Re-examining the idea of the “alpha” dog

Wolf watches biologists in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Stanley Coren, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and director of the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory who is an expert in dog-human interaction and author of some great dogs books like “How Do Dogs Think”, has a piece at PsychologyToday.com about new evidence challenging the notion of the alpha dog.

Coren says that research challenges training techniques used by well known trainers like Cesar Millan and indicates that rather than an alpha dog leading a pack, leadership is fluid and changes among several dogs “most likely to contribute to the welfare of the pack through knowledge that can access the resources they require.”

The notion is based on the idea of an alpha wolf – one wolf whose position in charge of pack was established through force and intimidation. That notion of canine social organization has since been questioned.

Coren writes that “instead of dominance based on physical power and threats it is more similar to establishing status. One can agree to respond to controls imposed by someone of higher status, but this is done, not out of fear, but out of respect and in anticipation of the rewards that one can expect by doing so.”

That makes sense to me.

Several years ago, I was nervous about taking my anxiety-ridden Border collie Scout to training after he broke his leg and his anxiety got worse. I thought the notion of yelling at the dog or forcing him to obey would make him more anxious. 

The trainer said that what we were learning to do was establish a relationship with our dog where he looked to us to lead the way. When you and your dog are in synch, he explained, there is no  need for control.

And it worked. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s possible to be firm and in control without being necesssarily dominant. The dogs and I enjoy a much better relationship than we would if I was domineering.

I also understand Coren’s thoughts about the alpha dog being a fluid position. Bandit is definitely the dog in charge and Scout defers to him. But there are many times when Bandit looks to Scout to take the lead. It depends on the situation and how comfortable each dog is.

Head over to PsychologyToday.com to read Coren’s thoughts on the alpha dog and positive training methods. And be sure to check out Coren’s books on dog behavior. He’s able to explain complex scientific information in an amusing and easy to understand way.

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