From the DogStar Foundation:


Pack it in! the myth of the alpha dog

“He’s a alpha dog”, “She’s dominant”, “You have to be pack leader”

I’ve heard all these phrases this week – as I did last week and the week before! You only have to turn on the TV or look at the internet to find them, along with someone telling you that your dog is really just a wolf, needs a firm pack structure and that you have to be in charge otherwise your dog will think he is the pack leader and take over the household with disastrous consequences.

The problem is that all of this is nothing more than pop psychology based on false science. It continues because it is an easy concept for people with little knowledge to grasp and despite being totally disproven, there are enough grains of truth in there that people buy into it – and it is their dogs (and their relationship with their dogs) that suffer.

So let’s debunk this one!

First of all, dogs and wolves are totally different species. Think about humans and gorillas and you can kind of see what I mean! The best knowledge we have now is not that dogs descended from wolves but instead that dogs and wolves both descended from a common ancestor. Dogs threw  their lot in with man and evolved to live harmoniously with us and prosper from our success, while wolves developed as a wild species whose very existence depended on keeping as far from us as possible.

Even if (despite science!) you do still think that pack theory is a thing for dogs, its worth considering that wild wolves do not live in packs where a domineering pack leader constantly keeps everyone in line with displays of aggression and violence while everyone else battles for position (as was originally thought). Wild wolf packs are families. The alpha pair are indeed in charge but that is because they are the parents and all the rest are (quite rightly) guided by them.

Dogs do not live in a pack structure. Left to their own devices away from man and with adequate resources, they form loose social groups but not structured packs.

So for dogs, there is no such thing as an alpha dog – or a pack leader.

As for dominant dogs… The behaviours that most people think of as being ‘dominant’ are generally something totally different. Aggression is one of the behaviours that people categorise as a dog showing dominance. Aggression however is a high risk behaviour designed for one purpose and one purpose only – to make bad stuff go away. ‘Bad stuff’ for dogs are things that make them feel frightened, threatened, worried or stressed.

Dog to human aggression is fear of humans or what they will do
Dog to dog aggression is fear of strange dogs or what they will do
Resource guarding (guarding food or anything important to the dog) is fear of someone taking your stuff away
And sometimes aggression happens because a dog is sick or is in pain.

That means that the dogs that most people say are ‘dominant’ are actually the ones that are the most scared, frightened, worried, or anxious. And the methods used by people who don’t know any better to ‘stop a dog being dominant’ are generally things that make the dog feel even worse. Crazy isn’t it?

So let’s stop using pop psychology to try and understand our dogs, and instead spend time watching and really understanding them. Think about how they feel and how you can make them feel better.i

Don’t try to be a pack leader –  try to be a better guardian.

If you need help with your dog’s behaviour, look for a trainer who uses positive reward-based methods (where the dogs gets rewarded for doing things right, not punished when he does things wrong).

If they mention the phrases ‘pack leader’, ‘dominance’, ‘alpha’ – or suggest equipment that causes your dog pain such as choke chains, prong collars, electric shock collars etc – find another trainer. Your dog is your best friend – make sure you are his.

Carolyn Menteith KCAI (CDA), DipCAPT is a dog trainer, behaviourist and writer about all things canine.

As an internationally renowned dog expert and experienced broadcaster, she will be familiar to many in the UK from her appearances on TV in shows such as Top Dog, What’s Up Dog? and Celebrity Dog School. She is also a regular on radio programmes when a dog expert is needed

Carolyn gives seminars and teaches nationally and internationally on training and behaviour. 


10 responses to “The Myth of the Alpha Dog”

  1. Whatajoke says:

    Author keeps claiming science is on their side yet produces no science. Fact check this author. We have seen more and more of these ideologically motivated “journalists” make bogus claims or even provide bogus “science” that comes from selected sources that are in line with their ideological bias. Fact check this author at every turn.

    • Mike says:

      Did you fact check the author? If you did and didn’t provide citations you are guilty of what you accuse the author of. If you didn’t then you are, intentionally or not, spreading disinformation by implying she is wrong without proof.

