Try Googling the term alpha dog and guess what you’ll get. You’ll get more than 85,000 hits. This is due primarily to the fact that there are literally thousands of websites, blogs, books, TV shows, trainers and professional behaviorists who adhere to the alpha dog theory and how you need to use intimidation and force to make sure you’re the pack alpha.
All of this is just bunk.
Alpha dog theory is based on a study of captive zoo wolves done in the 1930s and ‘40s by a Swiss animal behaviorist named Rudolph Schenkel. Based on this study, Schenkel concluded that wolves in a pack fight over dominance and that the winner is the “alpha” wolf. This conclusion was then extrapolated to include domestic dogs.
How did this happen?
Why did trainers and dog owners start thinking that wolf behavior had anything to do with dogs and dog behavior? The logic went something like this. Dogs are descended from wolves and wolves live in hierarchical packs where the alpha male rules everyone else so humans need to dominate in order to get their dogs to behave.
The big turnaround in dog training came when Marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor published her seminal book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Karen had thought of this as a self-help book for humans but what it did was cause a massive change in the world of dog training and behavior. This ultimately led to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers whose 6000 members practice positive reinforcement-based training rather than dominance reinforcement.
There was a setback to positive reinforcement-based training thanks to National Geographic and is very popular program, The Dog Whisperer. It put the dominance theory back into play and then some. As a result, everything from house training mistakes to leaping up on counters was often attributed to “dominance” by followers of the alpha dog theory. The fact is that dominance-based methods, often called “positive punishment,” do work. They can be especially effective at eliminating behaviors such as convincing a dog that it’s unsafe to do something unless instructed to do it. While this does work with some dogs, it’s not so much with others.
The problem with dominance-based training is that sometimes the amount of violence escalates. Or alternately, the dog does submit at the time but then may aggressively erupt again the next time you do something inappropriate and violent to it. Some dogs that are trained using the dominance method end up being considered incorrigible and not suitable for the work for which they’re being trained or not safe as a family dog. These dogs are often sentenced to death. However, if they had been treated appropriately, many of them might have been just fine.
The ultimate answer
My personal belief is that there is no ultimate answer to the question of dominance-theory training versus positive reinforcement training. Dogs can be as different in personality and temperament just as we humans are. I personally lean to the positive reinforcement school of dog training but the ultimate answer is probably what works best with your dog.