Alpha and Pack Training Philosophies

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Renowned Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist talks with WagBrag

Wagbrag is excited to publish an exclusive interview with John Wright, Ph.D., a renowned Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.    Susan Giordano, Wagbrag’s expert on dog training and behavior modification, recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Wright about several animal behavior topics.  The topic below, Alpha and Pack Training Philosophies, is the 2nd article in a  two part series describing our conversation with Dr. Wright.

Dr. Wright is presently a Professor of Psychology at Mercer University. He is an ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (1991), and a Charter Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (1988).  As a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Dr. Wright holds a highly exclusive designation requiring an advanced degree (Ph.D. or DVM), as well as hands-on experience as a practitioner, adherence to ethical standards and regular publication on related topics.

Dr. Wright offers dog and cat behavior seminars and workshops across the nation.  He has spoken internationally to the National Dog Warden’s Association (UK) and to several organizations within the U.S., including The American Veterinary Medical Association and the National Animal Control Association.  Dr. Wright also has a successful veterinary referral house-calls practice in Atlanta (since 1980).

Question & Answers From Alpha and Leader of the Pack Theories

Q –  Susan: Some of the popular dog trainer personalities on TV today, most notably Cesar Millan, support the Alpha Theory and / or the Leader of the Pack philosophy as the basis for their training methods.  What are your thoughts on this philosophy?

A – Dr. Wright:  There is an assumption that the way we train our dogs should relate to how dogs perceive the world.  Sometimes our notions of how dogs perceive the world are based on faulty ideas about wolf behavior.  People may use these kinds of theories to try and understand, or interpret, the way dogs perceive their relationships with people as well as other dogs.

One of those faulty areas of interpretation has to do with alpha theory and leader of the pack philosophies.  The early literature on social organization of wolves painted the picture that there was an alpha wolf, and that all the other wolves tried to get to the top in their lifetime.  The notion that the wolves needed to access the best of everything by becoming alpha has somehow translated itself into how domesticated dogs perceive their social relationships with other dogs.  Advocates of these pack theories reason that since dogs cannot assimilate our human perceptions and understanding of the world, we must view it through the lens of the dog’s viewpoint.

So, let’s take an example.  If a dog is developing a relationship with another dog that deals with a dominant and subordinate role, then the behaviors that the dog exhibits will either be assertive behaviors, in which case the dog will occupy a dominant role, or submissive behaviors, in which case the dog will occupy a subordinate role. The common misunderstanding about those relationships are that they are necessarily forceful; in other words, that it’s a forced compliance that allows one to occupy the subordinate role.  That’s not necessarily the case.

What does this mean for training?  If there happen to be a couple of dogs in the household, or the pet guardian is working on their relationship with their own dog, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the best way to train the dog is to use alpha techniques.  Using the techniques that wolves employ to occupy social roles, such as being heavy handed, pinning the dog to the ground or using scruff shakes, is not necessarily the correct way to train your dog.

Sometimes, dogs don’t seem to play by the dominant/subordinate rules, and they form other kinds of social roles, like leaders and followers.  The recent clamor amongst some trainers has been to establish a “leader/follower” role, where you’re the leader and the dog is the follower.  Alternatively, you may take on a caretaker role, where you’re taking care of the dog, and the dog then is a little bit more compliant in that regard.

So it depends on how you believe the dog sees the relationship in the family.  I think successful dog training requires treating dogs in a way that gives them information on how they can succeed, rather than sending the message to the dog that “humans are all-powerful and what we say goes, and if you don’t comply with that I will make you comply by pinning you to the ground”.

Those kinds of alpha behaviors are likely to exacerbate any kind of fear or defensive behavior that may already be present in the dog, and can even instigate a confrontation between you and your dog.  You want to show the dog what the rules are for success, so they do not feel uncertain and ambivalent.  You’re both on the same page in this, and you’re both in the family together.

I don’t think the alpha theory is necessarily a good way to go.  I’m not certain there is a “leader of the pack” either.  I think there is probably a leader in each social relationship you have with your dog.  There is no hierarchy that one needs to assume, but as long as you are the leader and the dog is follower, I think you’ll get some very nice relationships out of that kind of scenario as you are raising your pup.

The same thing can be said about dog-dog relationships.  Perhaps one dog might be a little bit strong-handed to another, and then it’s up to you to interfere with that and interrupt it, to help reestablish a situation where both dogs can win, and one dog isn’t completely being picked on by another.  That’s not to say that a certain amount of heavy play shouldn’t go on; I think it should because it is a good way for dogs to establish access to each other.  However, it is not necessarily the case that one is trying to be alpha over the other.  On a final note, you should intervene at certain times so one dog doesn’t become omega, with everyone picking on him or her just because it’s allowed and accepted.  It’s up to the person in the family to prevent this situation .

