogs emotionally and/or physically damaged. There’s absolutely no role for aversive techniques, including the use of e-collars, shake cans, air horns, prong collars, scruffing, 'alpha-rolling,' and so on."

The bottom line is to use positive fear-free training and to pick a dog trainer as carefully as you would pick a neurosurgeon. As highly sentient and emotional beings, dogs care about what happens to them and how they're treated. Dog trainers in the United States don't have to be certified and anyone can hang up a shingle that says "Dog Trainer." Many people don't know this dirty little secret, which has huge ramifications for allowing countless dogs to be harmed and for subverting the development and maintenance of strong and enduring positive social bonds between a dog and their human(s). Dominating alpha humans are dogs' worst nightmare. The life of every single dogs matters because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings and want to be treated with respect and dignity. This isn't really asking too much from humans, is it? 

Where to from here?

First and foremost, it's essential to pay close attention to what we know and don't know from detailed research. I look forward to much more research on all of these topics for dogs living in different social and ecological settings. Being dog literate is an important first step in the right direction.

Understanding that dogs do form social dominance relationships, that some do form functional packs, and that being the "alpha human" in a group of dogs doesn't serve the dogs well also are important moves in the right direction. When we pay close attention to what we know about dogs, dog-dog relationships, and dog-human relationships, we can give our companions the best lives possible and this will be a win-win for all, dogs and humans.

References

Notes:

1) Detailed discussions of dominance in dogs and numerous references can be seen in "Social Dominance is Not a Myth," in which there is a much-needed clarification of renowned wolf expert, L. David Mech's views on dominance in wolves; "Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense;" "Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate" (Dominance is alive and well so let’s get over it and understand what it’s all about.); "Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We've Got to Get Things Right"; "Dominance in Free-Ranging Dogs: Age and Social Tolerance" (Based on a study called "Age-graded dominance hierarchies and social tolerance in packs of free-ranging dogs" we know that dogs display age-graded linear relationships and injurious fighting is very rare.); "Dominance in Dogs: Owners' Reports Are Scientifically Valid"; and "Dominance, Individual Personality, and Leadership in Dogs." 

2) For example, I was told this story by Heather McWilliams Mierzejewski via email: I was once holding my little dog at a dog park. Another dog came up, very excited, and jumped up on me. he wasn't aggressive and I wasn't upset, but the owner told me he was just asserting his dominance because I was holding a lower ranking animal in my arms. She told me I should just put my dog down, let her dog show it's dominance, and then all would be well. I was flabbergasted. 

3) The many ills of negative fear-filled training can be read here

References marked with * include discussions of research on the social behavior and organization of dog packs in free-ranging dogs.

Angilly, Mary. Dog Training Offers Valuable Lessons in Humane Education

*Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.

_____. Animal Emotions, Animal Sentience, and Why They Matter. 

_____. Why Dogs Matter. (Dogs matter because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings.)

_____. Do Dogs Know They're Dying?

_____. "Bad Dog?" The Psychology of Using Positive Reinforcement.

_____. Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training is Best.

_____. Dogs' "Teenage Brains" Evolved for Good Reasons. (Dogs, like so many other nonhumans, go through a period called "wildhood.")

_____. Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon. (Dog training is an unregulated industry in which dogs and humans suffer.)

_____. Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It

_____. Dogs Mirror Our Stress and We Know More About How and Why

_____. Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them.

_____ and Mary Angilly. Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged?

*_____. Personality Traits of Companion and Free-Ranging Bali Dogs

_____ and Jessica Pierce, Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New world Library, Novato, California, 2019. 

Bernstein, Irwin S. Dominance: The baby and the bathwater. Behavioral and Brain Science 4 (3), 419-429, 1981.

*Boitani, L. and P. Ciucci. Comparative social ecology of feral dogs and wolves. Ethology, Ecology & Evolution 7, 49-72 1995.

*Boitani, L., F. Francisci, P.  Ciucci, and G. Andreoli. Population biology and ecology of feral dogs in central Italy. In The Domestic Dog, 2nd Edition, edited by James Serpell, 342-368. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

*Bonanni R, S. Cafazzo, A. Abis, E. Barillari, P. Valsecchi, and E. Natoli. Age-graded dominance hierarchies and social tolerance in packs of free-ranging dogs. Behavioral Ecology 28, 1004-1020. 2017.

*_____, R, E. Natoli, S. Cafazzo, and P. Valsecchi. Free-ranging dogs assess the quantity of opponents in inter-group conflicts. Animal Cognition 14, 103–115, 2011.

*Daniels, T. J, and M. Bekoff. Population and social biology of free-ranging dogs, Canis familiaris. Journal of Mammalogy 70, 754–762, 1989. 

Drews, Carlos. The Concept and Definition of Dominance in Animal Behaviour. Behaviour 125, 282-313, 1993.

Expression Studies on Wolves – Rudolph Schenkel, 1947 (and reference to the Mech “Alpha” debacle)

*Gompper, Matthew E. Free-Ranging Dogs & Wildlife Conservation. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Jordan, Rain. Such Small Hands: An Anti-Aversives Primer. Dog's Heart Press, 2020. 

*Macdonald, David, Scott Creel, and Michael G.H. Mills. Canid Society. in Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, edited by David W. Macdonald and Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, 85-106. Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Maestripieri, Dario. Social Dominance Explained Part I (Why dominance exists and is good for you, sometimes.)

*Pal, Sunil Kumar. Factors influencing intergroup agonistic behaviour in free-ranging domestic dogs (Canis familiaris).” Acta Ethologica 18, 209-220, 2015. 

*_____, B. Ghosh, S. Roy. Agonistic behaviour of free-ranging dogs (Canis familiaris) in relation to season, sex and age.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 59, 331-348, 1998.

Pierce, Jessica. Small Hands, Big Heart. (An interview with Rain Jordan about her new book Such Small Hands: An Anti-Aversives Primer that explores fear-free relationships with companion animals.)

Radio Pet Lady Network. Are Dogs Really Pack Animals?

*Spotte, Stephen. Societies of Wolves and Free-Ranging Dogs. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012.