      You are correct, citations should be provided but because the author doesn’t provide them doesn’t mean she is wrong.

      Your post does nothing to educate on the topic.

  2. Alice says:

    Hi, I’ve been having an ongoing discussion about this with some friends who refuse to believe this, do you have any links to published research I can show them please? They’re all high achieving academics who will only listen if I’ve absolute facts and figures to back up theories
    Thanks in advance

  3. […] Science has proven that dogs do not need an ‘alpha’ to lead them. Now that we know better, we should do better. […]

  4. Ellie Schmidt says:

    Hello Everyone,

    There has been several observational reviews as well as published peer reviewed studies looking at canine behavior in both free range dogs, domestic dogs, dogs of the same sex, neutered spayed/vs non neutered/spayed, different breeds vs mixed breeds, and wolves both in wild and captivity. The author here is simply asking us to question an antiquated cultural belief and misuse of the term “dominance” often used interchangeably with aggression that can become toxic when attempting to properly socialize your pet. Please take a look at the work of Dr. Susan Friedman, Clive Wynne, Harry Frank, Giada Cordoni,Rolf Peterson, John Bradshaw, Michael Shikashio, Wendy van Kerkhove,
    Below are a few studies to start with.

    van Kerkhove W. A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2004;7(4):279-85; discussion 299-300. doi: 10.1207/s15327604jaws0704_7. PMID: 15857815.
    Frank H, Frank M.G. On the effects of domestication on canine social development and behavior. Applied Animal Ethology. 1982;8:507–525
    Peterson R. O., Jacobs A. K., Drummer T. D., Mech L. D., Smith D. W. (2002). Leadership behavior in relation to dominance and reproductive status in gray wolves, Canis lupus. Can. J. Zool. 80, 1405–1412. 10.1139/z02-124
    Cordoni G., Palagi E. Reconciliation in wolves (Canis lupus): New evidence for a comparative perspective. Ethology. 2008;114:298–308. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2008.01474.x.

  5. Jack Lingwood says:

    “First of all, dogs and wolves are totally different species”

    They are both canis lupus.
    They can interbreed.

  6. […] Read Review 20 okt. 2017 — And sometimes aggression happens because a dog is sick or is in pain. That means that the dogs that most people say are ‘dominant’ are actually … W 15 […]

  7. […] popular culture, the term alpha dog is used carelessly, but it’s a faulty concept. The term was coined by a scientist who revoked his findings when he realized his observations were […]

  8. Val says:

    I don’t know what to believe. Yes, dogs and wolves can mate together because they are, like the Bible states, the “same kind.” Thank God men and apes cannot mate.

    This article makes a lot of sense to me. However, I somewhat believe dogs must have a level of respect for their human. Of course, I don’t believe in any mistreatment of dogs. I ADORE dogs and all kinds of animals. But, I’ve often heard of dog owners, especially women, who are so lax and passive with their dogs, so their dogs seem to test their limits. The women have tough times controlling them.

    I also want to know why dogs can start fighting and turning on each other in certain situations, but not in others.

    I know of a family who had pitbull dogs–all from the same parents. So, they all started as pups and grew up together. The mama dog was their first dog and was older than the father dog. It was assumed she is the “alpha dog.” When the dogs got bigger, two of the females got into a bad fight. The other siblings then jumped in and they were all attacking one of the females. They nearly killed her. The family could not separate them. They were horrified, crying and pleading with the mama dog to do something! Suddenly, SHE DID!!! She was able to stop the fight. It was amazing to the family!

  9. Val says:

    I also want to add that none of the pitbull dogs were abused or raised as fighting dogs. Not the least bit vicious. They were very much loved and had a nice, large backyard to play and romp in every day. They were also house dogs, but the family didn’t really train them, so they played hard and would tear up their toys etc. The dogs loved their human family, as well. But after the horrible fight, the family chose to carefully and responsibly rehome one of the female dogs. All of them were very pretty pitbulls, so the female dog got another great home fairly quickly.

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