We’ve all had a friend, colleague or family member who has advised us that we need to show our dog who’s boss. Or be their pack leader and dominate them otherwise they’ll think they’re in charge. Some literature even tells new puppy owners to view their puppy as a playful wolf who needs to know their place in the family (pack) hierarchy.
These common theories in dog training are still used today and form the basis of many popular television shows due to their apparent fast results. However, Pack Theory or Alpha Theory was astonishingly de-bunked and retracted by Dr David Mech, the biologist who wrote about it in the first place. Dr Mech made this statement on the subject.
“The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then [sic] in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”
A Swiss animal behaviourist called Rudolph Schenkel also studied wolves in the 1930s and 40s. He studied the relationships of unrelated adult wolves kept in captivity. He postulated that the wolves were in a constant state of competition for higher rank in the pack and that the alpha male and alpha female ruled their subordinates through aggression. Other behaviourists also studied captive, unrelated wolves and discovered they did have social struggles that were often violent.
But this is not normal wolf behaviour. These wolves were unrelated adults and applying information about their behaviour to wild wolves and then on to domestic dogs is extremely confusing. You can be sure that power struggles happen in college football locker rooms all the time. This doesn’t mean that happen the same way in family homes.
The role of the dog owner, guardian or person is actually one of a parental nature. Not a dominant pack leader who has to keep the dog in their place. No matter what age they live to, your dog will always have the mental capacity of a human toddler. It’s your responsibility to keep them safe and to take care of their physical and mental needs. To teach them the life skills they need to live in your human world while creating some outlets for natural canine behaviours.
Doesn’t it feel like the biggest con of all time that the animals that humans domesticated over thousands of years, who came to be known as ‘Man’s Best Friend’ have been plotting to take over the world all this time?
Your dog is not your equal, but they are not secretly plotting to overthrow you in some kind of coup. They are not your subordinate who you must dominate.