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A couple of articles on being "alpha"

October 8th, 2008, 01:24 PM
I found these to be an interesting read, and perhaps the starting point for an interesting discussion........:shrug:

Forget About Being Alpha in Your Pack
March 19, 2007
By Kathy Sdao

In their recent book “Made to Stick” (2007), Chip and Dan Heath detail the characteristics that make an idea or explanation “sticky.” According to their analysis, stories that are simple, unexpected, and concrete capture our imagination and get lodged in our brains. Many urban myths, they point out, are ideal examples of this phenomenon.
One perfect example of a “sticky” story is the ever-popular notion that dogs are essentially domesticated wolves who view their human companions as members of their hierarchical pack. This story is simple (pack structure is presumably a clear-cut ranking of “alpha,” “beta” and “omega” animals), unexpected (imagine having the descendent of a wild wolf right in our living rooms!), and concrete (who hasn’t seen TV footage of a wolf pack chasing down a moose or elk?). So sticky is this canine urban myth, in fact, that it refuses to die, despite the series of inaccuracies at its core.
Unfortunately, dogs and their owners both suffer the consequences of this fable, for it is from this story that we get the popular but unfounded training decree that humans must be “alpha” in their mixed-species pack.
Allow me to set the record straight. Here are just a few of the inaccuracies embedded in the “dog as domesticated wolf” story.

Myth 1: Wild wolves form hierarchical packs in which individuals vie for dominance.
Not always. And maybe not even very often. It turns out this common assumption about the social dynamics of wolves is based on studies of captive animals whose group structure was non-natural (i.e., the wolves came from various locations and lineages). After a broad review of the scientific literature and 13 summers spent observing free-living wolves on an island in the Northwest Territories in Canada, wolf ethologist L. David Mech concluded that social interactions among wolf-pack members are nearly identical to those among members of any other group of related individuals. In essence, the typical wolf pack is a family in which parents guide activities of younger members. Vying for dominance in the pack hierarchy is not a priority. Caretaking and teaching of younger pack members by adults is.

Myth 2: Dogs, close relatives of wolves, must also form packs in which individuals vie for dominance.
It is true that there is virtually no difference in the genetic material of dogs and wolves, or of dogs and coyotes or jackals, for that matter. But from an ecological perspective, dogs and wolves are indeed distinct species because they are adapted to different niches. That is, they earn their livings in different ways. Wolves kill large prey, while dogs live in partnership with humans.

Recent research regarding the evolution of dogs indicates that the dog-human partnership did not occur as a result of our human ancestors’ efforts to tame wild wolves to be guard animals or hunting companions. It appears much more likely that dogs evolved from a wolf-like ancestor not through artificial selection by humans, but from a process of natural selection. They were, in essence, filling a new ecological niche. That niche was the town dump, which first appeared approximately 15,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. This is when humans began creating permanent villages. Wolves found a new food source: They could forage on the waste products in the refuse piles. The individual wolves who continued to eat even when humans approached were at a reproductive advantage. In other words, the less skittish wolves, the “tamer” ones who didn’t flee at the first indication of a nearby human, ate more. Over many generations, this produced the behavioral quality that most distinguishes dogs from wolves: Dogs will approach rather than avoid humans.

This version of dog evolution, starring the proto-dog as a scavenger at village dump sites (think “large rat”), is surely less sexy than proto-dog as noble wolf tamed by clever ancient humans. But it’s essential for our modern view of dog training, because scavenging “village dogs” don’t have a pack structure at all. They don’t hunt cooperatively. Other dogs are competitors, not helpers, in finding edible garbage. And so they live alone or in groups of two or three.

