Pack it in! the myth of the alpha dog

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

I’ve heard all these phrases this week – as I did last week and the week before! You only have to turn on the TV or look at the internet to find them, along with someone telling you that your dog is really just a wolf, needs 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.

The problem is that all of this is nothing more than pop psychology based on false science. It continues because it is an easy concept for people with little knowledge to grasp and despite being totally disproven, there are enough grains of truth in there that people buy into it – and it is their dogs (and their relationship with their dogs) that suffer.

So let’s debunk this one!

First of all, dogs and wolves are totally different species. Think about humans and gorillas and you can kind of see what I mean! The best knowledge we have now is not that dogs descended from wolves but instead that dogs and wolves both descended from a common ancestor. Dogs threw  their lot in with man and evolved to live harmoniously with us and prosper from our success, while wolves developed as a wild species whose very existence depended on keeping as far from us as possible.

Even if (despite science!) you do still think that pack theory is a thing for dogs, its worth considering that wild wolves do not live in packs where a domineering pack leader constantly keeps everyone in line with displays of aggression and violence while everyone else battles for position (as was originally thought). Wild wolf packs are families. The alpha pair are indeed in charge but that is because they are the parents and all the rest are (quite rightly) guided by them.

Dogs do not live in a pack structure. Left to their own devices away from man and with adequate resources, 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.

As for dominant dogs… The behaviours that most people think of as being ‘dominant’ are generally something totally different. Aggression is one of the behaviours that people categorise as a dog showing dominance. Aggression however is a high risk behaviour designed for one purpose and one purpose only – to make bad stuff go away. ‘Bad stuff’ for dogs are things that make them feel frightened, threatened, worried or stressed.

Dog to human aggression is fear of humans or what they will do
Dog to dog aggression is fear of strange dogs or what they will do
Resource guarding (guarding food or anything important to the dog) is fear of someone taking your stuff away
And sometimes aggression happens because a dog is sick or is in pain.

That means that the dogs that most people say are ‘dominant’ are actually the ones that are the most scared, frightened, worried, or anxious. And the methods used by people who don’t know any better to ‘stop a dog being dominant’ are generally things that make the dog feel even worse. Crazy isn’t it?

So let’s stop using pop psychology to try and understand our dogs, and instead spend time watching and really understanding them. Think about how they feel and how you can make them feel better.i

Don’t try to be a pack leader –  try to be a better guardian.

If you need help with your dog’s behaviour, look for a trainer who uses positive reward-based methods (where the dogs gets rewarded for doing things right, not punished when he does things wrong).

If they mention the phrases ‘pack leader’, ‘dominance’, ‘alpha’ – or suggest equipment that causes your dog pain such as choke chains, prong collars, electric shock collars etc – find another trainer. Your dog is your best friend – make sure you are his.

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. 



11 Comments on “Pack it in! the myth of the alpha dog”

      • How to help your dog to be less fearful. My dog has come along way, and I will probably always take her to the vet school behaviorist because they are more up to date. But Im always interested in building confidence. She is a LSG so things are a bit different in their heads.

  1. Come on lady..I live with 5 dogs…do not try and tell me about Alpha dogs..I know better…do you even have dogs?

  2. Well said, Carolyn, and I heartily agree. Considering David Mech, who first came up with the dominance theory, retracted it when he found the research was seriously flawed, it’s astonishing that it’s still so widely followed. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Why is it that in a litter of puppies or multi dog household, that I have witnessed, there is one puppy usually the larger puppy that pushes it way through the others eating and then they back away from food, toys or bones, toilet time, drinking water. Correcting the other puppy or dog not to bark, sniff.
    Why are they classified as frighten when the other dogs or pups surrender by walking away or avoiding.

  4. How to help your dog to be less fearful. My dog has come along way, and I will probably always take her to the vet school behaviorist because they are more up to date. But Im always interested in building confidence. She is a LSG so things are a bit different in their heads.

  5. I would like to correct a couple of things. I am a veterinarian and dog behaviorist and I have been in the field studying wolves for years. 1. It is a scientific fact that a dogs DNA is 99.9% Grey Wolf. Wolves and dogs are indeed the same species. If you study large groups of dogs that have been thrown together they act like wolves. They use a lot of body language to communicate and they look for someone to be in charge. 2. Pack leader/dominant/alpha does not mean aggressive. Being a strong leader does not mean they have to be aggressive to hold the role. The leader has to make smart decisions, help find food, be loving, and keep everyone safe. 3. Dogs like humans, horses, and other species like their space. Sometimes when another dog or a human tries touching them they will snap not because of aggression or fear but because they are telling them to back out of their space or telling them off. Dogs that don’t have a strong leader tend to get into trouble more, worry more, bark more, and snap more. There is no reason to be mean, scare, intimidate, or hurt a dog in order to get him to do what you want. They understand your body language more then your words.

  6. My hungarian puli is a rescue dog from the quiet part of the outer planes of Hungrey.she was going to go to kill shelter as her older owner had passed away. She is petrified to go on walkes, she nips my ancles and constantly barks when ive been out, or just come in from garden, she also goes for my other older dog, when i go to fuss her, and she follows me every where constantly. Can you give me some advice please

  7. Carolyn, you state that aggression is for one purpose and one purpose only; to make bad stuff go away. Is this true? For example a dog that is inherently aggressive may well charge at another dog for no apparent reason. As for the broader question of ‘pack’ theory it’s all a question of one’s definition of the word. Yes, ‘pack’ has certain connotations and I prefer to use the words ‘family’ or ‘group’. Wolves and dogs ARE of the same species but a different sub-species. Similarities are remarkable unlike similarities between humans and gorillas! We often talk if wolves hunting in packs but living in families. A more emotive word there never was!

  8. I fully agree that the whole “pack leader” approach is really not the most effective approach to dog training and behavior modification. However, the author that is “debunking an old myth” is using even more misconceptions to do so.

    Firstly, she is saying that dogs and wolfs are totally different species, comparing them to humans and gorillas. Actually, dogs and wolfs are exactly the same species, biologically speaking, as they produce fertile offspring. This is the definition of a “species”. Human and gorilla? Let’s not go there. And of course dogs evolved from wolves, but humans did not evolve from gorillas.

    Secondly, by stating that all aggression is fear-driven, she is omitting a very key behavior: predation. Chasing squirrels, cats, other small dogs or even livestock is not done out of fear.

    While I agree that dominance is not the key to good dog training, I am saddened to see “experts” that seem just as incompetent as whoever came up with the “pack leader” stuff.

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