Have you ever heard of the Alpha Dog theory?
It is one of the most controversial and long-debated theories to exist in the canine kingdom, causing countless issues for trainers and dog parents alike. Other training theories that cling to the coattails of the Alpha Dog theory include balanced training and aversive training techniques.
And while the Alpha Dog theory did sputter out in the early 2000’s thanks to several studies proving its ineffectiveness, it has somehow clawed its way back to the mainstream.
Today, it’s easy to find many Hollywood “trainers” toting misleading information about the Alpha Dog Theory and its effectiveness, which only adds to the confusion.
But what exactly is the Alpha Dog theory and does it work or not?
We sat down with professional trainer and canine behaviorist Lily Reiche from Pasadena’s My Dog Spot to find out.
What Is The Alpha Dog Theory and Where Did It Come From?
The Alpha Dog Theory started out innocently enough, though the studies behind it were certainly flawed and the outcome has led to an incredible amount of confusion and frustration between dog owners and dogs alike.
The Alpha Dog Theory was born in the early 1930’s, when an animal behaviorist known as Rudolph Schenkel went about conducting studies on the behavior of captive wild wolves. In a ten year span, Schenkel documented that captive wolves co-existed in a pack-based mentality primarily focused on hierarchy and dominance.
The leader of the pack – the wolf with the most resources – was considered the Alpha. Alpha wolves were found by Schenkel to use dominance, fear and force to obtain the best food, the coziest sleeping spots and the submission of other pack members.
Because it is widely accepted that dogs are descendants from wolves, Schenkel’s studies trickled down into the hands of early canine trainers and behaviorists who saw the Alpha Dog Theory as a way to communicate with dogs and assert leadership and dominance.
This type of training went on for years in spite of the fact that there were two very obvious yet widely overlooked flaws to Schenkel’s study.
The first flaw was in the study itself. The study was conducted on wild wolves. Wild wolves and domesticated dogs are vastly different from one another in a multitude of ways.
The second flaw is that Schenkel was studying captive wild wolves. These captive wolves were responding and behaving in a way that was pivotal to their survival in an altered and unnatural environmental situation.
Thus, this theory could not be used to accurately depict how true wild wolves would behave in their natural setting.
Luckily, later studies conducted by a scientist named David Mech confirmed that wolves living in the wild behave much differently than captive wolves. In fact, they behave much more like a family, throwing the Alpha Dog theory out of the window entirely.
It makes sense now, when you consider all of this, why experts have found that the Alpha Dog Theory is not only ineffective when it comes to dog training but also harmful to the human-dog bond.
Why Dominance And Fear-Based Training Is Harmful To Your Dog And Dangerous To You – A Trainer’s Take
In spite of recent studies proving that positive reinforcement training is the best method with which to train your dog, not all trainers agree.
“My dog stops doing the naughty thing when I yell at him or scold him,” you might say. And to this we say, of course he does.
Dogs behave according to what is reinforcing to them and will react to what they deem as safe or unsafe in any given moment of time.
If your dog is digging through the garbage, he’s doing so because he knows he can find tasty food inside. Food is reinforcement for a dog in its purest form. When you scold your dog, he’ll stop because he understands your tone of voice and knows you are not happy with him. This is communicating to him that digging through the garbage in front of you is not safe.
But what he understands beyond that is likely very little. This is why your dog is more apt to go back to digging through the trash when you leave.
In other words, you’re not teaching your dog not to do the naugthy thing, you’re simply teaching him not to do the naughty thing in your presence.
This is one of the many reasons why the Alpha Dog theory is so ineffective when it comes to training..
But the Alpha Dog Theory is not only ineffective when it comes to dog training, it is also damaging to your dog’s emotional and mental wellbeing.
It can scar the bond built between you and your dog and lead to confusion, frustration and even aggressive tendencies down the road.
In fact, some studies suggest that dominance training may even be dangerous to humans in the long run. Owners that used Alpha Dog theory training methods like scolding, fear and physical punishment were at a higher risk of being bitten or nipped by fearful dogs.
“I think it is important, in order for pet parents to have a meaningful relationship with their dogs, to first and foremost understand that most dog behavior is the result of the pursuit of resources or the dog responding to environmental circumstances.” Says trainer and canine behaviorist Lily Reiche.
“Canine behavior is never vindictive, spiteful, resentful, stubborn or cunning. These processes of reasoning do not play a role in the function of behavior. Once an owner understands this, they can begin to understand their dogs’ actions better and will be able to solve behavioral issues in a more pragmatic and efficient manner as opposed to trying to pit their body strength and will against that of their dog. Threat and intimidation in any situation, dog related or not, may briefly interrupt behavior but never serves to treat the root cause of the behavior.”
