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Dogs Are Not Wolves – And Why It Matters When Training Dogs

Dogs Are Not WolvesWe had an interesting discussion a week ago. Despite the wolf dog relationship has been disproved for over 15 years the belief in the ‘dominance’ or ‘alpha’ theory is still entrenched firmly in today’s dog training world. I tried to keep emotions out of this article, and relate the research in a way that can be validated, online.

Wild dogs live in families, not the ‘packs’ that we believe. These families do not have an alpha. The closest thing they have to an alpha figure is ‘dad.’ This dog is usually the leader because he is smartest, and feeds the pack. Social relationships and individual ‘will’ is differed, not taken.

Dominance theories were dreamed up during times when the first CAPTIVE wolf studies led to the widespread belief that dogs were out to assert themselves as leaders and we must show them who’s really boss. In the book, In Defense of Dogs, John Bradshaw counteracts this outdated way of thinking. He pointed out that dogs don’t appear to follow a hierarchy. He condemns any method of training which uses aversive measures to display ‘dominance’. Bradshaw, and other scientists have proven that aggression shown to the family dog is potentially damaging to the psychology of the dog and the relationship between dog and owner.

Scientists once thought that dogs descended from gray wolves. Now, through genetic studies, researchers know that dogs and wolves share a common ancestor instead of a direct lineage. This means that they both came from the same genetic lineage, the same way that birds came from Raptors.

“The process of dog domestication is still poorly understood, largely because no studies thus far have leveraged deeply sequenced whole genomes from wolves and dogs to simultaneously evaluate support for the proposed source regions: East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. To investigate dog origins, we sequence three wolf genomes from the putative centers of origin, two basal dog breeds (Basenji and Dingo), and a golden jackal as an outgroup. We find that none of the wolf lineages from the hypothesized domestication centers is supported as the source lineage for dogs, and that dogs and wolves diverged 11,000–16,000 years ago” Genome Sequencing Highlights the Dynamic Early History of Dogs

Why Is This Important To Dog Trainers?

The vital importance is that it debunks the belief that there is an alpha. Most wolf species split off long before the ancestors of dogs. The Alpha dog myth was born from studying wolves in captivity. This has been proven as a flawed method of research. The wolves that are closest (distant cousins) to dogs, and wild dog packs, form families. There is no Alpha or ‘king’ of the pack.

The erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory  is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

This changes how we relate to our dogs. It changes how we establish ourselves as the one that is obeyed.

David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves (Mech, 2000), “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.”

We find that dogs are not fighting us for dominance, and trainers and researchers have found that dogs which do act dominant are suffering emotionally. They have not had their emotional needs met.

The internet is ripe with articles that state ‘Every Thing We Know About Wolves Is Wrong’ so I won’t go into that here.

The Alpha Dog Myth

In short – the Alpha Myth is born of our misunderstanding and putting human morals and science on dogs.  People do not have alphas. Dogs do not have alphas.

“The fact is, successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, not because of aggressively enforced dominance. The whole point of social body language rituals is to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. Watch any group of dogs interacting. Time and time again you’ll see dogs deferring to each other.” Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC,

“Numerous errors have occurred in this translation, even if we assume that dogs are identical to wolves. Even in wolves, the alpha does not have absolute control over the will of the group as a whole (Zimen, 1981). 

The dominance relationship is maintained by voluntary deferential behavior from the subordinate. A high-ranking animal does not casually intrude upon individual privileges of subordinates, … This factor alone illustrates the absurdity of blaming sub par obedience performances and behavior problems such as chewing and digging on dominance issues. The Dog Trainer’s Resource 2: APDT Chronical of the Dog Collection. (and, Alexandra Horowitz, Columbia University, 2014, Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris, Pg 94)

Feral dogs cooperate. When we impose an alpha role in any social unit (family) we deny the individuals their rightful place. When we apply this to dogs by using force to train, instead of building a relationship, we stop our dogs from building a healthy relationship with us. We create behavior problems and increase anxiety.

The results of a study by Topal, Miklosi, and Csanyi (1997) showed that dogs who were viewed anthropomorphically by their owners showed more dependent behavior and decreased performance in problem solving. The authors concluded that this decrease in performance was due not to lack of cognitive ability but to the dogs’ strong attachment to humans. Dominance theory has perhaps the greatest potential to directly harm the human–canine bond. Konrad Most was influential in introducing the concept of social dominance to popular dog training. Most believed that the only means for a dog trainer to establish himself as “pack leader” was through physical confrontation between trainer and dog “in which the man is instantly victorious” (Most, 1910/1955). Besides imbuing the dog with adversarial motivations, Most’s misleading interpretations not only justify but condone abusive training practices. Despite these and other problems, Most’s dominance theory is still widely accepted by many authorities (Lindsay, 2001).

Dog Behavior, Evolution, and Cognition, By Adam Miklosi



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