In dog training, it is a common practice using and misusing terms from different fields, creating massive confusion within the audience.
One of the common discussions in dog training is about alpha, packs, leadership, mostly denying it exists on dogs and compares them to dominance theories (unknown to the science), punishment, and violence.
Note: I have an article with a comprehensive list of references on dominance in dogs, you can read it here.
Other discussions about packs and strange theories also unknowing to the scientists claim that “Dogs are not wolves and don’t form packs.” It isn’t the subject I want to write today, but I’ll give a brief introduction to it.
A pack is a group living together and depending on one another for survival. A group of dogs is called a ‘pack’ (wild, feral or stray) or ‘kennel’ (domestic). A group of hounds is called a ‘mute.’ A group of dogs that meet in the park once a day is not a pack because they do not depend on one another for survival, so it makes sense to call it a kennel. A group of dogs in our domestic set-up may be a domestic pack even if they do not depend on one another for survival.
About the claim that “dogs are not wolves,” pack functions, and more, I strongly recommend you (1) to research about it, (2) to participate in the Ethology Institute Facebook Group, or (3) take the “Canine Behavior Course” (get 10% with the coupon code 8c7e5b0a), extensively updated with a comprehensive approach on these subjects.
I did a brief research on one of the Ethology Institute’s live shows in November 2020 (you can watch it here) about the “alpha dog” and a possible explanation for all its confusion in the dog training.
Alpha’ means the leader, ‘beta’ the ‘second-in-command’ and ‘omega’ the ‘scapegoat’ when these roles are well enough defined. They mean no more and no less. ‘Alpha pair’ designates the leading male-female pair, usually the oldest. The term is related to the dominance hierarchy, first observed in chickens, but most used in the study of primates. Rudolph Schenkel mentioned this term for the first time on wolves in the “Expression Studies on Wolves” (1947) paper on the male-female wolf’s copulation and sexual ritualization process.
The term was implemented on dog training without a proper definition and, in some cases, was a justification for violence and coercion. The most spoken reference I found mentioning this term was the book “How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend“ from the Monks of the New Skate, 1978. The book describes leadership as an “alpha figure” to whom they look for order and directives.
They describe correction as a light discipline in regular training and punishment as a forceful verbal or physical discipline associated with various behavior problems. They also speak about gentle touch education, food as positive reinforcers, and the importance of socialization, supported by relevant references. However, all the controversy was the “alpha-roll” technique (fig. 1), which they strongly discourage in their 2001 edition book.
I did two types of research. I used a “clean” browser and the main search website—statistics for illustration purposes only.
For the first research, I opened 35 random articles from the first five pages results and analyze them in two ways: The correlation with different topics (fig. 2), and the association of the term as a positive or negative relationship (fig. 3).
For the second research (Fig. 4), I did a quick analysis of the first ten pages through 91 articles from 2000 to 2020. I wanted to know if they agreed and recommended the “alpha theory” (ART) or if they disagreed and didn’t recommend it (DRT).
One of the commons arguments against this term is a video from the biologist David Mech regarding a study made with captivity wolves. He states that the term “alpha” wasn’t appropriately used in that study. In the clip, Mech explains some dynamics in wolf packs with different words so that a layperson will understand that. In no time of the video, he speaks or relates it with dogs or dog training, nor he ever denied the existence of alphas. Thus, he wrote an article to Wolf Magazine (2008) stating, “While it is not incorrect to use alpha when applied to packs of multiple breeders, it would be possible and even desirable to use less loaded terminology.”
Interestingly, the “alpha dog” theory is far much more spoken by the groups against it than those that agree with it, which indirectly can have a side effect of their purpose. On the other side, it is clear the most significant amount of articles discourage the term or its possible practice. However, there are no clear definitions or public education on definitions and a scientific context of these terms, only a “point to be made.”
Future articles can improve their scientific standards, giving precise definitions, avoiding following the same argument line of the others with the same opinion, mixing terms, comparing them with violence, or being inaccurate to describe the basic learning theory principles.
There is no such “alpha dog theory” in the academic literature. That concept appeared in the dog training without a proper or consistent definition/explanation. It is a highjacked term mixed with other fields and manipulated by several “for and against” movements, as all the popular articles showed.
I don’t have enough data to argue on the interspecies relationship in these terms, so I prefer to limit myself to the inter and intraspecific communication concepts, which don’t seem to fit in such “theories.”
I will avoid walking on the thin ice of the leadership discussion because both canine training’s ideological extremes seem to agree with it in some terms. However, their speech has so many similarities and discrepancies that the only difference I noticed in their articles is their training ideology.
All the terms are clearly defined in their academical fields. The tendency to highjack terms from different fields and put them all in the same position with meanings that follows different agendas is a disservice to all who want to learn how to have a respectful relationship with the dogs and other species.
I don’t see any problem talking about these terms, explain them, and show that, in most cases, they are wrongly employed in dog training. It is my opinion that only with education and knowledge, we change things, not with emotional outbursts or nonsensical argumentation that discredit any kind of argument in the name of “science”.
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