The First Step Towards Creating The Best Possible Relationship With Your Dogs: Exploding The Alpha Myth
Your dogs deserve to be free, happy, and sensible: the trap of the ‘Alpha‘ mindset does untold harm to this!
The idea of domination being powerful, desirable, and the only way to succeed in life is deeply, deeply embedded in our modern capitalistic societies. Human history since the patriarchal paradigm has taken over is one long trail of wars, of might is right, of domination and exploitation of animals, weaker people, countries, and the earth.
This pattern of behaviour can be overt or unconscious. But we all carry it (or the trauma from being affected by it) to some extent. You can think of the need to dominate, to have power over others, as shadow (shadow can be defined as anything that we individually or culturally hide, deny, or suppress).
Domination and exploitation through force and fear is one polarity of this unhealthy dynamic. But there’s always a flip side, the opposite. This can be a victim expression, or it can be one of total permission, no boundaries, and an unhealthy freedom that is also harmful in a different way.
I see both of these expressions to some degree or another in almost all people who I work with when it comes to their communication and interactions with their dogs (and other animals – I’ll be focusing primarily on dogs in this article, but this all applies to all animals).
This ranges from the extreme of people using shock collars and aversive training (force and fear) in a spectrum through to people who let their pets literally run wild, who are totally permissive, with no boundaries whatsoever.
With the extreme of force, this results in a crushed, traumatised, servile (but often very obedient) dog, and severe harm to the human-animal bond (relationship).
With the opposite extreme of lack of boundaries etc., this results in a complete lack of respect for their humans from the animals (or what you might call a leadership vacuum). In this case, the animals fill the leadership vacuum and are often effectively in control of the humans.
Both extreme expressions of this polarity of behaviour/interaction result in harm to the animals in terms of causing significant stress and trauma. Domination through force and fear is often worse.
I’ll explain how and why this is in more depth a little later on.
We all have and express these tendencies somewhere along the spectrum. We may have different expressions in different contexts. But practically everyone will have at least some expression (either conscious or unconscious) of this ‘shadow-pair’.
Accepting this about yourself is SO important for the well-being of your animal companions. Because only with awareness can anything be transcended.
Right now I’m gonna explode the ‘Alpha’ myth when it comes to interacting with, training, and being in relationship with dogs.
I’m gonna smash it into smithereens, then jump up and down on them for a while, before throwing them in the trash, where they belong. I hope you’ll join me!
The concept of an ‘Alpha’ in the pack when it comes to dogs – essentially a leader of the pack who fought his or her way to the top through aggression (force), and who needs to continually exert force on all the pack members to remain the leader, is complete nonsense.
This very pervasive concept originally came from research performed with groups of wolves who were confined in enclosures. This is not a natural situation as is found in the wild, where wolves range freely, and members of the pack will move away to form new packs when they reach adulthood.
I believe that the original researcher also overlaid his cultural shadow of domination in the way he interpreted the behaviour of the confined groups of wolves. Most likely unconsciously.
The truth of wolves is that packs are family units, groups of offspring led by their parents. There is very little or no aggression. There is a LOT of communication and interaction, but dominating other pack members through force is very, very rare. Nearly always, wolves will leave the pack at adulthood, form new breeding pairs, and over time, new packs.
Check out this video of a pack of wolves to see what I mean.
Video of a wolf pack (family group) showing social interaction. https://fb.watch/hTnloj9t-x/
Here’s some evidence to support what I have explained so far. I’m going to dig into a healthy model for interacting with and training your dogs in the next section.
‘The notion of leading wolves that control a pack of subordinates can be traced to 1947, when Rudolf Schenkel wrote a paper titled Expressions Studies on Wolves, in which he described the behavior of ten wolves kept at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland in a relatively small pen about 10 by 20 meters. During his observations, Schenkel noticed that the highest-ranked males and females formed a pair.
“By continuously controlling and suppressing all types of competition within the same sex, both ‘alpha animals’ defend their social position,” Schenkel wrote.
The pack behaviors described by Schenkel, including the ‘alpha’ dominance hierarchy, proved highly influential and were picked up by other ecologists, including David Mech, the founder of the International Wolf Center and one of the world’s foremost experts on wolf ecology.
Mech published a book called “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, which proved immensely popular and further ingrained the concept of the alpha wolf in the niche literature, with many other researchers citing the book. Other research performed in the 1960s and 1970s, all on wolves held in captivity, seemed to confirm the alpha wolf model.
But after he published the book, he noted that later studies on wolves in the wild showed that this model is outdated.
“That concept was based on the old idea that wolves fight within a pack to gain dominance and that the winner is the ‘alpha’ wolf,” Mech said.
