The Alpha Fallacy
“They returned the dog after two weeks because he is an Alpha dog. He barks and lunges at strangers, and growls when we try to put our hand in his bowl.”
I hear variations of this theme all the time, and it’s time we retire the term “alpha” from our dog vocabulary. No other word is as misunderstood and incorrectly used when referring to dogs as is the “a-word”.
It began decades ago when researchers were studying wolves. What they observed were wolves fighting over resources such as food or mates, and they named the top wolf in the pack the “alpha” wolf. However, the researchers were studying captive, unrelated wolves. What we have learned since then is that most wolf packs are family units - father, mother, and offspring - and fighting to get to the top of the pack is rare, if it happens at all. From this acquired knowledge wolf researchers have abandoned the alpha description. But because of the internet and TV personalities the alpha dog myth just won’t die.
You may be asking yourself why labeling a dog an alpha is a problem. Well, if Bob believes his dog is trying to be the “alpha” and is attempting to exert its dominance over the family it sets up a confrontation, and Bob may try to make the dog “submit” to him and the other humans in the household. Research* has shown that confrontational training methods can lead to an increase in an aggressive response from the dog.
A much better idea is to describe what your dog is doing, decide what you want him to do instead, then help him change his behavior. In the example at the top, this dog is not trying to be the alpha. When I met him it was obvious he is barking and lunging because he is anxious when strangers come into the house, and he growls because he thinks his food is going to be taken away from him.
So let’s retire alpha (and pack leader, and dominance, and dog whisperer) from our dog vocabulary. And instead of thinking our dogs are trying to rule our world, consider that maybe our dogs are having trouble coping in our world.
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Jeff Dentler, CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FFCP, CTDI