Dominance Theory and Dogs: How it Came About & Why it Persists


The idea that we must be the “alpha” to our dog’s “beta” is a long standing myth that has been debunked time and time again. Yet many reputable force-free trainers, canine welfare organizations, and scientists continue to dispel this myth even today.

Where did this idea come from, how did it spread so widely, and how do we move forward with our dogs welfare in mind? The true origins of the very much untrue concept of dominance theory has much to teach us about how science works and how we can get carried away with oversimplifying developing ideas.

In the 1930’s, animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel observed aggressive social interactions between a pack of wolves. Except these weren’t wild wolves as some may think. These were non-related, captive wolves that were brought together and kept at a Swiss zoo. A weak comparison to true wild wolf behavior and social dynamics. But based on these observations, the idea that wolves have a hierarchical social dynamic with a top dog holding dominance over the pack took hold. This false comparison of captive wolves to wild wolves eventually included domestic dogs, being that they are descended from wolves. With each comparison we move further and further from the truth.

It wasn’t until 2000 where David Mech and many others really started unraveling this misconception. Whereas Schenkel observed aggressive interactions in his captive wolves, Mech and others observed more familial interactions in wild wolves. It turns out, when you put together a bunch of animals who don’t really know each other, with limited space, and no control of resources, fights can break out sometimes (go figure). But by then the damage has been done with various media and trainers operating under this incorrect theory.

Reputable trainers and academics continue to disprove why our dogs are not wolves. The evolution of how we think about canine interactions is very much how science works; we observe something, we ask questions, we share our findings, then others who are interested can either prove us right or prove us wrong. To prevent misconceptions and scenarios like the spread of dominance theory, it is important for scientists to effectively say what they mean. But there are also things we, as readers, can do to :

  1. Understand that science is constantly developing and being wrong is part of the process of knowing what’s right. Dog science, in particular, seems to be highly susceptible to trends that we can all get caught up in.
  1. Get your hands dirty and participate in citizen science! There are many studies where researchers are looking for you and your dog to take part. There’s no better way to understand the science than to dive in.
  1. Know what to ask when looking for a trainer! We'll be posting more on this topic very shortly
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