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The Myth of the Alpha Dog Part 1
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The Myth of the Alpha Dog Part 1

I am a huge fan of Dr. Becker
So I am sharing a great article By Dr. Becker
Most behavior problems in dogs involve either normal canine behaviors owners don’t like or understand, or undesirable behaviors rooted in anxiety.
In order to improve any type of dog behavior issue, the steps must always include:
  • Learning what ‘normal’ means in the canine world
  • Identifying and minimizing risks associated with the behavior
  • Effectively communicating with the dog
  • Learning to read the dog’s signals
  • Meeting the dog’s needs
Unfortunately dog trainers, veterinarians and other canine experts have been conditioned over the years to believe ‘bad’ behavior is driven by a dog’s desire to be dominant over his humans.
So owners receive the message that exerting control over their dog – showing him who’s ‘boss’ – is the key to improving behavior.
This is an anthropocentric focus on the relationship between people and dogs which considers only the needs of the human.
The Merriam-Webster definition of anthropocentric:
  1. considering human beings as the most significant entity of the universe
  2. interpreting or regarding the world in terms of human values and experiences
According to Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania, an Applied Animal Behaviorist,
“The entire concept of dominance as applied to pet dogs is almost always based on a profound misunderstanding of the shared history of dogs and humans.”
Dog-Human Relationship History
Canines have relationships with humans that stand alone among all relationships between people and domestic animals.
Anthropological evidence shows that dogs have lived closely with humans for at least 30,000 years, and have been engaged in different tasks alongside humans for at least 15,000 years.
And for the past 2,000 years there have been specific breeds of dogs of varying shapes and sizes that engaged in specific tasks helpful to humans.
In fact, many of the physical differences among dog breeds developed as a deliberate effort by humans to match desired behaviors to physical attributes. Dr. Overall uses the example of field trial or working English springer spaniels and show dogs of the same breed. These animals look like completely different breeds because they’ve been bred for different behaviors and ‘jobs.’
She theorizes the relationship between humans and dogs developed initially to take advantage of the power of collaboration. Then over time, changes in actual brain function may have occurred with the result that today’s humans and dogs truly rely on each other.
Normal Dog Behavior Doesn’t Include a Drive for Dominance
To be dominant is to have the ability to control access to resources, and to keep that control by winning out over competitors who also want to control access to the same resources. Dominance is often expressed as aggression.
Dominance shouldn’t be confused with having a higher status in a relationship. A higher status individual achieves the ranking not by his own behavior, but by the behavior of the lower status individuals in the group who subordinate themselves to him.
In a social hierarchy where there are higher and lower status individuals, dominance rarely leads to aggression or fighting – just the opposite.
Flawed Theories of Canine Behavior
Early studies seem to have misinterpreted the concept of dominance in canine social hierarchies.
The dogs in early experiments formed rank hierarchies based not on their own natural social tendencies, but on how the studies were designed. Further, researchers assigned dominant traits to certain dogs based on their behavior with a bone as puppies.
The way puppies interact in a natural setting is actually much more fluid than study results indicate, and it changes over time as they mature.
Unfortunately, these early ‘forced hierarchy’ studies led to the erroneous assumption that in healthy human-dog relationships, canines subordinate themselves to their owners. This led to the theory that owners must exercise dominance over their pets in order to elicit acceptable behavior.
The ‘show them who’s boss’ approach is flawed, according to Dr. Overall, because:
“Our historic and evolutionary relationship with dogs is one of cooperative and collaborative work. A hierarchical relationship like that formerly recommended would not have allowed dogs to work with humans in the ways that they have because humans would have had to make all of the work decisions.”
Dogs who do display dominant tendencies have in the past been diagnosed with ‘dominance aggression.’ But given our improved understanding of canine nature, that behavior problem is now more often referred to as ‘impulse control aggression’ or ‘conflict aggression.’ This rightfully distances us from the concept of dogs as naturally striving for dominance over other animals and people.
Aggressive Dogs are Anxious Dogs
Among the many shared behavior traits of humans and dogs is a tendency to suffer from maladaptive anxiety – anxiety that interferes with normal functioning.
Dogs with behavior problems involving aggression have an anxiety disorder. They are, in Dr. Overall’s view, troubled, needy and pathological. One of the worst methods for handling such a dog is to attempt to dominate him – especially when it involves hitting, hanging, ‘dominance downs,’ ‘alpha rolls’ and other similar techniques intended to show the dog who’s boss.
Dogs with anxiety disorders have trouble processing information and making accurate risk assessments. The actions dog owners take to demonstrate dominance over a misbehaving pet actually result in an already troubled animal feeling betrayed, terrified, threatened and backed into a corner by his human.
As you can imagine, this only results in a worsening of the dog’s condition.
In a future article I’ll discuss how we can change our thinking away from the concept of dominance-submission and toward more productive relationships with our canine companions.
The Myth of the Alpha Dog, Part 2: Abandoning the Dominance Theory
The Myth of the Alpha Dog, Part 2: Abandoning the Dominance Theory June 06 2012 |918views| + Add to Favorites
By Dr. Becker
