We Don't Need no Stinkin' Alpha!

We Don't Need no Stinkin' Alpha!

The Mistake: Basing your relationship with your dog on being the "pack leader" or the "alpha". For years, dog owners have been told that the best, and according to some, the only way to have a well behaved dog is to be your dog's "pack leader". The basis for this so-called "pack theory" model of dog behavior is that dogs are still wolves at heart. And that because all members of a wolf pack supposedly obey, give into, and acquiesce to the "pack leader" or "alpha male", your dog should do the same toward you.

In order to acquire and maintain your "dominant status", this model goes on to say, certain rules must be followed. The rules vary among individual advocates of this model, but often include many of the following:

  • Your dog should never be allowed to go ahead of you on walks;
  • Your dog should never go through doors before you;
  • Never feed your dog before the family eats;
  • Do not allow your dog on the bed or the furniture;
  • Don't play tug with your dog;
  • Never respond to your dog's attempts to initiate play, to ask for attention or to be petted.

Some beliefs about how to establish "dominance" are quite bizarre. They include following your dog around the yard, urinating over areas he marked; spitting in your dog's food so your dog knows you control the food; never stepping over your dog but instead making him move out of your way; and randomly pushing your dog off his bed and sitting in it yourself so your dog knows everything belongs to you.

According to this model, for both dogs and wolves, social status is everything. Dogs are constantly finding ways to climb the social ladder, and if you aren't consistent and vigilant with these rules, your dog will begin to take charge, do whatever he wants, not do what he's told, and attempt to control you through threats and aggression.

Because status is everything, this model has to frame all misbehavior in terms of a problem in the dominance hierarchy. Your dog doesn't listen to you because you aren't a strong pack leader. Your dog soils in the house because he's trying to dominate you. Your dog eats his own feces because he knows you don't want him to and by doing it anyway he's showing you who's boss. Your dog growls at your baby because the baby isn't dominant over him. Your dog barks too much because you haven't established yourself as leader so it's his job to alert you to trouble. Your dog pulls to be ahead on walks because by being ahead of you he's showing you he's the "alpha".