If you’re Googling dog training, these are all words you may see. You might find advice that your dog is misbehaving because you aren’t the alpha, or that your dog is dominant and needs to be put in their place.
But here’s the truth: You are not at war with your dog.
In fact, you will rarely hear these words from most behavior experts. I can’t remember the last time I said “alpha” unless I was explaining to someone that, no, you don’t need to be your dog’s alpha. It’s not really a thing.
So where did these ideas come from? Why is there so much advice out there about dominating your dog or making sure they know you’re the boss?
It started decades ago with a study on captive wolves (a study that has since been disproven and denounced even by the initial scientist, just to be totally clear). That study observed wolves who were thrown together in random packs and the infighting that occurred. It wasn’t until later, when wolves were being analyzed in the wild, that scientists realized those theories on packs were all wrong – in the wild, wolf packs were families, lead by parents, and fighting for control was rare.
And the truth is, dogs aren’t wolves. We romanticize this idea of our canine companions as descendants of wolves, but they’ve been removed from their distant cousins for many thousands of years. A domesticated dog has a much looser interpretation of the idea of a pack than a wild or captive wolf. Otherwise, how would we be allowed into their families? And taking that further – dogs know that we aren’t dogs. So even if they did have a “pack” in the way many like to imagine, we wouldn’t be part of the traditional structure.
But the idea of dominant dogs and alphas was repopularized when TV personality Cesar Milan came on the scene. It was easy to believe that the serious behavior issues being “solved” in a TV segment were the result of some magical alpha pack theory thinking. What they really were was the result of learned helplessness from overwhelmed, often terrified dogs, and some very slick editing.
But what do I do instead? I get asked by many students. If I can’t “tsk” my dog into submission to get them to listen, how can I get a well-behaved dog?
There are a lot of options. None of the good ones involve hurting, scaring, or forcing your dog. Again: You are not at war with your dog. Your relationship does not need to be confrontational, or based on fear. If it is, you’re much more likely to have a dog who is scared or defensive, or a dog who bites.
So what words would I replace the list at the beginning of this blog post with?
Friend. Educator. Guardian.
Consistency. Love. Patience. Family.
These things are not only possible but absolutely vital to a happy, healthy, well-mannered dog.
How do you get there? Seek out a trainer who uses force-free, positive-reinforcement based methods. Ask questions. Do the research. Read books and blogs and watch videos by trainers who use these methods.
Training isn’t magic. It’s science. And it’s a science that blends beautifully with the incredible relationship we can build with our dogs—if we don’t try to take them to war over being well-behaved.
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.