Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
The Truth About Alpha Dogs
If you think your puppy thinks he’s an alpha dog, you may feel reassured knowing that the whole alpha stuff has been debunked courtesy of several studies and research on the topic.
Here’s the thing: In past decades, owners were often reminded of the importance of asserting their authority over their dogs because dogs were believed to otherwise take over the alpha role within their ‘pack,’ that is, the owner and family.
The basis of this theory was very popular in the past due to the fact that it was presumed that, since dogs are descended from wolves, their behaviors must have reflected wolf behaviors. Therefore, in order to attain authority, it was important for dog owners to obtain the alpha status since wolves in captivity were found to have an alpha in charge.
This belief led to decades of harsh training techniques including alpha rolls, scruff shakes and the adherence to several “pack rules” such as always eating before the dog, not allowing the dog on the bed, not letting dogs out of doorways first and not letting the dog walk in front of the owner.
Today, we, fortunately, have a better understanding of wolf and dog behavior compared to 30 years ago.
1. Dogs Are Not Wolves
Firstly, we know that dogs are not wolves; indeed, there are many differences between wolves and dogs. Courtesy of domestication, many changes have occurred in dogs both from a morphological and behavioral perspective.
So while it’s true that nowadays most scientists agree that our domesticated dog (Canis familiaris) descended from the wolf (Canis lupus), comparing our dogs to wolves is similar to comparing modern humans (Homo sapiens) to great apes.
2. Wolves Live as Families
Secondly, research by David Mech has revealed that the behaviors of wolves held in captivity were quite different than the behavior of free-roaming wolves previously studied by Shenkel.
Shenkel’s initial studies conducted on wolves in captivity demonstrated that groups of wolves living together were held in check by a strict pecking order enforced by the violent interactions between the alpha wolves and subordinates.
Mech’s studies on free-roaming wolves, on the other hand, revealed that the social structure of wolves living together were fundamentally family units with adult parents guiding their offspring. This latter study has therefore revolutionized how we interact with our dogs and train them.
When referring to Shenkel’s studies, Mech remarks: “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.”
3. Humans Are Not Dogs
Many may question: “If free-ranging dogs and wolves create dominance hierarchies among themselves, shouldn’t they apply those to humans as well?”
Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Amy Pike and licensed veterinary technician Jessey Scheip explains in an article for Veterinary Practice News: “No species in the animal kingdom creates dominance hierarchies with another species. When it comes to a dog’s response to its humans, dogs naturally defer to our wishes. If an owner believes a dog isn’t listening and following instructions, they should consider possible reasons why and remove the idea of a “dominant dog” from the list.”
It all boils down to this. Dogs know for a fact that we are humans and not dogs and relate to us accordingly. Their powerful noses know that we don’t smell like dogs.
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Research has shown that dogs respond to our pointing gestures, gaze into our eyes and interact with us humans in the same way toddlers do with their parents. Even when given the opportunity to pick their kind, dogs prefer to rely on us humans for both affection and protection.
Even when humans and dogs live together, it’s unlikely to be considered a functional pack. “There really are no data to support that a dog or two living with humans really form a tight multispecies working pack in the same sense as do some free-ranging dogs or their wild relatives,” points out Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado.
Far too many times dog owners have been given advice to “show the dog who’s boss” and “be the alpha.” The unfortunate side effect of this thinking is that it creates an adversarial relationship between the owner and their dog… Such misinformation damages the owner-dog relationship, and may lead to fear, anxiety and/or aggressive behaviors from the dog.
— The Association of Professional Dog Trainers
So Why Does My Puppy Act Like He’s Alpha?
So if dogs aren’t alpha as we used to believe, why do they sometimes act like they are vying for the top position? For instance, why does my puppy growl at me when he has a bone? Isn’t that a sign that he thinks he is alpha and is protecting a resource from me?
It sure looks that way, but there are other dynamics going on. For sure, if we see a toddler holding tight to a doll and saying something along the lines of: “It’s mine! Don’t touch it!”, we would never think she’s doing so because she is an alpha wannabe! There are other dynamics at play.
