The Myth of the Alpha Dog

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. 


16 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

    • Joe says:

      Here’s another article with research references for anybody interested in reading more.

    • of course not It is all BS started by this guy Mech. Alpha “theory” s not a theory but an observable fact. This Mech guy is talking about family units of wolves. Such a family unit is one form of a pack which canines create. That does not mean that family is the ONLY type of pack canines will create. For canines, it is a matter of survival to create groups. Just because Mech saw these groups to be family units does not mean that random canines will not also stay in group. Such a group then inevitably needs to have a leader. Such is inevitable. To deny that is only due to a lack of understanding of the basics as described by me above. Sometimes I wonder about people how they can look at a pack of wolfs and dogs with a clearly designated leader and say that it is not a pack with a clearly designated leader. Such is amazing to me that people will deny what is clearly in front of them. I am posting a picture of a structure of the pack which I am sure you will mind-numbingly say it had been “debunked” LOL I do not care about that though, because I CLEARLY SEE A PACK OF WOLVES WITH A LEADER. I do not necessarily agree with the description of the first 3 wolves because I know that they are not the weakest. How do I know that? If you ever walked on snowshoes or on cross country skis through snow, then you will know that it is extremally tiring to break a trail. That is why the weak canines would not be in front. In front are the most vigorous ones – not necessarily a leader. In any case, pack is a pack, and to deny that such exists with it’s hierarchy is – well not very smart.

    • Iavor says:

      This is exceptionally incorrect and explains exactly why so many dogs out there are living unhappy life strapped to a leash where they have zero structure and purpose in life. I have had many dogs in my life exercise Alpha with each one of them and if had nothing but an ultra positive relationship of love respect trust obedience reward and protection from each and every one of them. And I have seen nothing but chaos and disastrous dog behavior from those who felt understand that in each species of animal alpha is key. Furthermore anyone who understands the alpha concepts will never involve choke collars and other methods used to subdue purposeless lost dogs as they know these names are uselese

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

  4. Ralph Chesser says:

    This is all so wrong, especially concerning breeds suck as Jack Russell Terriors. They do have a pack mentality and generally want to be the alpha dog. Where do they get this BS from?

    • Megan says:

      They got it through careful observation and study. Just because some dogs are more outgoing or social than others does not mean they ‘want to be the alpha dog’. While I disagree that pinch/e-collars are evil (they do have a purpose and a correct time/place for usage) I also agree that the majority of basic training for most dogs can be done with positive methods. No, you don’t need to pin or ‘alpha roll’ your dog; that’s dangerous and counterproductive. It isn’t about dominance; it never has been. It’s been about socialization, tolerance, and stability.

    • Kristi says:

      So if a dog is only aggressive towards another dog out of fear, what explains the reasoning behind a dog repeatedly attacking another dog within the same household, unprovoked? As in one dog is outside, the other dog goes outside, sees first dog and immediately charges dog and attacks (the first dog has not made any type of eye contact or growling to provoke the aggression). But gets along with all other dogs in the same household.

  5. John says:

    I’ve read few other articles claiming the same thing. We have 3 min pins. 2 of our females that have lived together over 5 years are now have vicious fights with one requiring stitches on 3 occasions now. We met with the behavior trainer at our local vet and her entire spew was about alpha dogs in the pack. Honestly I disagreed with many thing she said even though our vet (which has been phenomenal) highly recommended here. Id be very interested in seeing some peer reviewed research on this subject and recent research on the alpha dog subject in general regardless of pro/con. Our your thoughts the general accepted theory or the minority in the scientific community?

  6. J Child says:

    I have just come across this. Under what theory so you debunk the pack leadership science? None of what is written makes sense. I am shocked you are a behaviourist. This is utter nonsense with no evidence to back up claims. Science is science what you have written is fiction.

    • Hannah says:

      You aren’t a behaviourist. These people actually went to school for animal behavior and just because you watched a tv show that says different doesn’t mean you’re right. A simple google search of debunking the alpha roll will pop up with multiple reputible sources that back her claims. Well educated dog trainers don’t follow pack mentality! If you worked in the animal industry you would know that.

  7. Derek says:

    Being the “alpha” doesn’t necessarily mean being “dominant”. Being “Alpha” means being the provider. As the human, you provide everything for the dog: love, attention, praise, reward, food, water, room to run and play, a walk, etc. So the best way to get a dog to follow your lead is to 1) provide all of the above 2) not allow the dog to attain any of the above without you being the provider. Once you establish yourself as the provider, then the dog will naturally follow you, thus you are the “alpha”. If you don’t provide structure, affection, food/water, play, etc… the dog will seek that out on it’s own. A “bad dog” who steals your supper off the dinner table 1) doesn’t see you as the provider &/or 2) doesn’t get it’s needs met. A “bad dog” who eats the furniture isn’t getting it’s play needs met.

  8. Lily Safi says:

    Hi, sir, I’ve read few other articles claiming the same thing. We have 3 min pins. 2 of our females that have lived together over 5 years are now have vicious fights with one requiring stitches on 3 occasions now. We met with the behavior trainer at our local vet and her entire spew was about alpha dogs in the pack. Honestly, I disagreed with many things she said even though our vet (which has been phenomenal) highly recommended here. I’d is very interested in seeing some peer-reviewed research on this subject and recent research on the alpha dog subject in general regardless of pro/con. Are your thoughts on the generally accepted theory or the minority in the scientific community?

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