ALPHAS, PACKS AND DOMINANCE

If you have ever read an article or book about dogs, if you have ever taken a dog training class or if you have even had a conversation with anyone about dogs, you have probably heard one or all of the following concepts:

  1. Dogs are descended from wolves.
  2. Wolves are pack animals, so dogs must be pack animals, too.
  3. Wolf packs are ruled by an Alpha, who punishes pack members that challenge him for status.
  4. You must be your dog's pack leader/alpha.
  5. Any failure on your part to be pack leader/alpha will cause behavior problems.

These ideas are believed by dog owners and dog professionals all over the world. Any or all of these concepts are used as the justification for everything from banning dogs from sleeping on our beds to the use of shock collars to make dogs submit to us.

But is it true? Are dogs pack animals who form strict hierarchies, with an Alpha dog controlling the actions of others?

PECKING ORDERS AND DOMINANCE HIERARCHIES

Few people know that the idea of a dominance hierarchy in dogs came from chickens. That's right, chickens. A zoologist in Norway first introduced the idea that chickens formed dominance hierarchies, known as pecking orders, in 1921. From there, the concept spread throughout all animal species, including humans.


DOGS VS. WOLVES

 

WOLF PACKS

For decades, it was believed that wolves constantly battled for rank within their pack. This belief originated from studies of captive wolf packs in the 1940's.

Unfortunately, these early wolf studies were seriously flawed.  First, the wolves were held in captivity and not in studied in their natural habitats. Second, the wolves had been captured from different wolf packs and thrown together, creating a volatile and unnatural pack structure.  Finally, the studies focused largely on hunting/feeding behavior, only a small percentage of wolf behavior.  None of these factors provided researchers with an accurate view of normal wolf behavior.  According to one biologist, this study was akin to using the concentration camps of Germany and Poland as a way study natural human behavior.

More in-depth studies of wolves in their natural habitats over the last 50 years have since revealed that a wolf pack is made up of a family; the breeding pair who share leadership, and their offspring, who stay with the pack until 2-3 years of age, when they start their own pack. Eventually, almost every wolf becomes an "alpha" if they survive long enough to mate and breed.

Wolf packs work cooperatively to hunt, defend territory and raise their young.

THE DOMESTIC DOG: A Wolf in Your Living Room?

The domestic dog evolved from wolves approximately 14,000 years ago and while they retain many similarities to their ancestors, they are unlike wolves in many important ways, including their reliance on humans for guidance and care.

Studies of free-roaming dogs throughout the world reveal that while dogs are social animals, they are more scavengers than predators. Since it does not benefit a scavenger to share limited resources with a large group of other animals, the domestic dog lives a more solitary life. Domestic dogs rarely form packs, and when they do, the packs are loosely structured with animals joining and leaving randomly and frequently, a trait not seen in wolf packs.

Further, the domesticated forms of wild species will, as a general rule, revert back to their original form after being feral (wild) for a few generations. Dogs, of which there are many feral types throughout the world, have not reverted back to wolves either in appearance or behavior.

WHAT IS A LEADER?

True leaders are quiet, confident, benevolent, fair and consistent. They rarely have to establish their position, their entire attitude communicates leadership and everyone knows it. Dogs and humans who waste time continually blustering to establish their position within the pack, who are not fair and consistent, who waste energy correcting trivial infractions, who can't effectively get a pack to follow their direction are dogs and humans who will not be successful. It is unlikely they will pass their genes on, and that is, afterall the biological imperative of most animals.

HOW DO I BECOME THE LEADER?

Being perceived by your dog as the leader largely depends on you and your dog, each of your natural personalities, physiology, and how you live your life. Some dogs are naturally subordinate, and some people are natural leaders. When these personality types are paired, there really isn’t much that the person has to do to establish themselves as the leader, they do it naturally and the dog responds accordingly. However, some people are followers, with softer personalities and some dogs are dominant or social climbers...that is, they want to be in charge. When these personality types are paired, the results can be very difficult for both the owner and the dog. Because there are such differences in the dynamics of each human-canine pack, there cannot be any one formula for becoming the leader of the pack. There are, however, some steps you can take to ensure that your dog views you the leader.

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