'BE THE ALPHA' PACK THEORY
Is Pack Theory true, are dog social structures based on aggression and dominance?
When we talk about dog aggression and dominance most humans feel strong emotions like fear and the need for control. Justifiably so, aggression is a scary word, so we seek control in a difficult situation. But outside of the context of dog aggression, dog training is most often accompanied by rhetoric from friends, strangers, on TV and Online about 'Be the Alpha', 'Be THE pack leader' over and over and over… I personally hear it non-stop, frequently in reference to puppies. We are saturated with this concept to the point that we start to believe that if we don't dominate our dog into submission they'll 'run our home', 'walk all over us', 'dominate us' or 'become aggressive'. And control is a very appealing concept when we think about our relationship with dogs and training, nobody wants an 'out of control dog'.
Dogs have always had and still have nuclear family structures, with the exception of a few human-centric lap breeds that we bred to seek our companionship over that of other dogs. In our current urban captivity environments for dogs, the global canine market continues to breed dogs with congenital issues and attributes that are incompatible with the environments where they end up. They are taken out of their environments and are separated from the nuclear family structure, creating a global canine diaspora responsible for the death and suffering of millions of dogs each year. Meanwhile the rescue networks struggle to contain the never-ending fallout with an army of fosters and volunteers who witness first-hand the scale of this disaster. Then the puppies get to us, the humans, who adopt these pups and include them as part of our family, the lucky ones at least. We create a human-canine interspecies nuclear family structure in our own homes where we offer these dogs care, mindfulness and love (again, for the lucky ones). But even these lucky pups that end up in great family homes can't escape Pack Theory's pervasive influence in the media.
"BE YOUR DOG'S EMOTIONAL SUPPORT HUMAN IN A WORLD WHERE DOGS DEPEND ON US"
To escape it, we have to understand it, or redefine it, or both. Pack Theory is based on the study by David Mech in 1958 that led to the 1970 publishing of the best-seller book “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species”. This book relied on research done on captive wolves by Rudolph Schenkel in 1934, and contained extensive research on wolves including a section on pack order where we find Schenkel's terms “lead wolf” and “bitch wolf,” the preceding terminology to “alpha male” and “alpha female.” The Schenkel study that created the terminology was conducted on wolves that were unrelated, all brought from different zoos to the Basel Zoological Garden, where they were placed in small restrictive areas. A recipe for conflict and suffering.
Mech himself realized that most of the pack order information in his book was wrong as further research on wolves revealed that wolves live in complex nuclear family structures that are nurturing and cohesive, very much like humans. He retracted the findings and convinced his publisher to stop publishing the book in 2022, over 50 years since it was first published. Enough time to popularize the concept and deliver it to everyone's living room along with the tsunami of misinformation about dogs and dog training that most people have to sort through.
I know, I never answered the original question directly: Is Pack Theory true, are dog social structures based on aggression and dominance?
And the answer is: no, it has been debunked many times over by many scientists including its own author. Aggression and dominance exist in dogs and humans alike. These behaviors are evolutionary defense mechanisms that are present in all organisms competing for survival. Just as much as kindness, altruism and cooperation are part of both the human’s and canine’s incredibly wide spectrums of behavior. The key however, is to understand that aggression and dominance are not the ruling archetype for dog behavior just as much as they are not for human behavior (even though the news makes me doubt that sometimes). Applying Pack Theory methods to dogs is like conducting a human social study at a prison and then using the findings to develop a social theory for a kindergarten curriculum. It is simply not appropriate, or fair, in fact, it is dangerous and it is the culprit and excuse for abuse, pain and suffering for dogs all over the world.
With that said, as much as I do not personally subscribe to Pack Theory, I have a lot of respect for many trainers that do. And I acknowledge the importance of understanding dog body language, which is a pinnacle of Pack Theory. My frustration lies in the misinformation that I encounter in so many households that causes the mistreatment of dogs. Families getting physical and pinning down their own dogs, all in the name of something 'they heard'. Oftentimes good people have been misinformed into living a life of struggle for dominance with their own dogs. These situations become tense and difficult, and sometimes dangerous for children and the elderly. As for the dogs, not ever addressing the underlying causes of the behavior leaves many dogs feeling anxious or fearful.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that it is time to raise our social consciousness and spread the message that dogs are family members and treat them as such. Let’s replace the outdated concepts of aggression and dominance for the concepts of consent, agency and choice. Words that need to be talked about and that need to become part of our dialogue about dogs. Consent is respect and it should always be mutual, agency allows free-will which is paramount to learning to make decisions, and choice is the pinnacle of dignity, in both humans and dogs alike. I invite you to help me educate our families and communities about a better perspective, one in which we choose to offer dogs the respect, free will and dignity they deserve. Let's talk amongst ourselves and to everyone we meet on how we can ease frustrations with our pups by relying on current scientific evidence-based methods. And let's make a conscientious choice to eradicate the need to 'be the Alpha', when we can be our dog's emotional support human in a world where dogs depend on us to feel safe, happy and well-adjusted.
Carlos F Morales - CPDT-KA
Carlos is head trainer at Canine High School in Long Beach CA, a force-free Puppy School and Dog School. He is responsible for creating the School's Dog Training System, Curriculum and Philosophy. In addition to educating his canine students and their human parents, he runs a teaching school that offers apprenticeship and internship programs for aspiring professional dog trainers. He is a Certified Mentor Trainer for several dog training schools and holds certifications with the AKC and the CCPDT. He lives in a little house by the beach with his human, his three dogs GoGo, Kiba, Choji and a sassy cat, Habibti.
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