In a previous article I discussed the idea that contrary to what we’ve been led to believe about dog behavior, the drive for dominance is primarily a human trait – not a canine trait. So it follows that the concept of “dominance aggression” as a way to explain certain types of conduct among dogs also misses the mark.
Violence Among Dogs is Not Normal
It is very rare for wild dogs to fight for social status or to assert control. When dogs fight, it’s because something is causing them to feel stress. Violence among dogs is not normal – it’s a sign something is wrong.
Under normal, non-stressful circumstances, both humans and dogs interact in social groups using deference and negotiation rather than dominance. To show deference is to consider the needs and desires of others in the group and adjust your behavior as necessary. When we negotiate, we confer with others in the group to arrive at an agreement.
Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania explains the concept this way:
In deference-based systems, hierarchies are fluid and flexible depending on context and the information received within it. The individual to whom others defer may differ depending on the social circumstances; and status and circumstances are not absolute.
For example, a human child may defer to his or her parents' requests but then be the individual on the playground to whom other children defer. Dogs are similar: A dog may always adhere to instructions given by one spouse but not the other. This is because the dog has different relationships with each spouse.
This cooperative, non-violent way of getting along in the world comes naturally to dogs. That’s why showing your pet “who’s boss” to improve his behavior is unfair, unkind, and can even be dangerous.
Letting Go of the Notion of Human-Dog “Packs”
Many of us use the word “pack” to describe how our dogs view us -- their human family members. But in real canine packs, all members are born into the social group and are closely related to one another.
By contrast, family dogs are usually not related to other dogs in the home or to the humans in the household, nor were they born into your social group but instead arrived as youngsters or even adults. The relationship between your dog, other dogs in the home, and the humans in the family was imposed on him. He was not born into it. It is therefore not his “pack.”
We also use the term “pack leader” to describe a dog’s human owner or caretaker. And we’ve been led to believe we must exercise our “leadership” by dominating our pets. But here’s the thing – your dog knows you’re not a dog. And he expects to have a different relationship with you than he does with other dogs.
In order to have better relationships with our dogs, Dr. Overall feels we should let go of the concept of packs and pack leaders.
Your Dog is Asking You Questions
Your dog learns appropriate behavior by asking questions and receiving clear, consistent answers from you. Canine questions come in many forms.
Some dogs perform behaviors and wait to see how we respond. The behavior is the question; our response to it is the answer.
Some dogs use vocalizing to ask questions. Others may paw at us. Others will sit very still and study us intently. We might not recognize a certain behavior or barking or pawing as our dog asking us questions. But most of us get that we’re being questioned if our pet sits still and simply looks at us.
Productive interaction with your dog isn’t about dominating him. It’s about understanding that almost everything he does in your presence is a form of questioning. And it’s knowing that the more clearly and consistently you answer, the more he will learn about desirable and undesirable behavior.
Correcting Your Pet’s Behavior Using a Simple 3-Point Model
According to Dr. Overall, when we understand the evolutionary history of dogs and their interdependent, cooperative relationship with humans, we do a much better job managing behavior problems. She offers these three strategies:
  • Strive to avoid all circumstances that will provoke your dog. What you want to avoid is inadvertently reinforcing inappropriate behavior or placing him in a situation in which he feels threatened.
  • Humanely interrupt problem behaviors – without unintentionally rewarding and reinforcing them – as early in the behavior as possible.
  • Be vigilant about catching your dog behaving appropriately of his own free will, and reward him immediately. This is how dogs learn which behaviors are acceptable. Don’t leave your pet to guess. As Dr. Overall says, “It’s utterly unfair to the dog to have it try to guess what it is that will stop the yelling and start the loving.”
If you understand your dog is a thinking creature who asks questions, and if you practice this simple 3-point pattern consistently, your dog can learn desirable behavior quickly in the absence of threats of violence.
To Change Your Dog’s Behavior, Answer His Questions
As I often point out here at Mercola Healthy Pets, positive reinforcement – not punishment – is the way dogs learn appropriate behavior for a lifetime.
The idea that you must show a misbehaving dog who’s boss, more often than not involves the use of physical punishment – another reason the concept of dominating your pet is misguided.
Correcting your dog’s behavior requires giving him an incentive powerful enough that the behavior is extinguished – meaning the likelihood he will repeat it in the future is diminished. If you punish without providing that incentive, all you’re doing is injuring your dog.
We need to not only understand but internalize the idea that improving a dog’s behavior isn’t about winning a battle for control over him. It’s about finding opportunities to get his undivided attention to clearly and consistently answer his questions and reward desirable behavior.
For more information on the fallacy of the dominance theory:

3 Comments to The Myth of the Alpha Dog Part 1:

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poop bags on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 5:23 AM
Excellent allocation!! Whatever shared here about the myth of the alpha dog seems to me informative expose. Enjoyed this post!
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poop bags on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 10:17 AM
Thanks for sharing this article by Dr. Becker. He is one of the best animal doctors and whatever shared in this post is informative and educative to learn the dog behavior.
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