Alpha dog here, alpha dog there, alpha dog everywhere. I thought, if I hear one more shout-out to showing your dog that you are the alpha leader of the pack by all manner of growling and man-handling, surely I will take Karen Pryor‘s advice to not shoot the dog, and shoot myself instead. Then, I did hear one more. On second thought, I decided to write this blog post.
This, in a matter of days:
First, my cardiologist informed me he was showing his 6 week old Chihuahua puppy who’s boss by growling at her regularly four times a day, like he would administer medicine to his patients. I’m sure he thinks he’s doing the right thing because he said this is what papa wolves do to their young. He’s wrong, but more on that later.
Later that same day, Sadie was heeling on a loose leash as we strolled through the Mapleton Hill neighborhood in Boulder. I clicked and treated her often, given the squirrels scurrying about. Occasionally I pivoted 180-degrees to help her refocus on me. Sometimes she just sat down, her default position when she’s over-stimulated. We were doing pretty well. Not great. But okay.
A young woman approached us with her dog’s leash held taut. She was pulling straight up. The poor dog’s front paws were barely touching the sidewalk. I gathered from the look on my face combined with Sadie’s, for the most part, loose leash heel, the woman felt compelled to explain herself. “He knows how to heel. He’s just being stubborn. He thinks he’s alpha.” In the midst of all these squirrels? Really?
Last week Sadie was bounding up Sanitas Mountain Valley Trail, an off-leash thoroughfare of people and dogs. We’re practicing “leave-it’” and “auto check-ins”. At the junction of an adjoining trail we stumble upon a man growling at his boxer-mix while throwing him on his back and holding him down by the throat. The infamous alpha roll. The man explains, “He’s a rebellious adolescent.” I’m horrified and, unfortunately, speechless. There is nothing that poor dog could have done to deserve that treatment, to be rendered as terrified as he looked, and, no doubt was. Nothing. The most I could muster was, “That’s really out-of-date.”
Some of you might understandably be thinking, but what if the dog had growled or snapped. Well, if he had, this man’s treatment of him would have likely made his aggression worse.
And then Monday morning. The last straw. The one that spurred me to write this blog post.
Angela, Fun4fido, sent a participant from her online forum to my Magic “Touch” for Fearful Dogs blog post because this woman said …There is no positive training you can give when you take on these sorts of dogs, who are so frightened of everything and everyone. What they needed from day 1 was for me to step up to the plate and show them I was the boss… . OMG!
Alpha dogma. That’s my new name for old-fashioned dominance theory about dogs, a theory that seems to be everywhere today.
As far as I can tell it’s mostly a mythology spun from widely discredited studies of wolves living in captivity. True, it’s generally accepted that our dogs descended from wolves. The wild kind. Not those living behind fences.
You might want to watch this video of David Mech, wolf expert extraordinare, explain his original use of “alpha” 40 years ago and why he now says it’s inaccurate.
The term ‘alpha wolf’ implies that wolves compete for the dominant position in the pack. In the case of dogs, they compete with us for dominance. Wolves and dogs, according to alpha dogma, abhor a power vacuum and will seek to fill it. According to David Mech—not so.
What are some things that have been learned from observing wolves in the wild that upends alpha dogma?
- Wolves do not live in packs of unrelated wolves in their natural habitats, as they do in captivity, but in family groups with a mating pair and their offspring. David says to call them the breeding pair, or mom and dad, if you like.
- There is no such thing as an “alpha” wolf leader, dominant over all the others, who maintains his head honcho role by regular displays of physical dominance.
- Papa wolves have been observed rolling over onto their backs and letting pups play all over them (When was the last time you heard a traditional trainer recommend this?)
- There is no such thing as an alpha-roll in ordinary wolf life. Submissive wolves are not rolled by dominant ones; they simply roll over all by themselves, typically after a little lip licking.
- Apparently, the only time a wolf in the wild “alpha rolls” another animal is to kill it.
What troubles me is that this knowledge hasn’t eroded the supremacy of alpha dogma very much, at least not among the general public. Many people who love their dogs and want to do right by them also love their alpha dogma. Of course, the Cesar Millanification of dog training hasn’t helped.
I see alpha dogma as a mind-set, a mental lens through which we view our dogs. I think it leads us to perceive our relationship with our dogs as adversarial. It invites us into power struggles with them for the top-dog, alpha position. Maybe not all the time, but certainly when our dogs misbehave—doing what she wants to do rather than what we want, or don’t want, her to do. She jumps on guests. Rifles through the garbage. Pulls on the leash. Or worse, growls and bites.
