This week I’m delving into a topic that has long been contentious in the dog training world – Dominance Theory, also known as Alpha Theory. You won’t get my usual quips and puns in this article. This one is serious because it’s serious business.
Why Has There Been a Resurgence
Despite the compelling evidence, and David Mech – the theorist himself, retracting his support, there has been a perplexing resurgence in the popularity of Dominance Theory. Let’s explore why.
Firstly, the persistence of alpha dog concepts in popular media, television shows, and outdated dog training literature has fueled a nostalgic attachment to the dominance-based approach. You only need to do a quick search on social media, or watch mainstream TV to see trainers who offer a quick fix, full of dramatic and engaging content designed to fool viewers into duplicate the techniques, despite many small print warnings to “not try this at home”.
The simplicity of the alpha dog model may appeal to dog owners seeking quick fixes or clear hierarchies in understanding their pets’ behaviour. We’d all love to wave a magic wand and get the quick fix to our dog’s behaviour struggles. Heckin’, I’d like to wave a magic wand and lose 20kg too. The whole approach to selling products, TV shows, advertising and services is to appeal to consumer’s desires for a quick fix. Even when we think it’s too good to be true, we still reach for our wallets in the hope that this quick fix scheme will work. Let me remind you that if it sounds to good to be true, then it likely is too good to be true!
Trainers and enthusiasts, not fully acquainted with the evolving scientific consensus on wolf and dog behaviour, may inadvertently perpetuate dominance theory due to a lack of updated information. You wouldn’t want your child to be taught by a teacher who graduated from teacher’s college 50 years ago and hadn’t updated their skills, so why would you want to entrust your dog’s education to a trainer who was using methods that not only have been debunked, but have been shown to be harmful to your dog’s emotional and mental wellbeing.
Moreover, resistance to change within certain circles, where established beliefs and training methods are deeply ingrained, might be contributing to this resurgence. Despite the resurgence, it’s crucial for dog owners and trainers to be informed about the more nuanced and scientifically-supported approaches to foster positive relationships with their canine companions. So, if your trainer starts talking about being Alpha or your dog being Dominant then go and find another on the Pet Professional Guild Australia website. Trainers who use phrases like “pack leader” are a dead giveaway for someone who has not kept their skills up to date. Go and find someone else.
The Origin Story
The origins of Dominance Theory come from David Mech, a renowned wolf biologist, who initially proposed the concept of alpha wolves based on observations of captive wolf packs in the mid-20th century. However, Mech’s later extensive study of wild wolf packs revealed a shift in perspective. He found that these wolf packs operate more as family units, with cooperative behaviour and familial bonds.
Mech has been quoted as saying, “As my research expanded, it became evident that the concept of an alpha wolf as a dominant leader was an oversimplification. In the wild, wolves primarily operate as family groups, with cooperation being a fundamental aspect of their social structure,” which highlights his change in understanding.
This shift in perspective challenged the traditional view of wolves as strictly hierarchical, paving the way for a more nuanced comprehension of their social dynamics. Despite Mech’s revision and retraction of his initial theories, the misconception of dominant alpha wolves persists in popular dog training culture.
Dogs and Wolves Are Different
It’s essential to recognise that dogs and wolves have different social structures. Applying dominance theory to explain dog behaviour oversimplifies their complex and diverse personalities. Instead, we should focus on understanding and meeting their needs as individuals, acknowledging that each dog is unique.
While wolves and domestic dogs share common ancestry, their behaviour and social structures differ. Dogs, having been domesticated for thousands of years, exhibit distinct differences in their socialisation, behaviour, and relationships with humans. Wolves are human avoidant, while dogs are human-seeking, underscoring the unique nature of our modern canine companions.
Being Effective and Humane
In training, positive reinforcement proves to be the most humane and effective method. Dogs are quick learners, associating their good behaviour with positive experiences. It’s all about creating a harmonious relationship built on trust and understanding.
Let’s leave dominance theory behind and embrace modern, science-based training methods. Your Furkid deserves you to be the best Guardian, and positive reinforcement is the key to a strong, positive bond bond between you. Mech’s research is listed below, allowing you to explore and understand why he debunked his own research.
Game on! Let’s play!