Myth 3: Dogs incorporate humans into their view of pack hierarchies.
Despite data to the contrary, many people still believe dogs form linear hierarchies of “alpha” (dominant) and “omega” (submissive) individuals. And many trainers have capitalized on this belief system. These trainers argue that you can solve behavior problems in your dog only when you have established yourself as alpha dog among the pack of creatures in your home (people and dogs). As a result, folks waste time complying with irrelevant rules (e.g., “always eat your meals before your dogs eat theirs”) when they instead could be using that time and effort to conduct simple, effective training (e.g., rewarding desired behaviors). Often they also use physical force, such as shaking the dog by the scruff of the neck, pinning him on his back, or grabbing his muzzle – all because they’ve heard these are methods alpha-ranked wolves use to discipline subordinates.
But even if dogs did form linear packs, there’s no evidence to suggest that they perceive humans as part of their species-specific ranking. In general, humans lack the capability to even recognize, let alone replicate, the elegant subtleties of canine body language. So it’s hard to imagine that dogs could perceive us as pack members at all.
Maybe what we need is a new sticky story. Dogs are lovable scavengers. Their evolution has made them dependent on humans to provide food. This concept of humans as feeders, rather than as “leaders of the pack,” forms the foundation for a logical, reward-based approach to dog training. And since even wolves organize themselves into family units, we can aspire not to be dominant pack leaders, but good “parents” instead, that is, excellent caretakers and teachers of our dependent dogs.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out this fascinating book on dog lineage: “Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution” (2001), by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger.

Kathy Sdao is an associate certified applied animal behaviorist who has spent the past two decades as a full-time animal trainer. She trained dolphins at a research lab at the University of Hawaii and for the U.S. Navy, and she was a marine mammal trainer at a zoo in Tacoma, Wash. In 1998, Kathy opened Bright Spot Dog Training to provide behavior-modification services for pet owners. She teaches workshops for dog trainers across the country

The History and Misconceptions of Dominance Theory

The original alpha/dominance model was born out of short-term studies of wolf packs done in the 1940s. These were the first studies of their kind. These studies were a good start, but later research has essentially disproved most of the findings. There were three major flaws in these studies:

1. These were short-term studies, so the researchers concentrated on the most obvious, overt parts of wolf life, such as hunting. The studies are therefore unrepresentative -- drawing conclusions about "wolf behavior" based on about 1% of wolf life.

2. The studies observed what are now known to be ritualistic displays and misinterpreted them. Unfortunately, this is where the bulk of the "dominance model" comes from, and though the information has been soundly disproved, it still thrives in the dog training mythos.

For example, alpha rolls. The early researchers saw this behavior and concluded that the higher-ranking wolf was forcibly rolling the subordinate to exert his dominance. Well, not exactly. This is actually an "appeasement ritual" instigated by the SUBORDINATE wolf. The subordinate offers his muzzle, and when the higher-ranking wolf "pins" it, the lower-ranking wolf voluntarily rolls and presents his belly. There is NO force. It is all entirely voluntary.

A wolf would flip another wolf against his will ONLY if he were planning to kill it. Can you imagine what a forced alpha roll does to the psyche of our dogs?

3. Finally, after the studies, the researchers made cavalier extrapolations from wolf-dog, dog-dog, and dog-human based on their "findings." Unfortunately, this nonsense still abounds.

So what's the truth? The truth is dogs aren't wolves. Honestly, when you take into account the number of generations past, saying "I want to learn how to interact with my dog so I'll learn from the wolves" makes about as much sense as saying, "I want to improve my parenting -- let's see how the chimps do it!"

Dr. Frank Beach performed a 30-year study on dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley. Nineteen years of the study was devoted to social behavior of a dog pack. (Not a wolf pack. A DOG pack.) Some of his findings:

* Male dogs have a rigid hierarchy.
* Female dogs have a hierarchy, but it's more variable.
* When you mix the sexes, the rules get mixed up. Males try to follow their constitution, but the females have "amendments."
* Young puppies have what's called "puppy license." Basically, that license to do most anything. Bitches are more tolerant of puppy license than males are.
* The puppy license is revoked at approximately four months of age. At that time, the older middle-ranked dogs literally give the puppy hell -- psychologically torturing it until it offers all of the appropriate appeasement behaviors and takes its place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The top-ranked dogs ignore the whole thing.
* There is NO physical domination. Everything is accomplished through psychological harassment. It's all ritualistic.
* A small minority of "alpha" dogs assumed their position by bullying and force. Those that did were quickly deposed. No one likes a dictator.
* The vast majority of alpha dogs rule benevolently. They are confident in their position. They do not stoop to squabbling to prove their point. To do so would lower their status because...
* Middle-ranked animals squabble. They are insecure in their positions and want to advance over other middle-ranked animals.
* Low-ranked animals do not squabble. They know they would lose. They know their position, and they accept it.
* "Alpha" does not mean physically dominant. It means "in control of resources." Many, many alpha dogs are too small or too physically frail to physically dominate. But they have earned the right to control the valued resources. An individual dog determines which resources he considers important. Thus an alpha dog may give up a prime sleeping place because he simply couldn't care less.

