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Debunking Alpha Dogs, Dominance, and Pack Leadership | Pupford

January 9th, 2024

Filed under Training

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For decades, the concept of “alpha dogs,” dominance, and pack leadership has been deeply ingrained in the world of dog training.

In recent years, our understanding of canine behavior and psychology has grown and evolved, and so has our approach to training dogs.

Organizations like the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, have been setting the standard for positive reinforcement dog trainers and have been at the forefront of this transformation, emphasizing the importance of science-based, humane methods of training.

In this blog post, we will debunk the dog training myths surrounding alpha dogs, dominance, and pack leadership and shed light on more effective and less intrusive methods of training.

Here’s what we will cover:

  1. History
  2. Dominance in Dog Training
  3. Shifting to Positive Reinforcement Training


history of alpha dogs starting with wolves

Let’s begin with where it all started, where this concept of the “alpha dog” originated, and how it made its way into the dog training community.

In the 1940s, Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel conducted a research study on captive wolves at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland.

In this study, approximately 10 wolves were kept in an area 10 by 20 meters large. Schenkel observed that the “alpha” male and female were constantly fighting for hierarchy to become the “dominant” pair. The problem with this research is that these wolves were unrelated and being held in a captive habitat.

A great deal of research surrounding captive wolves followed this and the terminology became ingrained in the topic. In 1970, David Mech, a wildlife biologist and researcher published the book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. The book continued to popularize the concept of the alpha theory and people continued to create a connection between wolves and domesticated dogs.

However, in 1986 David Mech conducted another 13-year study that followed a wild wolf pack and observed that the previous studies on captive wolves and the alpha theory were false.

What he found was that the familial structure of wild wolves is very similar to that of our own families. A wolf pack consists of a mated pair and their offspring of the past one to three years.

Eventually, the offspring mature and disperse to start their packs. Whereas, in captivity mature adult wolves were forced to live in small spaces for many years, causing tension and likely the aggression and fight for “dominance” seen by Schenkel.

By the 2000s David Mech stated that “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.” and that we should, “once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack."

As we have learned more about wolves and domesticated dogs, it has come to light that dogs are much less like their wolf cousins than we previously thought, and applying wolf behavior models to domesticated dog behavior would be like using chimpanzee behavior to explain human behavior.

Related Reading: Male vs Female Dog Differences


using dominance in dog training

Along with the ‘Alpha’ theory, is the idea of dominance and pack theory.

It has become deeply rooted in dog training that dogs should be ‘put in their place’ or you need to ‘show your dog who is boss’ to effectively train them.

This approach often involves the use of physical punishment and intimidation. Not only is this approach outdated, but it is also harmful and counterproductive.

The term ‘dominance’ in dog training is commonly used incorrectly. Dominance is often used as a way to describe a personality trait, for example, ‘if your dog pulls you on leash they are trying to be dominant over you.’ In reality, dominance is “primarily a descriptive term for relationships between pairs of individuals.” and “the use of the expression ‘dominant dog’ is meaningless since “dominance” can apply only to a relationship between individuals.

Even in a household with multiple dogs, there is not one dog that is ‘dominant’ over the other.

The relationship between them is fluid and may change based on the situation. In cases where there is dog-on-dog aggression within a household, there are usually underlying behavioral and anxiety-related problems that have nothing to do with dominance.


Another misapplication of wolf behavior on domestic dogs is the idea of a ‘pack leader’. While wolves in their natural habitat may interact in a pack, domesticated dogs do not operate in a pack mentality and therefore do not see a human as their ‘pack leader’.

Using training tactics based on being ‘dominant’ can be harmful to the relationship between us and our dogs and can create stress, anxiety, fear, and even aggression.

Most often, dominance is not the issue when it comes to behavioral problems, it is a lack of communication between species. We as humans are not meeting our dog's needs and are not effectively communicating with them about what behaviors are appropriate or lead to a more positive outcome for us both.


use positive reinforcement training to improve relationship with dog

By the 1980’s the idea of positive reinforcement training was becoming more mainstream. Based on the principles of Operant Conditioning by American psychologist B.F. Skinner, this approach uses science-based training techniques for effective behavior modification.

This form of training focuses on rewarding desired behaviors rather than punishing unwanted behaviors. This improves interspecies communication, increases the bond with our dogs, decreases stress and anxiety, and most importantly comes from a place of empathy and compassion for our canine companions.

Some influential players in the rise of positive reinforcement dog training are Dr. Ian Dunbar and Karyn Pryor.

Dunbar is a veterinarian who is best known for his work as an animal behaviorist and lecturer. In the 1980’s he popularized the concept of training your dog to be part of the family and created a program that taught unskilled owners how to effectively train their dogs. In 1994 helped to found the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT).

He was a lecturer at annual conferences that covered topics such as behavior modification techniques, how to use and time reinforcers, and stimulus control.

Karen Pryor is an animal trainer, scientist, writer, and seminar leader. In the 1980’s Pryor released her book Don’t Shoot the Dog which helped the everyday dog parent understand operant conditioning. Pryor also introduced the concept of shaping and ‘clicker training’ to the general public. Today, she also has her dog trainer certification program for individuals looking to become professionals in the industry.

By letting go of outdated notions of alpha theories and dominance we can foster a better relationship with our beloved pups. Debunking outdated research and using science-based training methods improves communication, increases compassion, and leads to a more successful way of training our canine companions.


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