If you're experiencing problems with your dog, you may be thinking that they're trying to assert their dominance over you, or be your family's 'alpha'.
After all, we have famous dog trainers on telly telling us this narrative all the time, and there are an awful lot of trainers out there insisting that this is what your dog is up to. If your dog is growling at you, if they're rushing ahead of you at doorways, if they're refusing to walk somewhere, if they're pulling on lead and walking out in front of you.... the list of reasons someone may say this to you is almost endless.
But, is it true?
The short answer is NO.
Your dog is not trying to be the boss of you. It's not trying to be dominant over you. It's not trying to be the leader of the pack.
To explore this further, we first need to know where this idea came from.
Back in the mid-1900s, scientists were trying to understand wolf behaviour more. They watched wolf packs for patterns in their behaviour, and to understand more about how members of the pack interacted with one another. They found that individuals would fight and compete with each other, resulting in a hierarchy. The top dog, or 'alpha', would have unchallenged first access to food, and make all of the decisions for the pack. Then there would be a 'beta', a second-in-command, right down to the 'omega', who seemed to be persistently bullied and typically lived on the periphery of the group, being the last to get to food and water.
However, these studies were done on captive wolf packs. These were wolves that were unrelated, that had been put together in an artificial, constrained environment. We now know that this made them act unnaturally, and that what the scientists were observing back then was a result of unnatural situations.
In fact, by the turn of the millenium, the same scientists would publically retract their research. They had gone into the wild, and observed wolves in their natural habitat. What they discovered was starkly different from what was seen in captivity.
They noticed that wolf packs were actually family units, with different members having different skill sets, and given different roles depending upon those. Some members would lead the hunt. Others would get to stay home and care for any pups. The old and frail, who were previously classified as the omega and expected to be bullied, were actually cared for - with younger, fitter wolves bringing them food back from the hunt. And these family ties are incredibly important for them: in fact, African hunting dogs have even been found to vote on when to hunt - and they do so by sneezing. The more dogs that sneeze at one time, the more likely the pack are to set off on a hunt.
Interestingly, village dogs are a little more different still (if you're unfamiliar with what village dogs are and how they relate to our own dogs, it's worth taking a look at our blog, 'Should My Dog Eat Like A Wolf'). They associate with people, but not in the sense that we're used to. They range across a village or town (hence the name), but don't have a human family with which they spend all their time. Instead, they'll go about their day either completely alone, or in small groupings of two or three dogs. In these small groups, they will help each other out, sharing resources - neither one of them is consistently 'in charge'.
But, what does this tell us about our dogs?
This shows that, contrary to popular belief, our dogs are simply trying to survive. They're trying to form friendships that will help them with that, and they value relationships built on safety, security, trust, and communication.
Then why is my dog misbehaving?
Your dog could be misbehaving for a variety of reasons. The most common ones are that they are in physical pain or that they're feeling unsafe or vulnerable, and are trying to protect themselves. Other possibilities are that they have learned certain behaviours accidentally (yes, we can teach them bad behaviours without even realising!), that they're simply stressed out, that they're frustrated, or that their fundamental needs aren't being met.
If your dog if misbehaving, the best thing you can do is talk to a suitably qualified behaviourist. Ideally, they should be accredited with either the APBC or the ABTC, and be recognised as a clinical animal behaviourist (these usually hold a Master's degree in a relevant field). Our partners over at Holistic Pet Services are a great place to start,
This way, you can start to understand what emotions are underlying the behaviour, and start implementing strategies that will give you long-lasting, real change.
If you still have questions about this, feel free to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll be happy to help.