So what does this mean for the dog-human relationship?

* Using physical force of any kind reduces your "rank." Only middle-ranked animals insecure in their place squabble.
* To be "alpha," control the resources. I don't mean hokey stuff like not allowing dogs on beds or preceding them through doorways. I mean making resources contingent on behavior. Does the dog want to be fed. Great -- ask him to sit first. Does the dog want to go outside? Sit first. Dog want to greet people? Sit first. Want to play a game? Sit first. Or whatever. If you are proactive enough to control the things your dogs want, *you* are alpha by definition.
* Train your dog. This is the dog-human equivalent of the "revoking of puppy license" phase in dog development. Children, women, elderly people, handicapped people -- all are capable of training a dog. Very few people are capable of physical domination.
* Reward deferential behavior, rather than pushy behavior. I have two dogs. If one pushes in front of the other, the other gets the attention, the food, whatever the first dog wanted. The first dog to sit gets treated. Pulling on lead goes nowhere. Doors don't open until dogs are seated and I say they may go out. Reward pushy, and you get pushy.

Your job is to be a leader, not a boss, not a dictator. Leadership is a huge responsibility. Your job is to provide for all of your dog's needs... food, water, vet care, social needs, security, etc. If you fail to provide what your dog needs, your dog will try to satisfy those needs on his own.

In a recent article in the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) newsletter, Dr. Ray Coppinger -- a biology professor at Hampshire College, co-founder of the Livestock Guarding Dog Project, author of several books including Dogs : A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution; and an extremely well-respected member of the dog training community -- says in regards to the dominance model (and alpha rolling)...

"I cannot think of many learning situations where I want my learning dogs responding with fear and lack of motion. I never want my animals to be thinking social hierarchy. Once they do, they will be spending their time trying to figure out how to move up in the hierarchy."

That pretty much sums it up, don't you think?

Melissa Alexander
melissa @
copyright 2001 Melissa C. Alexander

October 8th, 2008, 01:39 PM
I don't agree!
I lived in a rural area (and still visit often) and dogs are just like wolves.

I found when local residents allowed their dogs to roam, they formed packs and hunted (just like wolves) often killing livestock. And they did have a hierarchy I saw it with my own eyes. Yes there was the odd dog at the dump, but when there was more then one, they became a pack and moved around, and hunted. I also saw domestic dog packs chasing deer to exhaustion and eventual death.

October 8th, 2008, 02:05 PM
I am having a difficult time digesting this as well. Some points I get and others are questionable.

First of all leadership means there is someone that will lead and someone will follow. In saying this the leader SHOULD be man and the follower is dog. The leader is taking the role of 'pack leader' that being the alpha and the beta or omega is the dog.

Dog are absolutely 'pack animals'. When going to the dogpark for instance, you can plainly see the formation of a pack that responds in a hierarchy while dominence is established. At the same time a submissive dog is usually targetted by ALL the dogs within the 'pack' as well as outside straggelers usually take suit as well.

After all the studies on animal behaviour and the training that most trainers take this study really is what the new way of thinking has now become. There is a new movement going forward saying that the training methods that are used are no longer applicable because dogs are not decendants from wolves and therefore the previous philosophy on how to correct behaviour or how to train certain behaviours should no longer be applied.

If it is not broken - don't fix it. If we look at how many well behaved dogs we have in society then I say keep doing what we are doing and lets not waste time dissecting everything if it worked in the first place.

And you are right by the way - when domestic abandoned dogs form a 'pack' they do so for survival and instinct. They also form packs for companionship which is required for every living species...

