Does it really help to “show your dog who is boss”? As a dog trainer I hear all the time “My dog thinks he is the alpha in my house” or  “I have to show my dog who is alpha”.  But how much do we really understand about dominance in dogs?

A Look at Schenkel’s Theory and Mech’s Rebuttal

The theory of canine dominance started back in the 1930s and 1940s with Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel.  Schenkel studied captive zoo wolves and concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, the winner being the alpha wolf.  Over the course of the next few decades several other Screen Shot 2014-03-08 at 10.37.24 AMresearches following the same methods of studying captive zoo wolves supported Schenkels conclusion.

               But there was a serious problem with these studies: they looked at the behavior of captive wolves, which is far from analogous to the wolves natural situation.  In the introduction to his study on wild wolves David Mech stated.  “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs… is analogous to trying to draw inference about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.  The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading”* (Mech, 2000). Thanks to researchers and specialists like Mech, we know now that a wolf pack is a pretty consistent family unit, and it works very differently than the group dynamics found in a zoo.

Applications for the Dog Owner

The relationship between dogs in the household (like the relationship between wolves in a normal, non-captive pack) is fluid and not strictly hierarchical. One dog may be the first to take his pick of toys but will defer to the other dog when it comes time to choose resting places.  The use of aggression to get the things that they want is an anxiety-based behavior not a display of dominance.  If the aggression is met with physical or verbal threats from their human owners, the anxiety behavior will only increase.

             Some of the most common misconceptions that I hear are that a dog is trying to “dominate their owner” when they sleep on the bed, go through the door first, pull you down the street or ignore your commands.

In these situations your dog is not trying to take over the world, they are either confused about what you are asking of them, want to find the most comfortable place to sleep, or are trying to get to something very interesting and you are not moving fast enough.  There is no scientific evidence that a dog is being “dominant” is these situations. It is more likely that they are simply being dogs.

The Problem With Dominance-Based Techniques

            Training tools and techniques that are used to show dominance over Screen Shot 2014-03-08 at 10.21.59 AMyour dog (like “alpha rolls”, “scruff shakes” or violent handling) only create more anxiety and fear for the dog.  These techniques are only teaching the dog to be afraid of the person that uses them which can really undermine the human-dog bond. 

            I suggest that we use gentler techniques that help the dog learn what is expected of them in a way that does not instill fear or anxiety.  Using programs that are free of dominance theory can only serve to increase the relationship between us and our dogs.



*Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987