The Myth of Alpha – Part 1

The idea that dogs follow the pack leader first began to take shape in the 1920s when ethologists (biologists who study animal behavior) discovered pecking orders in chicken coops. They began looking for similar social organizations in other species. They found what they were looking for and began to call these groups, dominance hierarchies. This idea really took off in the dog world after former Nazi, Konrad Lorenz, won a Nobel prize in biology for his observations and theories about canines, most of which have been invalidated by modern DNA. (His belief that Germans were the “master race” was also invalidated.)

One result of the theory was the creation of a certain mindset in dog trainers, which has resulted in some pretty horrific training advice. For example, “How hard should you hit your dog?” ask the Monks of New Skete in How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend: Their answer? “If she doesn’t yelp in pain, you haven’t hit her hard enough.” They also recommend throwing your dog on her back and yelling “No!” in her face to correct bad behavior. This is known as the alpha wolf rollover and is supposedly what alpha wolves do to enforce their authority. (The monks have since backed down on this technique, calling it dangerous to the handler, though still ignoring the fact that it’s just plain mean to the dog.) In The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren gives us a “kinder, gentler” version of this exercise, asserting: “You should deliberately manipulate and restrain your dog on a regular basis, placing it in a position that, for wild canids, signifies submission to the authority of a dominant member of the pack.” He goes on to suggest periodically forcing your dog onto her back while lifting one of her legs in the air. According to Coren, this shows the dog that you’re alpha, and is supposed to create a better relationship with your dog.

Around the same time that I first read Coren’s advice, I saw a documentary about wolves on TV. At one point in the film a papa wolf led his pups out of the den, began to play with them, and then rolled over on his back, supposedly “signifying submission”. He then encouraged them to jump on his stomach and chest and even allowed them to nip at his ears and nose. This was enormously fun to watch because it put both papa and progeny in a happy, joyous emotional state.

So, who’s right, here? Stanley Coren and those brutal, sadistic monks? Or the papa wolf?

After thinking about this for a while I decided-just as an experiment-to do the exact, polar opposite of what Coren had suggested. If the alpha theory were true, I would be creating problems by allowing my dog Freddie—an un-neutered male Dalmatian—to think he was the pack leader, right? But what would happen if the alpha theory were false? I wanted to find out. So I got down on my hands and knees and began wrestling with Fred; growling at him and slapping him lightly (and sometimes not so lightly) on his sides, back, and haunches; getting him riled up. At one point, after he was really into roughhousing with me-jumping and twisting around, batting at me with his front paws, even nipping at my nose and ears, totally happy-I rolled over on my back.

“Oh, no!” I cried, acting submissive. “You got me! I surrender! You got me!”

And, just like the young wolves on TV, Freddie loved this game. It made him even happier.

Later on our evening walk, a funny thing happened: Freddie was twice as attentive and responsive as he had been before.

I’ve since done this exercise with a number of other dogs and I’ve gotten the same result. Dogs are always more obedient and quicker to respond after I’ve rolled over on my back and “pretended to be submissive.”

So what emotions did I actually stimulate in Freddie when I rolled over on my back? The desire to dominate me? I don’t think so. The need to be fed food treats? What food treats? Why did this game make Fred and all the other dogs I’ve tried it on so damn happy and so willing to obey me at the same time?

It stimulated and reinforced positive social feelings. It was fun. It was a game. It put us on the same level. It made the dogs confident, happy, and emotionally bonded in the most positive way possible. Did any of them suddenly think they were the alpha dog? Of course not. If they had, why would they then be so quick to obey me afterward instead of expecting me to obey them?

What, if anything, does this say about the alpha theory?

See The Myth of Alpha (Part 2) by the author.



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