Are alpha dogs a real thing?

April 08, 2021

Packing in the myth of the alpha dog

“He’s an alpha dog”
“She’s dominant”
“You have to be pack leader”

How many times have you heard these phrases? You only have to turn on the TV and browse the internet to see how prolific they are. 

Too many of us have been told that our dog is really just a wolf. That they need a firm pack structure and that you have to be in charge, otherwise your dog will think he is the pack leader and take over the household with disastrous consequences. 

But this popular myth is just that - nothing but pop psychology based on false science. And the reason it has become so popular is that it’s a simple concept to grasp and there are enough snippets of truth that people buy into it. 

But the reality is that with a pack mentality our dogs, and our relationships with our dogs, suffer. 

What’s the truth? 

Dogs and wolves are totally different species - like humans and gorillas. Current science suggests that dogs didn’t descend from wolves, but that dogs and wolves came from a common ancestor. Dogs decided to live in harmony with us, whilst wolves developed as a wild species whose very existence depended on keeping as far away from humans as possible. 

Wolf packs aren’t what you think.

Wolves don’t actually have a domineering pack leader who uses aggression to keep the pack in line whilst everyone battles for power. Wild wolf packs are families, and the alpha pair are in charge because they are the parents who guide the rest of the pack. 

Dogs don’t live in packs. When left to their own devices, they form loose social groups, but not structured packs. So for dogs there is no such thing as an alpha dog or a pack leader. 

So what is a ‘dominant’ dog?

Most behaviour people think of as dominant, are actually something different. And aggression is one of the behaviours people usually think of as dominance.

But aggression is high risk behaviour designed for one purpose - to make bad things go away. 

Bad things for dogs are situations that make them feel frightened, threatened, worried or stressed.

Dogs might be scared of humans and what they will do, or they might be fearful of stranger dogs. Dogs might also guard their resources (food or anything important to the dog) because they fear it being taken away. And sometimes aggression happens because a dog is sick or in pain. 

That means most dominant dogs are actually the ones most frightened, worried and anxious. And the actions people take to ‘stop dogs being dominant’ usually make them feel even worse. 

Don’t try to be a pack leader, try to be a better guardian 

Spend time watching and really understanding your dog. If you need help with their behaviour, look for a trainer who uses positive reward based methods. That way your dog is being rewarded for doing the right things, and not punished for doing something wrong. If your trainer mentions the phrases like dominance or alpha, or they want to use painful methods such as shock collars and choke chains - find another trainer. 

Your dog is your best friend, make sure you are theirs. 

Carolyn Menteith KCAI (CDA), DipCAPT is a dog trainer, behaviourist and writer about all things canine.

As an internationally renowned dog expert and experienced broadcaster, she will be familiar to many in the UK from her appearances on TV in shows such as Top Dog, What’s Up Dog? and Celebrity Dog School. She is also a regular on radio programmes when a dog expert is needed

Carolyn gives seminars and teaches nationally and internationally on training and behaviour. 

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