Q – Susan:  I understand that the alpha theory came about because someone observed wolves in captivity, and that’s where the forcefulness was observed.  This may have led to the belief that you are supposed to alpha roll and pin the dog to the ground to get them to behave.  In reality, wolves in the wild live in a family-type atmosphere and are peaceful by nature.  Is that correct?

A – Dr. Wright:  I think that the first statement is true.  When you read the literature from Erich Klinghammer or Lorenz  and some of those individuals, you get the idea that there is constant battle for top position.  Especially in dog parks, where you have limited acreage and there is no way that the captive wolves can really regulate social distance, you’re going to get an artifact of that situation.

That doesn’t mean that those behaviors aren’t real; they certainly are.  So to completely suggest that this is not part of wolf behavior is equally wrong. You did get that kind of wolf behavior; it wasn’t the kind of ecology that wolves were evolved to live in, but once you get them in that location I think that it can be instructive.  When you get into too high of a density situation of dogs and people in neighborhoods, sometimes these kinds of behaviors will present themselves.  As you mentioned, Susan, it’s true that wolves, as well as in most other social animals, live within a social organization that is mostly benign and helpful.   That being said, there are some situations where you do see competition over resources, and some individual animals are the ones who prevail and gain access to these resources.

We see the same kind of thing in our dogs occasionally, and that’s where Applied Animal Behaviorists come in and try to help set the record straight and allow the dogs to have certain resources, but within the confines of the  family rules.  That doesn’t mean that strong-arming or hurting the dog is the way to enforce that.

So, I think the notion that wolves are not aggressive animals comes from a very idealistic setting where the wolves have the ability to use all of the resources available to them to regulate their social distance and so on, but the question is – what’s going to happen when those resources run out, people move in, and now you have a higher density situation?  Then you’re going to start to see more of an approximation to the captive wolf parks and those kind of high density situations that produce the initial dominant/subordinant role-related aggression behaviors, such as the behaviors that we saw early on in those studies.  So it’s an interesting question and I don’t have a definitive answer on it.  I don’t think that information is totally faulty, it’s just different.

Q – Susan: Let’s discuss setting rules and boundaries in the household and being a “benevolent leader”.  In my opinion, this is the way to go. I believe that people often misread their dogs and think they are trying to do something that they are not.   I can’t tell you how often I hear from clients that their dog is trying to dominate them.  Most recently, a client in puppy class told me that she thought her puppy was trying to dominate her because he wasn’t eliminating where she wanted him too.  Now this puppy was literally shivering in her arms.  Your thoughts?

A – Dr. Wright:  Oh gosh,  I really think that is a misperception. I get this all the time too.  Just help them focus on the things you DO want them to do, and give them new ways to look at the dog.  But I think that you’re right.  People see dominance in their puppy when it’s probably the farthest thing from the dog’s mind and not the behavior the pup is exhibiting.   People just continue to hear the popular messages about how you’re supposed to dominate your dog – show him that you are the leader, pin the dog to the ground, make sure the dog knows you’re alpha and that any barking or non-compliance is met with that kind of assertiveness, and so forth.   That is just so counter-productive.  It’s likely to hurt the dog’s behavioral style and even temperament down the road, and it certainly won’t help his relationship with you or with other people the dog comes across, because it establishes confrontation.  You want to establish a relationship where the dog trusts you, looks to you for information, and looks to people as individuals who signal something that feels good – not something that feels bad.

I think the last thing I should mention is the situation where dogs are clearly signaling fear and they’ve been abused or punished by their owners. The owners think that the dog is trying to establish dominance, when in reality the dog is just scared to death and defending themselves.  The more heavy-handed the owner gets, the more defensive aggression you’re going to see.  I think that’s a strong point to make here.  I see a number of times where the owner misperceives what the that dogs are truly signaling with their communicative behavior.

Photo:  Courtesy of JohnGoode via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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Susan Giordano is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer and owner of K9U Training. She is a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). Susan graduated from Pat Miller’s Peaceable Paws Intern Academy, one of the country’s most respected and comprehensive dog trainer programs. Susan believes in doing no harm, emotionally or physically. Dog training should be fun and pain-free for all involved, dogs and humans. To learn more about Susan, please visit www.k9utraining.com

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