Balanced Training – A New Wave Of Modern-Day Malarky
“Balanced training is being touted as the ‘New Modern way of Training’ and everyone is doing it.” says Lily Reiche, when asked about her opinions on the new and “improved” training method hitting social media.
But does she buy into it? Not so much.
“Balanced training begins by teaching the dog how to perform a behavior using food rewards then, if the dog fails to offer the behavior in some way it is ‘corrected’ by a leash pop/ electric shock from an e-collar or prong collar.” She says.
“While Balanced trainers claim that this method reinforces a behaviors’ probability I argue that in fact all it does is confuse the dog and shuts down any ability for independent thought or learning.
Any form of physical pain or positive punishment in training causes extreme stress in animals – just imagine if every time you made a mistake at work your boss hit your thumb with a hammer, would you be able to concentrate at work? Would you want to go back the next day even if he offered donuts at tea time? I doubt it. There are many ways to gain ‘stimulus control’ (long term probability) with behavior when using Positive/Reward based training.
If the dog makes a mistake or fails to comply the reward is withdrawn. Reward based training teaches a dog how to think beyond the food, how to make choices and which are the most appropriate choices to make in any given situation. The dog is not taught how to choose and then had that choice taken away from them.”
Positive Reinforcement Training Works – And Science Proves It
Youtube, Tik-Tok, Instagram, Twitter – all of these platforms are hotbeds for both accurate and inaccurate advice when it comes to the Alpha Dog Theory or the proper way to train your dog.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine which information is science-backed and which is unfounded when it comes to the best dog training method. This is especially true when unqualified “trainers” are given high profile platforms and begin spewing illegitimate training tips to a massive audience.
The best way to determine if a form of dog training really works, according to experts, is to look at the evidence. And evidence shows that positive reinforcement training not only works, but it works best.
Abandoning The Alpha Dog Theory – What To Do Instead
According to trainer and behaviorist Lily Reiche from My Dog Spot, there are a few key steps you should follow when it comes to positive reinforcement training techniques.
Have Structure In Your Home
Like children, dogs thrive when they know what to expect. Dogs with a good amount of structure in the home are typically more relaxed, less anxious and are even less distracted. This can help greatly when it comes to the success of training.
Learn Basic Canine Body Language
Positive reinforcement training deals a lot with canine body language and understanding when your dog is happy, stressed, anxious or fearful. If you don’t understand how your dog is feeling, it’s easy to become frustrated with him.
Remember that dogs inherently want to please us, but they are also intelligent, complicated and emotional creatures with their own thoughts. Some dogs are also more stubborn than others, while some just do not catch on as quickly.
You should also keep in mind that dogs that have experienced trauma in their lives may require more patience and time when it comes to training. This is especially true if dogs have not been properly socialized or trained at an early age.
Make Sure Everyone Is On Board With Your Training Techniques
If you live with a number of people inside your home, try and work to get everyone on board with the training process. This includes age appropriate children and family or friends that visit often.
Ensuring that everyone in your home is able to work with your dog on a similar level will help increase the likelihood of your dog responding to these techniques more successfully.
Set Boundaries and Realistic Expectations For Your Dog
Positive reinforcement training is all about teaching your dog what you want as opposed to what you don’t want. Setting real boundaries and expectations that your dog can understand and follow will not only give him a sense of understanding and purpose, but will also allow him to build a trusting bond with you.
Use High-Value Motivation Like Treats, Toys and Play
Some dogs respond well to praise alone, but many dogs are highly food or toy motivated. If you have a dog that is easily distracted, consider using treats or toys that your dog doesn’t have access to all the time.
When your dog is learning, he’s also working. Don’t forget that the best motivation for hard work is good pay.
Be Consistent And Keep Training Game-Like
Be consistent with your dog and be patient. Positive reinforcement training is as much about you learning how to be a good dog parent as it is about your dog learning to be a good fur kid.
This process should be fun, so try not to become frustrated and take breaks often. Remember, positive reinforcement training takes time and discipline for both you and your pup, and it’s important to be committed and consistent to ensure the best outcome.
Last, Consider Contacting A Positive Reinforcement Trainer
Although it is true that positive reinforcement is the most effective form of training, it is also one of the most time consuming methods.
If you’re struggling with training your dog using these methods and would like help, you always have the option of contacting a certified positive reinforcement dog trainer.
Lily Reich is a highly regarded and certified positive reinforcement dog trainer and canine behaviorist in Los Angeles, California. She offers her professional services to dogs and their owners both in person and online.
And for more information on positive reinforcement training, the Alpha Dog Theory and the best training techniques for your dog, visit us at www.WalkMyDogSpot.com.