Alpha Pack Theories Disproven!
The tide of dog training is changing. The good news, is that it has been changing for most of us dog trainers for years, and although there is always a resurgence of negative training methods the science behind dog training is proving that the dog world has had it all wrong for years!
Problem #1: Theories were Based on Outdated Information
When dog training hit the mainstream a few years ago and got a lot of coverage on new series and TV moments, almost certainly the reason for a dog’s problems were linked to his “wolf heritage” and short term studies that were done on wolves in the 1940s.
Problem #2: These Short Outdated Studies were performed on Captive Wolves
The problem with most of these studies that proclaimed to shed light on not only wolf behavior but also dog behavior was that they were done mostly with captive wolves.
Captive wolves are forced into manmade packs, where they are forced to live in a tiny confined environment, adapt, and workout their own hierarchy. It is hypothesized that the behaviors witnessed were created because of this stressful environment. Aggression and pecking order were forced on these wolves, because they were forced into this manmade unrelated pack. Hierarchy and alpha status was required in this state.
In the wild, wolves exist in family structures. Dr. L. David Mech who has studied wolves for over 40 years debunks even using the term Alpha and Beta when referring to wild wolves. Most wolf packs consist of a single breeding pair: Dad & Mom, a group of lower ranking non-breeding adults, a group of outcasts, and a group of immature adults working their way up the pack. Some of these pups will grow up, leave the pack and seek their own territory and mate.
Although the status of juvenile wolf pups changes often, everyone respects mom and dad while testing their boundaries with older aunts and uncles to see what they can get away with. Sound like anyone’s kids? I remember the days we would get substitute teachers at school, and we would do anything to get away without homework!
The question is then…Are our dog packs “forced packs” like with the captive wolves or are they more like the “family structures” of wild wolves? This question is less easily answered and certainly up for discussion.
Are All Dogs Really Wolves?
Domestic dogs have been bred for centuries to be pets. When domesticating dogs first began, dogs that were friendly to humans were bred to other sociable dogs. Sociable puppies were retained and used for work and more breeding.
During this evolution a process called pedomorphosis or Neoteny occurred. Neoteny is the retention of juvenile traits and behaviors by the adults of a species. Essentially this means that stop developing earlier than wolf cubs do; they retain more baby-like behaviors and never mature to the status of adult wolf type behavior. It is arrested development at its finest and a repercussion of breeding and domesticating dogs.
Doctor Deborah Goodwin the facial features of dogs and how they relate to wolf behavior. She found that the more a dog breed resembled a wolf the more wolf type behaviors they displayed.
Dogs like Siberian Huskies, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers with their long snouts and pointy ears retain more wolf like behaviors, while dogs such as French Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels with their short snouts, big eyes, rounded ears and toy –like faces maintain barely any of these behaviors.
Doctor Goodwin says that a King Charles Spaniel never matures mentally past the stage of a puppy. It even continues to look like a puppy throughout its life!
So some dogs are more wolf than others, but most have been bred predominantly intentionally or by chance to retain more puppy like behaviors and less wolf behaviors.
Is This Good News?
Not necessarily! It appears that our domestic dogs never mature to the point of getting the conflict solving behaviors that wolves do. Wolves can use more submissive behaviors to stay out of a fight, but most dogs have lost these complex submissive behaviors because they remain in a puppy like state.
Young wolves develop aggressive behaviors first and then they develop the submissive behaviors that they will need later on to keep him out of a fight. Aggressive behaviors develop first so that a dog or a young puppy can defend himself if needed; submissive behaviors are a way to keep out of conflict all together.
But, many of today’s dogs don’t develop these submissive behaviors and they are unable to recognize them when another dog shows them. This is what makes putting adult dogs together such a danger. They don’t have the passive skills they need and even a wolf pack might launch an attack in a similar situation.
What Can You Take Away From This Information?
Dogs need a good parent, not a pack leader!
Probably the reason these old theories have worked for so long is by default. Dog owners do need to be the leader of their home, not because the dog will become aggressive and take over but because these eternal puppy-like dogs need boundaries and a good parent.
Dog owners need to be good parents to their dogs just like they do for their children. Spoiled children with no rules and parents that don’t set limits create the same kind of mayhem. Dogs have to learn good behaviors and manners and their parents need to instill and make them follow rules.
It doesn’t really matter if you want to think of yourself as Alpha or parent, what does matter is that you set rules. And, because your dog never truly mentally matures, you will have to keep on being a good parent and setting limits and rules even after your dog is physically mature. You will probably need to continue to be a good parent for the rest of your dog’s life!
For those of you who want more analytically information, enjoy reading research studies, and want to hear more from the experts follow the links below!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.