The “Alpha Dog” and “Pack Mentality” methods of training rely heavily on the assumption that dogs behave as wolves. Knowing what we know now about the Domestication Theory for the evolution of dogs, we can more clearly see why these approaches to working with our companions should be obsolete.
Let’s go back about 30,000 years ago, when the domestication process was just beginning. The bravest and least aggressive wolves were beginning to accustom themselves to human populations, while the most fearful and defensive wolves kept their distance. Both groups tended to breed amongst themselves, leading to divergence in genetics, appearances, and behaviors. If we think about this, the wolves and dogs that exist today represent the two extremes of the spectrum that was the wolf back then. Therefore, it is safe to assume that these animals differ in the way they communicate, especially with humans.
In addition to assigning wolf needs and behaviors to dogs, some professionals completely misinterpret their observations of wolf behaviors. For example, the “alpha roll” is a training technique – used by those who believe dogs need to be dominated in order to behave – during which the trainer flips the dog over and pins him down in an attempt to gain their respect and submission. The validity of this technique is argued based on observations of subordinate wolves rolling over in front of the alpha pair. However, this behavior is offered by the submissive wolf, never forced by the dominant. It’s the underdog’s way of making himself completely vulnerable, in order to clearly communicate his understanding of the hierarchy.
These mistakes in application and interpretation can cost us our relationships with our dogs. Perhaps more importantly, they can do significant damage to a dog’s psyche and self-confidence. Domestication has led to a unique relationship between humans and dogs that should be acknowledged. They look to us for help, for guidance, for expectations. They are looking for a leader, not a dominator. We should respect the fact that dogs have left behind their wolf ancestors a long time ago. Attempting to understand dogs by studying their distant cousins is about as ridiculous as saying:
“I want to improve my parenting — let’s see how the chimps do it!”
– Melissa C. Alexander.