Updated: Mar 6, 2022
You’ve probably heard about dominance theory and alpha wolves, but what is it, and is there any truth to it? Well, from the title of this post, you can probably guess my thoughts on the matter. I’m here to tell you what dominance theory is, and why it’s complete bullshit.
What is dominance theory?
Dominance theory came from studying captive wolves and applying what was noticed in captivity to wild wolves without critical thinking. If a bunch of captive, unrelated, wolves are placed together, they will continuously fight until one male and one female wolf come out on top. These two wolves will rule by aggression to keep the other wolves in line, who will continuously be fighting. This observation was published in the 1940s in a paper by Rudolph Schenkel.
It was extrapolated that the behavior of these captive wolves reflected wild wolf behavior, which was then further extrapolated to dogs (that’s a lot of extrapolation). This led some people to think that they had to be continually “showing the dog who’s boss” in order to work with their dog, otherwise their dog would run roughshod over them.
Lately it’s been preached by some TV entertainers who claim to be dog trainers, as well as some old school dog trainers who haven’t updated their knowledge base in the last thirty years (more info on how it was disproven thirty years ago below). You wouldn’t accept a doctor who hadn’t taken in any new information in three decades, don’t accept it in your dog trainer either.
Where’s the flaw?
Remember when I said the study had been done on wolves that were a) kept in captivity and b) unrelated to each other? This is an incredibly stressful and unnatural situation for wolves to be in.
As observations of wild wolf behavior got better, largely due in part to better radio collars so wolves could be tracked better, a startling new discovery came to light in the 1990s: wolves live in family packs in the wild.
A wild wolf pack is actually made up of two parent wolves and their offspring. Wolves will frequently stick around and help their parents raise younger siblings, before eventually seeking their own mate, thus giving the appearance of a male and female who are “in charge” over other adults. In actuality, male and female are not ruling by aggression, they’re simply the parents of the other wolves in the pack.
When the unrelated wolves were placed in captivity, with no way to flee from each other, they had no choice but to fight. But it wasn’t how wolves would prefer to do things, nor how they would be done in the wild.
Further, and I can’t stress this enough, dogs are not wolves. It’s true that dog’s share 99.9% of their DNA with wolves, but humans share 99.8% of our DNA with chimpanzees. You wouldn’t accept a psychiatrist making broad statements about humans based off of chimpanzees, don’t accept it about dogs and wolves.
What’s this mean for dog training?
You don’t need to be “showing your dog who’s boss” you just need to make it rewarding for doing what you ask (and explain what you’re asking). If a trainer says you need to “show your dog who’s alpha” or do an alpha roll or anything like that, find a new trainer, fast.