“[The book was] republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history,” he added.’
And some evidence from research.
From: Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs By L. David Mech
‘Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none. Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? Such a designation emphasizes not the animal’s dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information.’
Domination, Dominance, Dominion
Before we get into the nuts + bolts of how to have a healthy, respectful, mutually supportive relationship with your dogs, I want to discuss the difference between domination and dominance. This distinction is incredibly important! And can be confusing…
Let’s look at some definitions of each.
From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
1) supremacy or preeminence over another, 2) exercise of mastery or ruling power, 3) exercise of preponderant, governing, or controlling influence.
From the Oxford dictionary:
Power or control over other people or things.
From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
Controlling, prevailing, or powerful position especially in a social hierarchy
From the Oxford dictionary:
The action of taking control of other people or animals in a forceful way, or the quality of liking to do this.
From Collins dictionary:
Control or authority.
The English language is kind of fluid. There are often several possible meanings for words. And it’s important to be diamond clear here!
The first thing to understand is that you have dominion over your dogs. They are under your control, you have authority over them. Heck, you legally own them, you are responsible for their care and safety. Your dogs are literally at your mercy!
You can express domination (exercise of mastery or ruling power) in a healthy way – a way that is benevolent, that is actively supportive, kind, and beneficial.
The same goes for dominance. You can have someone who has dominance, who holds a position of power and control, but who is kind, benevolent, considerate, and wise.
The flip side is exercising dominance in an unhealthy, harmful way (the action of taking control of other people or animals in a forceful way, or the quality of liking to do this).
True power requires no force
True power is kind.
True power commands respect through strong presence, intelligent compassion, and clear communication of boundaries around behaviour consistently, and in a way that is easily understandable for the dogs.
True power as I understand it when it comes to giving your dogs the best life possible is what I call benevolent leadership.
Here’s my definition.
Benevolent leader: a person who has commanding authority or influence, who inspires others to work with them for the greater good, who cares for and supports all of their community, who does what needs to be done for the greater good of each and all as kindly as possible, who listens and seeks to both understand and be understood.
Here’s some info from a research paper on leadership in wolf packs in the wild.
From: Leadership in Wolves, Canis lupus, Packs By L David Mech
‘The above observations are consistent with the prevailing view that Wolf packs typically are family units, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group and sharing group leadership in a division-of-labor system (Mech 1999) in which the female initiates primarily such activities as pup care and defense, and the male initiates primarily foraging and food provisioning and the travels associated with them. There is much overlap in the leadership activities.
Socially, the breeding pair dominate their offspring and lead their activities, and although the breeding male appears socially dominant to the breeding female (Mech 1999), he feeds the female while she nurses the pups and cooperates with her in their care and protection. As the pups age, the male seems more intent on feeding them than does the female, perhaps allowing the female to improve her nutritional condition for the next litter. Conceivably, once the female is in good enough condition, she might then contribute as vigorously to offspring provisioning as the male.
In packs with multiple litters, it seems likely that the original progenitors of the pack, being oldest, probably dominate and lead the pack. However, as the younger breeders age, they may assume more initiative and lead their own offspring independently. This is probably the best explanation for both temporary (Mech 1966; Jordan et al. 1967 but cf. Haber 1977) and permanent pack splitting (Mech 1986; Mech et al. 1998). More information about leadership in packs with multiple breeders is needed.’
Benevolent Leadership – A Healthy Model For Human-Dog Communication + Social Interactions
This is what I teach my students. Your dogs are happier, more relaxed, and healthier overall when you, the human, learn how to step up and show up as a strong benevolent leader.
This means that;
- You step up to take the lead,
- You create and communicate healthy boundaries around what kinds of behaviour are acceptable cosnistently and clearly,
- You do what you have to, kindly of course, to demand that the boundaries are respected
- You look out for your dogs, you keep them safe
- You show up for your self and your dogs, no matter what
- You allow your dogs freedom, and to take the lead from you when it’s appropriate and safe
- You are always more determined than your dogs
That last one is a key point. Dogs are incredibly intelligent when it comes to reading your body language, and they’ll push you emotionally in every way they can (especially if it’s worked for them in the past) to get you to do what they want.
I’ll be honest here. Most dogs I work with as a vet, as a trainer, with bodywork etc. have their humans trained up to do just what they want. Many dogs push their owners all over the place. This is NOT healthy for the dog.
For example – if you can’t say no to your dog when they are hungry, you’ll end up with an obese dog. If you can’t say no to your dog coming into your personal space, you’ll end up with problems like poor behaviour (jumping all over guests) or perhaps a dog who can’t emotionally regulate or calm themselves without being able to be touching or being patted by a human.
