Though they may not know it by name, just about every dog owner encounters the Alpha theory at some point. Have you ever heard someone chock unwanted behaviors up to a dog thinking he or she is alpha? Or explain that poor behaviors are a challenge against the owner for the alpha role? And of course the solution to these issues would be for the owner to assert their dominance by staring down, overpowering and even inflicting pain on their dog to “put it in its place”. After all, the Alpha of the pack has first dibs and full control over all the resources, like the owner of a well trained dog.
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The Alpha theory was widely normalized to the point of becoming commonplace in the american household thanks to Cesar Millan, or as most know him from his prime time TV show, “The Dog Whisperer”. To this day Millan promotes the alpha theory. But the alpha theory is critically flawed. The alpha theory comes from the late Rudolph Schenkel, an animal behaviorist who published the “Expression Studies on Wolves” in 1947¹. Schenkel set out to identify the “sociology of the wolf” by observing a wolves in captivity in Switzerland's Zoo Basel. These wolves were not kin, but rather thrown into captivity from various packs. It was in this study, Schenkel identified the wolf pack ranking system and the role of the Alpha Male and Alpha Female.
Why is this a critical flaw? Observing unrelated wolves, forced into captivity to identify the “Sociology of the wolf” is like Observing a prison to identify the “Sociology of the human”. There is nothing natural about these scenarios, prison and a zoo, and to project the findings of this one study from 1947, on the behavior of the wolves descendants, domesticated 20,000 to 40,000 years ago² is down right unethical.
In 1999, Biologist and Wolf expert L. David Mech, a long time supporter of the Alpha Theory, published a different study on Wolf Sociology titled Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs³. Mech’s study observed wolf packs in the wild, unlike the man made scenario Schenkel observed in the 1940’s. Mech’s conclusion was pivotal and disproved his previous beliefs of the Alpha role.
Mech wrote; “Even the much-touted wolf dominance hierarchy is primarily a natural reflection of the age, sex, and reproductive structure of the group, with the breeding male dominating all others posturally and the breeding female garnering food from the male while she is tending young pups. The typical wolf pack, then, should be viewed as a family with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group and sharing group leadership in a division-of-labor system in which the female predominates primarily in such activities as pup care and defense and the male primarily during foraging and food-provisioning and the travels associated with them.”
In his own words;
“The term alpha isn’t really accurate when describing most of the leaders of wolf packs. The term implies the wolves fought, and competed strongly to get to the top of the pack. In actuality, the way they get there is merely by mating with a member of the opposite sex, producing a bunch of offspring, which are the rest of the pack, and becoming the natural leaders that way. Just like a pair of humans producing a family.
Instead of using the term Alpha for a wolf, instead of saying Alpha Male and Alpha Female, scientists now tend to call wolves like that the Breeding Male and the Breeding Female, or you can call them the Mother Wolf and the Father Wolf, there's really nothing wrong with that. Those are much better terms, and more accurate terms, than the term Alpha.
Actually, I’m very much to blame for the term Alpha being used with wolves. I published a book in 1970, that now has over 110,000 copies in circulation, and in that I labeled the top wolf of the pack. I did that because at that time, that's all that science knew. But, we’ve learned a lot. That book was published in 1970, and in the 35 years since that time we’ve learned an awful lot. One of the things we learned is that the term alpha is really incorrect when applied to most wolf pack leaders.”⁴
Clearly Biologists studying wolves have moved on from the Alpha Theory over 20 years ago, so why are shoddy dog trainers still applying it to dogs? Calling on research from 1947 that has since been strongly superseded, these individuals use Alpha theory to make a quick buck, forcing dogs into compliance through fear and pain - seemingly quick fixes that are detrimental, dangerous, and downright abuse. But that's a lesson for another day.
As for Cesar Millan, Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Dodman said it best. Cesar Milan and the National Geographic Channel have put dog training back 20 years. At Pawsome University, we favor behavioral science over showmanship.
Until next week, class dismissed.
- John Caponetta
¹ https://archive.org/details/SchenkelCaptiveWolfStudy.comp ressed/mode/2up