And, when she does these things, the alpha dogma mindset has a built-in, handy-dandy motivation detector. Boris is challenging me for dominance. Daisy is being stubborn, she knows that I want her to “down.” Dusty is rebelling against my leadership. He’s pissing in the bedroom to spite me. When we do this we’re ascribing motivation based on the fiction of alpha dogma. (For a learning-based explanation of motivation, go here.)
Coercive and dominance-based training methods, in the name of creating a calm, submissive, animal who knows it’s place in the pecking order, easily follow from alpha dogma and attributing negative motives to our dogs. And, some of these training techniques are unspeakably abusive. Dogs are subjected to electric shocks. Some are nearly strangled, their necks cinched as the handler lifts the dog off the ground by his leash as the dog gasps for breath. Some are grabbed by the neck, stared and growled at. Presumably this imitates the mother wolf’s style of correction. It doesn’t. Others are forced to confront what scares them most—being dragged onto a shiny, slippery floor, for example.
Do we really believe our dog will be out of control without alpha dogma style leadership? Spare the choke-collar, spoil the dog? Do we really want our dog to be afraid of us, just a little, so she behaves the way we want her to, because she’s scared not to? Wolf parents don’t do this.
But, I did. Eighteen years ago, when my last dog, Morgan was a pup. To be honest, on the continuum of mild to harsh punishment, my “no,” as growly and gruff as I tried to make it, generally fell toward the mild end. But, and my stomach turns as I write this, I did use a choke collar when first teaching her to heel. And, I did subscribe to alpha dogma without a thought to the contrary.
Last month while driving to the grocery store I heard a snippet of Terry Gross’s interview with Michael Schaffer, author of One Nation Under Dog. If I recall correctly, he mentioned that his trainer, apparently an alpha dogmatist, said dogs should not go through the door ahead of you because that’s an alpha thing to do.
Wait a minute, I thought, I taught Sadie to wait at doorways and I’m not an alpha dogmatist. Why did I do that? Primarily, because I want her to be safe. And, I taught her to wait at the door for the same reasons she learned a whole host of behaviors from sitting for a treat, affection, or dinner, to “settle” when I need her to be quiet. I want her to form good habits. I want her to learn to control her impulses. I want her to have good manners so she is welcoming and welcomed wherever we go. And, I want her to do these things joyfully. When she offers a desired behavior, in return she gets what she wants–a treat, or to run to her favorite person, or to fetch her ball. Sadie has learned she can make good things happen. And, she does. Often.
As best as I can, I try to teach Sadie that nothing in life is free. No free treats. No free play with her buddies. No free neck rubs. No free nothin’. I ask for a “sit,” or” down,” or spin,” or “twirl”, “loose leash walking”, or a “nose bump”—something before the goodies come! (Not unlike children working for an allowance.) I cringe when sales people in our favorite stores offer cookies to her without first asking her to sit! And, she LOVES to work for goodies. It’s fun for her.
Does Sadie blow me off sometimes when I call her? You bet! Just last week at the dog park. And as a result, play time was over. Immediately. When I caught up with her, I silently attached her leash and walked back to the car. I hate when that happens because I love her playtime as much as she does. Seeing her romp and run free is pure joy for me.
The thing is, when this happened I didn’t see Sadie as challenging my “alpha” status. I believe dogs do what is rewarding for them. At that moment, chasing after whatever it was, for Sadie, was more rewarding than coming to me. We’ll set to work on recalls by taking a few steps back. I’ll load up with higher value reinforcements. Cheese, imported Irish cheddar, preferably, she tells me. We’ll work in a location with few enticing distractions.
Most of all I want Sadie to be successful and have fun learning new things. Or, relearning them, in this case.
I hope my efforts with Sadie sound like I’m trying to be a good parent, which I am. Like the moms and dads in those wild wolf families. Wolf moms and dads have loads of lessons to teach their pups about proper social interactions. How to play. How to hunt. Well, okay, Sadie and hunting, not so much. But, she loves to faux hunt: Seek. Chase. Shake toys. Fetch. Play tug. Shred boxes. And, I encourage all of this.
Apparently, dogs never mature to the level of adult wolves. Wolf pups leave their families by three years of age to find a mate of their own and start a new family. By wolf standards our dogs never grow up, no matter what their age. They forever remain dependent pups in the family. Our families.
As Temple Grandin points out, maybe people who refer to themselves as their dog’s mom or dad might be on to something. Perhaps family, the wild wolf family with its immature pups, is a better, more accurate metaphor than the pack with its alpha leader.
The next time anyone raises an eyebrow when I refer to Sadie as family or to myself as Sadie’s mom, I’ll tell them, “The wolves say it’s so.”
As for alpha dogma … Bye. Bye.