My dogs are well-trained and well-behaved. They do what I ask most of the time. And if they do disobey now and then, I like that. It shows me that I haven’t crushed my dogs into furry little slaves. I’m not into tricks. I just want basic obedience so I can keep my dogs as safe as possible. If you love training tricks, that’s cool too! Or dog sports, or whatever floats your boat!
I came from deep conditioning in the flip side – domination through force, pain, and fear. Growing up on a cattle property in North Queensland was brutal in that sense. One of my earliest memories is listening to a dog screaming in agony as he was being ‘given a hiding’ by one of the stockmen.
We all wore spurs riding our horses. I learned the worst way to do things, and I’ve been unlearning it ever since. I still am. My shadow is more on the domination side of things, and I have to be continually aware of this tendency in my behaviour.
If I’m aware of this tendency that is part of me, I can catch it. If I can catch it, I can change it. I know I’ll be catching more and more subtle expressions of my shadow in this respect for the rest of my life. And I’m more than happy to be increasingly sensitive to it.
My dogs are older- Pearl is 15, Mitzi is about 11. Both of them have been impacted by my using aversive interventions with them when they were younger. I can see the shadow of that in them, the trauma that I caused before I knew how to do better. All I can do about this is to be endlessly kind, and continually aware of any dominating tendencies.
I am looking forward to my next puppy, one day, where I can start off and go right through their life with only kindness.
Applying Presence, Clear Communication, Kindness, and Appropriate Boundaries
Awareness is the key to freedom.
Presence is the key to empowerment.
The more present you are in your body, the more aware you can be of yourself, and your dogs. The more you can become sensitive to the subtle non-verbal cues and communication coming from your dogs, too!
Consistency of kindness is the key to connection, communion, and a strong, deep relationship with your dogs.
In fact, consistency in many ways is important. Clear communication, clear boundaries, and clear but gentle insistence, demanding that your dogs respect you, your communications, and boundaries, lead to the best possible outcomes for your dogs.
You can do all of this with kindness.
You can also do this without continual rewards – such as treats.
I believe that it’s super-important to spend a good amount of time in the early (and ongoing) training process, and in your day-to-day life with dogs, asking them to do things with and for you without treats of any kind.
Living with your dogs, hanging out with them, doing things, having fun, lots of cuddles, and asking them to do some things – which can range from basic obedience to tricks, games, and so on. If you understand what I’m talking about, you will have thrown the stick away. No aversives are necessary- they are always harmful.
Doing things, asking your dog to respond to your requests and commands with no carrot, either. No treats, no bribes. If you’re heavily reward focused, you may find this challenging. And you may then have to find new ways to earn your dog’s respect and willingness to cooperate.
Boundaries are critically important – at the very least, you need to be able to ask your dog to stay out of your immediate personal space and have them do that happily. This doesn’t mean you can’t have all the cuddles in the world, by the way. It does mean that your dog needs to respect your personal space. Doing this alone positions you so much more strongly as the leader of the family.
I teach a process that I call ‘outing’ – and I often see anxious dogs relax a lot when this alone is taught to them. This is not only a way to teach your dog good manners, it’s benevolent leader training for you. There are a range of benevolent leader games you can play with your dogs.
Another good one to try is what I call the umbilical method. Put your dog on a lead for an hour or two at a time as you’re doing things around the house. Your dog has to go with you and be with you, no matter what you’re up to.
Your dog will likely experience some frustration, and that’s ok. Allowing your dog to regulate themselves out of this is very healthy. You are literally the leader. You’re deciding what to do, and where to go. Your dog has to follow your lead.
Other leadership practices include yielding to pressure games, wait for it games, look at me games, and so on. The main thing you need to work on is to be the one who decides and gently, kindly enforces the boundaries around personal space and behaviours.
This doesn’t mean you control your dog’s every move. You need also to allow time for them to be free to do what they want, and to allow your dog to take the lead. When on a walk, let them take over and direct where and how you proceed.
It’s all about balance. Kindness. Determination. Earning and demanding respect. When done properly, all of these practices will strengthen and deepen your relationship with your dog, while making them feel happier, calmer, and safer.
If you want to learn more about how to put this into practice, please contact us to enquire about our online trainings and personalised mentoring.
Aversive training techniques are proven to be harmful short term and long term.
Here’s solid proof of this (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0225023) – Best never to use them!
I was going to talk about how being a giver, matcher, or taker may affect your relationship with your dogs, but I’m up to over 3000 words (probably because this topic is SO important. So watch out for another blog on that one!
Also – here’s a live video where I talk about this topic from another angle, and share some of how I have developed this approach. https://youtu.be/96ILCYD8lgw