October 8th, 2008, 02:35 PM
From the first article, I disagree about the pack thing. I too have seen pack dynamics in both domestic and unsocialized groups of dogs, and who have hunted cooperatively. I know at least half a dozen people whose family dogs have pulled off an elegant, coordinated kill of a wild animal (deer, etc.). Secondly, if the dogs are naturally "dependant" on humans as per the final paragraph, then why is it that so many untrained dog seem to think that they have a right to have anything they want, whenever they want it, and that they can discipline humans that give them a hard time? I'm sorry, I don't see it. People need to be more than parents to their dogs, or, god forbid, simply providers of food, they need to be the one to provide guidance, set boundaries, AND provide resources. Who else is going to do that? And while many humans are hopeless when it comes to reading dog body language, it's not impossible to pick up at least the rudimentary parts, and dogs are acutely aware of and able to interpret human body language.

Second article...I see inconsistencies here too. Leader = boss = alpha IMO. Humans must always be the leader/boss/alpha. If you don't want to CALL it alpha, fine, but semantics aside, it all means the same thing. Dogs want a leader, and if they don't get one, they become one. Not allowing your dog to get away with pushy (ie dominant) behaviour is simply another way of saying "assert your own dominance/leadership/whatever." On the matter of top-ranking dogs not using physical means to assert authority...nonsense. Dogs use everything from light touches with the nose to hard open-mouth hits to the cheek to correct and discipline other dogs. It's not just psychology...while there's little permanent damage or long-term pain done during these actions, they can still be very forceful. (check out this series of great pictures of an alpha female disciplining a young pup for overstepping his bounds... ). I see this all the time with my own three-pack.

I seriously think that pretty much everybody agrees on the basics of what role a human has to play when it comes to their dogs, but I think folks get so hung up on the LANGUAGE that's used to describe it that it pits one "group" against the others.

October 9th, 2008, 08:08 AM
Goodness Bendyfoot - you said everything! You are absolutely right - people are getting hung up on the wording.

Personally, I find this article dangerous. Food, water, shelter are the basic necessities and our responsibility goes much further than this. These basics are the MINIMUMS of what the law dictates - which proves that it just is not enough.

October 9th, 2008, 10:50 AM
Goodness Bendyfoot - you said everything! You are absolutely right - people are getting hung up on the wording.

I knew these articles would make for good discussion.:D

I feel like I read them very differently than the perspectives that seem to be being expressed. To me, it's actually more than a semantic argument, it's a shift away from an often antagonistic vision of the human/dog relationship.

I don't personally disagree at all with the idea that dogs need structure, routine, boundries, etc. but this is not the same thing, again, just to me, as seeing things within a dominant/submissive structure. I think it's possible to see the value in providing these things, while also understanding the relationship as more complex and subject to context than a strict dominance/submission dichotomy would allow for.

I guess it's been my experience that a lot gets missed when we label behaviors with the umbrella of 'dominance', and the idea that my dogs are engaging me in a power struggle has not proven very helpful. On the other hand, shifting my understanding towards something more multifaceted has improved how I live with my dogs. This does not mean I allow them to run amuck or that I don't expect certain things of them, I just don't understand them complying as being out of submission.

Anyways, I think it's an interesting and ongoing dialog, which was my motivation for posting those two articles. :shrug:

October 9th, 2008, 11:06 AM
I think that this article definately gets the juices going. I aswell can appreciate some of the context but I am not sold on most.

To be honest, alot of this is interpretation. Everyone who takes the time to read this will have their own way of looking at it.

I think it is good reading in a sense that it is another perspective - and I am always open to learning something new or new idiology anyways.

There is nothing wrong with putting something else forward, but I am old school I guess though I would probably benefit from reading this again.

October 9th, 2008, 11:27 AM
I don't personally disagree at all with the idea that dogs need structure, routine, boundries, etc. but this is not the same thing, again, just to me, as seeing things within a dominant/submissive structure. I think it's possible to see the value in providing these things, while also understanding the relationship as more complex and subject to context than a strict dominance/submission dichotomy would allow for.

See, I agree with this, because I don't think that dogs operate solely on dom/sub mode either, not even within a pack heirarchy, which I think DOES exist. It's more fluid than that...heck, puppies get to play at being alpha when goofing around with older dogs...nothing is written in stone. I know that my dogs do what I tell them to do because they know it's pack rules...they're not fearful or submissive in complying, they're simply happy to follow my lead. However, I'll pull out the alpha bitch if a dog is acting out of line in a way that would be disruptive to the pack...and if that means putting on my dominant hat, so be it.