A FLAWED THEORY
The core of dominance theory is that the life of a dog is a day to day struggle to reach the position of ‘pack leader’ within your household. To reach this position it is often theorized that the dog must perform certain behaviors to assert and maintain dominance. These behaviors include demanding food, winning games, being first out the door, pulling on walks, taking your place on your bed or chair, jumping on you, etc. Training under the dominance theory dictates that you must ‘correct’ any of these behaviors to maintain your position as ‘pack leader’.
The dominance theory has roots in a study on captive zoo wolves done by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. This study was performed in the 1930s and 1940s, concluding with the theory that wolves within the pack fight to gain and maintain alpha status along with all of the perks that go with it. L. David Mech built on this theory and wrote the very popular book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species”. This book was written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in 1981 and is still in print despite the author’s repeated pleas to stop publication. His reasoning for wanting printing discontinued is simple; through continued study he and others have proven some of the theories presented in the book erroneous. One of the primary theories is the ‘alpha wolf’ theory. They have gone so far as to change their terminology completely removing the ‘alpha’, instead using terminology such as ‘breeding pair’, who are generally the parents of the rest of the pack.
It has been estimated that the domestication and creation of the ‘dog’ began over thirty thousand years ago. Through selective breeding and gene manipulation, our current dog species is so far removed from wolf ancestry that even if the dominance theory were true within the wolf pack, it is highly unlikely it would have any bearing on dog relationships. While feral domestic dogs do form ‘packs’, it has been noted that the packs are loosely formed with members coming and going as well as indiscriminant breeding between all members. There is no ‘alpha’ and squabbles generally happen over resources such as food, etc.
Before the ‘alpha theory’ was debunked, it progressed to cover wild wolves and then domestic dogs. The theory grew exponentially in the dog training venue through the efforts of The Monks of New Skete, William R. Koehler, Colonel Konrad Most and a long list of others including the most recent popular tv personality Cesar Milan. The methods advocated by these individuals include the ‘alpha roll’ in which the handler forces the dog to the ground and holds him there, ‘helicoptering’ in which the dog is held off the ground, utilizing the leash and collar to hang him, the ‘scruff shake’ in which the dog is held on both sides of his face or neck and shaken vigorously, as well as many others. Though these interactions are meant to somehow approximate interactions between alpha and lower ranking animals, none of them does. The reality of the ‘alpha roll’ between two animals is that it is an appeasing behavior which is willingly offered, not forced. At no point do you see a dog or wolf ‘helicopter’ a ‘subordinate’, though you may see them do something similar with a prey animal or a toy. The ‘scruff shake’ doesn’t even have the weak association that the former does.
ALPHA THEORY, AND YOUR DOG
There are at least two sides to every conversation whether that conversation is verbal or physical. It is hard enough for conspecific individuals to communicate; it is infinitely more difficult when the participants are from different species with different body configurations and communication techniques. How can we possibly think we can convey something so deep as interpersonal/interspecies relationships and culture?
If the alpha theory were valid, it would still necessitate our fluency in dog body language in order to communicate our dominance. Without that fluency we can only approximate the message we are trying to instill. We have long misunderstood even the most common body language such as mistaking appeasing signals as acknowledgment of guilt, which all too often leads to the punishment the dog is trying to avoid. If we can misinterpret something so basic, imagine what we can do with the more intricate body language they use. Subscribing to the dominance theory can easily set both dog and human up for failure. Both can become confused, impatient, angry, etc. In addition, the dog can become mistrusting, fearful and even aggressive. This certainly does not happen in all cases, in fact, dogs seem to be the most relentlessly trusting and endlessly forgiving creatures on this planet, but why put your dog or yourself through it.
ALPHA THEORY, AND COMPULSION TRAINING
Merriam Webster’s dictionary describes compulsion as 1. a very strong desire to do something, 2. the act of using force or pressure to make someone do something and 3. the state of being forced to do something. Compulsion training is defined by items 2 and 3, the animal is required to comply through force and/or pressure.
While compulsion is most certainly a large factor in alpha theory, the theory is not the definition of compulsion training. Many trainers that use compulsion training subscribe heavily to the alpha theory but a large portion of them do not. Compulsion training is a subject unto itself and a future article will address it. Compulsion is only mentioned here to dispel the belief that the two are one and the same.