A Matter of Mistrust
In a puppy growling over a bone, the growling is more likely triggered by the fear of losing access to a resource more than anything. Perhaps, he was subjected to situations that made him feel insecure such as owners petting him while eating or repeatedly removing his food bowl just to test him.
Owners often do not realize that these exact behaviors can trigger resource guarding in puppies, although they think instead they are discouraging it.
When a puppy growls or snaps and the person or other dog retreats, the growling and snapping behavior is reinforced, and therefore, the puppy will be more likely to use that strategy again next time he feels threatened by a person coming too close to his food.
Soon, a vicious cycle forms, with the person challenging the puppy and the puppy reacting with the behavior escalating more and more as the trust of people near him while he eats decreases.
The resolution of the program is therefore not a rank-reduction program, but rather a behavior modification that through desensitization and counterconditioning aims to teach the puppy that, when people come close to him, they are not attempting to steal his food, but actually want to start adding delicacies to his plate.
It may help to tell clients that messing with a dog’s food bowl when he is trying to eat is like somebody messing with your plate or petting your head when you are trying to eat dinner. Nobody likes that. However, you may be more tolerant, maybe even look forward to the person approaching if you know that the person was going to give you a small bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy ice cream every time approached.
— Dr. Albright, veterinary behaviorist
A History of Punishment
Sometimes puppies may appear to behave as “alpha” when they have a history of being physically reprimanded (scruff shakes, alpha rolls, muzzle grabs) or being subjected to punitive training methods.
These puppies or dogs though aren’t truly being alpha, but they are simply engaging in defensive aggression. In other words, they are just trying to defend themselves from actions that cause them to feel uneasy or threatened. Such puppies often fear their owners.
A typical example is a puppy or dog who has engaged in some undesirable behavior and the owner intervenes by physically correcting the puppy. The puppy may initially try to flee or hide or show appeasing body language to avoid the confrontation, but being cornered, with this flight instinct removed, he may engage in a fight.
So the puppy or dog may bare teeth or try to snap, which may be perceived by the owner as the pup’s way to challenge him when the puppy is really only trying to defend himself and get out of a scary situation unharmed.
According to a study conducted by Herron M.E., Shofer F.S., Reisner I.R. 2009, it was found that several confrontational methods such as alpha rolling, scruff shaking or kicking a dog for undesirable behavior, elicited an aggressive response from at least a quarter of the dogs.
These researchers, therefore, pointed out the risks associated with such training methods emphasizing the importance of gentle guidance and safe management of behavior problems.
In conclusion, confrontational methods applied by dog owners before their pets were presented for a behavior consultation were associated with aggressive responses in many cases. It is thus important for primary care veterinarians to advise owners about risks associated with such training methods and provide guidance and resources for safe management of behavior problems.
— Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Meghan E.Herron et al.
Lack of Training
If my puppy is walking in front of me on walks, jumping on me, nipping me or pushing me out of the way to get out the door, doesn’t that still make him an alpha? If not an alpha, then why is he engaging in these behaviors?
Often, behaviors that new puppy owners may believe stem from a “desire to be alpha” simply stem from a lack of training. Here’s the thing: puppies raised without any sort of training or guidance will potentially develop into dogs who instinctively give in to their instinctive impulses.
This means that they will pull on the leash, jump on people and steal food on counters because they haven’t learned any better.
It’s sort of like a toddler who grows up with zero guidance and therefore is allowed to grab people’s possessions, interrupt adults who are talking, throw temper tantrums, draw on walls, never sit still and toss toys around. Not good!
Of course, once again, we would never think toddlers are acting like alphas in these cases! Same in dogs.
With the newer research, it was therefore discovered that dogs who pull on leash aren’t doing so because they are alpha, but just because they are eager to sniff or meet other dogs or pull; dogs who jump on people aren’t doing so to attain higher rank, but just to say hello or gain attention; and dogs who push you out of the way just do so because you’re in the way of whatever they are trying to approach. Sort of like a child who cannot contain his excitement and has poor impulse control.
In simple words, dogs behave the way they do because they just act out their impulses and training is just that, a way to teach dogs better impulse control and better frustration tolerance.
