There is a lot of debate surrounding dominance in dogs and the ‘pack theory’ which has unfortunately led to the use of aversive methods in dog training as opposed to proven scientific methods using positive reinforcement, classical and operant conditioning.
In 1947 an animal behaviourist, Rudolph Schenkel, conducted a study and went on to publish the findings in a paper called “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” This was a ground breaking study with one big downfall. Unfortunately the observations focused on wolves in a zoo, a captive and artificial environment and did not provide a true representation of behaviours which would naturally occur in in their wild counterparts. In addition to this, anthropomorphism came into play (applying human thoughts, feelings, emotions, to animals to explain their behaviour and motives) which lead to a clouding of their observations and errors.
Schenkel concluded that wolves formed backs which rely on a hierarchy system which is maintained by “…incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex)…” He also made other anthropomorphic observations, such as “Between them there is no question of status and argument concerning rank, even though small fictions of another type (jealousy) are not uncommon.”
The main issue with this study is that it was conducted on wolves being held in captivity and they did not interact as they would have interacted in the wild.
So what happens when wolves are in their natural habitat?
Studies have now shown that the wolf packs consist of a family structure, with individuals working together as a team. The pack usually consists of a breeding pair and their offspring. The pack works together to support each other rather than relying on a dominance structure with a violent, competitive struggle to be the ‘Alpha’ wolf. If wolves were constantly fighting for higher ‘rank’ within the pack it would not lead to a very successful team. Wolves rely on each other in order to survive.
When studies have been conducted on wild roaming domestic dogs, we can observe that the relationship between the members is, at best, fluid and transient. The dogs are able of working together as a team yet they are not relying on a consistent social heirachy. They are also mostly unrelated dogs and breeding takes place between any male and female within the pack rather than only between the breeding pair of the wolf pack structure.
Is my Fido behaving like a wolf?
No- just like humans aren’t apes dogs aren’t pack animals. It is a common misconception that dogs are pack animals and therefore we need to enforce our ‘Alpha’ status or be the ‘pack leader’ to show our dogs who is in charge and the more dominant animal.
Unfortunately this outdated theory has been much publicised and still used in popular TV shows and books today which has helped to spread the myth. It is a big problem.
The belief that we need to be top dogs or show our Fido ‘who is boss’ has led trainers and owners alike to use harmful, aversive training methods with their dogs in order to become the ‘dominant leader’ of the pack. This has led to the use of techniques such as the ‘alpha roll’ where the dog is pinned onto it’s back to assert ones dominance over them. However, if we take a minute to think about wolves they do not force others into this position – other wolves choose to offer this behaviour as an appeasement signal, or as a sign of fear. The only time you will see wolves exerting real force is when there is a real fight and they will often try to avoid this situation at all costs as it uses up a lot of energy and can also be very dangerous if they become injured.
Armed with this information and ongoing scientific studies confirming the dominance myth there really should be no reasons to resort to the use of aversive training techniques. One of the top wolf biologists, David Mech, readily admits that they got it wrong when they used the term Alpha:
Science has demonstrated that using aversive techniques is not only unnecessary but can also have a negative impact on your relationship with your Fido.
To quote www.dogwelfarecampaign.org:
“Punishment has been used in animal training since animals have lived in close proximity with people. However, just because training techniques based on the induction of fear or pain have been used for a long time, does not necessarily mean that they are the best option in terms of efficacy or animal welfare. In fact, training a dog using such techniques carries a number of risks. These are:
§ Increasing the dogs fear or anxiety about the situation in which it is used
§ Decrease the dog’s ability to learn
§ Associate other, coincidental events with a fear provoking event
§ Inhibit behaviour, but leave the underlying emotional response unchanged increasing the chance of future problems
§ Induce an new avoidance, or aggressive response
§ Cause confusion as to which behaviour is required
§ Cause physical injury”
As we can see there is no need to be ‘dominant’ or ‘Alpha’ or ‘pack leader’. Your Fido is not a pack animal. Your dog is definitely not a wolf and you are definitely not a dog. Treat your Fido with respect and love and use science –based, positive and force free training methods and your relationship will only go from strength to strength.
If you would like a little further reading on the subject then why not visit:
Information for this article was found at Dog’s Life Canine Academy which can be found here