The Myth of Alpha – Part 2

The following is from When Elephants Weep by Masson and McCarthy (words in brackets are mine):

In recent years the idea of the dominance hierarchy has become more controversial, with some scientists asking if such hierarchies are real or a product of human expectation … Some ethologists now argue that while dominance relationships [Rex is more dominant than Spike] may be real, dominance ranks [Spike knows that Rex is alpha and he’s beta] are not.

The authors go on to say that scientists have now found that “pecking orders” don’t necessarily exist in all chicken groups (which is where the whole thing started in the first place), and that some social hierarchies, previously thought to be ruled by the alpha male are actually controlled by a middle-ranking female! Some alpha theorists are now saying that there isn’t just one alpha wolf in a pack, but there may be anywhere from three to five who are “alpha” under different circumstances. To me this is completely illogical.

I’ve found that there are three fatal flaws in the alpha theory—three ideas that, when analyzed properly, don’t make any sense.

Flaw #1 – You Can’t Pee on a Concept

Remember what Stanley Coren said about forcing a dog over on her back every day? (See The Myth of Alpha (Part 1). He said that this position “signifies submission to the authority of a dominant member of the pack.” But dogs don’t think symbolically. They don’t use signifiers. To a dog, a thing is what it is and that’s all that it is. It never stands for something else. Alpha is only a designation; a way scientists have of representing or signifying an animal’s rank or status within the social hierarchy. But rank, status, role, and hierarchy are all concepts, symbols, or designations. They are not tangible, sniffable, audible, or visible, which means that they can’t exist in a dog’s mind. After all, you can’t bite, sniff, chase, lick, or pee on a concept.

Some might say that when a dog chases a tennis ball it signifies (or represents) a squirrel or other prey animal. But is that really the case? If we look for the simplest explanation, we see that a dog’s hunting instinct is hard-wired to respond to anything moving in a certain way. Think of a puppy on his first walk. Even if he’s never seen a pigeon before, the moment he sees a leaf or a bit of paper caught in an updraft he starts to chase it. The leaf doesn’t symbolize or represent a pigeon to the dog (especially if he’s never seen one before). He chases it only because it’s moving in a way that automatically stimulates an unconscious, genetic reflex. But (some might ask) couldn’t the recognition of rank and status also be instinctive and genetic? Couldn’t the dog’s brain be hard-wired for that as well?

No, because there’s a huge difference between an instinct and the ability to think symbolically. For one thing, instincts originate in the hypothalamus and symbolic thinking originates in the frontal lobes. A dog’s brain has a hypothalamus, but his frontal lobes (if they could even be called that) are small and undeveloped. In The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain, Terrence Deacon, a leading neuroscientist and evolutionary anthropologist, writes, “Species that have not acquired the ability to communicate symbolically cannot have acquired the ability to think this way either.” It should be clear that dogs can’t recognize symbols or designations. Without this inherent cerebral ability to think symbolically, how can a dog relate to things like rank and status? He can’t. He simply doesn’t have the type of brain nor the accompanying cognitive architecture to process them.

So we have to ask ourselves this: when one dog acts submissively towards another is he doing it because a) he recognizes the other dog’s rank and status? Or because b) he recognizes that the other dog is stronger physically or emotionally? The answer is probably b. We could go even further and say that the dog doesn’t even recognize, cognitively, the other dog’s superior emotional and physical strength, he only senses it or feels it. This makes more sense, and yet we could go even further than that—and in so doing be much closer to the truth—and say the dog isn’t even able to feel or sense the other dog’s superiority. All he can really do is feel the changes in his own temperament when the two come into contact. Still, no matter how specifically we want to look at this, we have to realize, once and for all, that there can never be any recognition or awareness in a dog’s mind of his own or of anyone else’s rank or status in the pack.

Flaw #2 – There Are No Cocktail Bars in Nature

Alpha theorists seem to think that dominance is the defining characteristic of the pack instinct when it’s really just a secondary aspect of the sex drive (the primary one being the actual, physical act of mating). It also may have an influence on two other survival behaviors-eating and sleeping—but let’s look at the reproductive aspect first:

The main manifestation of the dominant/submissive polarity in animal behavior comes when two sexual rivals vie for the right to breed with an available partner. This rivalry can only take place between two males or between two females, but never between a male and a female. And never, ever, between a dog and a human. (This behavior occurs in all species, by the way, not just canines. Think of two rams butting heads, for example, or two guys in a bar fighting over a cocktail waitress.) A second manifestation occurs when a dam steals pups from her less dominant counterpart to raise with her own litter. In some cases—such as when food is scarce—a dominant female may even kill a rival’s newborn pups.

There are two other situations where dominance may rightly be said to occur. One is a rivalry over food. The other relates to the best place for sleeping. Still, these are both survival, not social behaviors, because food and sleep are necessary for survival.

Keep in mind however, that whenever dominant behavior does occur it has absolutely nothing to do with the pack instinct. Sex is not a social activity for animals—its only purpose is to insure the survival of the species; or more correctly, to insure the survival of the genetic code. Dogs and wolves—no matter how socially developed—are still just dogs and wolves. To them, sex is a completely asocial experience. There are no mixers, dating services, or cocktail bars in Nature.

Still, people often tell me, “My dog is alpha,” or, “My dog is very dominant.” This is simply not the case. The language needs to be more exact: the dog is simply “assertive”, not dominant, and definitely not alpha. When you act “dominant” toward a dog, he can only experience what you’re doing as aggression. This is a popular training technique (or used to be), but not a good one.

Flaw #3 – “Let’s Get Together and Kill Us a Moose”

What really sets dogs and wolves apart from other social animals is not the pack hierarchy but how they hunt. The fact is, the pack instinct only exists to enable canines to hunt large prey by working together as a cooperative social unit.

According to Ray Coppinger, co-author of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding, when wolves settle near a garbage dump, and are able to scavenge for a living, rather than having to hunt large prey, the pack’s “social structure” becomes much less clearly defined. Other wild canids, such as coyotes and jackals, only form packs when the conditions in their environment make it necessary for them to hunt large prey in order to survive. When they don’t need to hunt large prey, they don’t form packs. It’s also notable that lions are the only social cats in nature, and they hunt in a similar manner to the way wolves chase and ambush large prey. Meanwhile, the wild dogs of Africa, who are so distantly related to dogs, genetically speaking, that they’re practically not a member of the same family, not only hunt large prey as a pack, they also hunt small prey this way as well. And they’re the most social mammals on the planet.

The question becomes obvious: is there a direct correlation between sociability and the canine prey drive? The answer should be just as obvious—yes there is.

When you look at the alpha fallacy with these three flaws in mind, it makes no sense. No wonder some ethologists are starting to question it. Now, some alpha theorists are suggesting that there isn’t just one alpha wolf, there may be as many as five of or six! How much sense does this make to you? However, if you begin to look at the pack from the point of view of a new scientific discipline called Emergence Theory, which began to develop in the late 1950s, you may begin to understand that the pack is not a top-down hierarchy, but a bottom-up heterarchy. Knowing this may totally change how you relate to and train your dog.

See The Myth of Alpha (Part 1) by the author.




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