So next time you think your puppy or dog is alpha, remember that your canine companion has no desire to become “pack leader” and take control over your life. Rather than considering a rank reduction program, therefore consider instilling a foundation of trust and aim to train your dog with gentle methods, while also ensuring you meet his physical, emotional and mental needs.
From a practical point of view, there’s absolutely no reason for a human being to think that they have to be the “alpha” individual and dominate their dog by training or forcing them to submit and change their behavior.
— Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
- Herron M.E., Shofer F.S., Reisner I.R. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 117, pp. 47-54.
- Mech L.D. 2008. What ever happened to the term alpha wolf? International Wolf.
- Mech. L. D. (1999) “Alpha, status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs.” Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77 (8) (1999), p. 1198, 1200.
- Mech. L. D. (2000) “Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs. Canadian Field-Naturalist” 114(2):259-263. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
- Dominance in Dogs, by Barry Eaton
- Expression Studies on Wolves, Captivity Observations, Robert Shenkel, 1947
- Dominant Alpha Humans Don’t Garner Dogs’ Respect and Trust, Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
- Veterinary Practice News: Dog and cat behavior myths debunked, by Amy L. Pike, DVM, DACVB, IAABC-CABC, and Jessey Scheip, LVT, KPA-CTP
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 27, 2020:
alexadry Interesting about being the Alpha dog. You give interesting facts and a lot to know about this fascinating topic.
FlourishAnyway from USA on November 24, 2020:
You explained this well, and I’m glad you emphasized that the information regarding the aggressive alpha behavior vis-a-vis being related to the wolf is unfounded and harmful to the poor pup. There are lots of potential explanations for behavior, and I like how you stepped through this and dispelled myths. It will lead to better treatment of animals.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on November 24, 2020:
I think every dog is different and if people who adopt a puppy read this article they might realise how they should adjust their thinking to ensure that they raise a well mannered dog in a safe manner. Most dogs I have been around always look to their owner for guidance and have been very well mannered.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 23, 2020:
I always enjoy learning about dog behavior by reading your articles. They are very informative. The comparison between dogs and wild versus captive wolves was interesting.
James C Moore from Joliet, IL on November 23, 2020:
I’ve been around two dogs who displayed aggressive alpha personality traits. I never thought they’re trying to be boss. Dogs like people have different personality types.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 23, 2020:
Hi Heidi, yes, we must provide our dogs with training and guidance so to help them make the right choices as much as possible without the use of domination or intimidation. This way we can get their trust and respect. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 23, 2020:
Hi Peggy, I often compare dogs to human toddlers also because a dog’s mental abilities have been found to be on par with those of a child who is age 2 to 2.5 years old.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 23, 2020:
Hi Pamela, yes, training can do wonders. Dogs who aren’t trained are clueless about what we expect from them and will just act impulsively. Once we show them what we would like them to do it’s as if a lightbulb turns on and it makes sense for them.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 23, 2020:
100%! We’ve observed authoritative/submissive behaviors in our dogs, and may call him or her alpha or beta. But I think it’s more of, “Who’s the leader?” That’s less of an aggressive alpha thing, and more of a family thing.
Our females, surprisingly, have exhibited more leader/alpha traits than our boys. But I attribute that more to female “mom” or resident dog status than anything else.
As for humans and dogs together, I wouldn’t say I’m the alpha, but the leader. Hubby is more one of the pack of playmates. So I think this whole alpha issue is more of a family structure (like you mentioned about the wild wolves, as opposed to a hierarchy of dominance.
Great info, as always. Thanks for all you share! Happy Thanksgiving!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 23, 2020:
You always provide such good information in your articles about dog training. This one would be good for all puppy owners to read. Comparing them to human toddlers is smart. Both need to learn the rules of behavior as they grow and mature.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 23, 2020:
This is a very good, interesting article, Adrienna. I never really thought much about the alpha dog but there is sure a lot to consider. Training makes all the difference with a dog or cat really if you don’t want them to tear up furniture or even a pair of socks. Thanks for all this information.