Dominance and Pack Theory

Now that we have talked about how dogs evolved and domesticated, we need to talk about how they should be treated by us humans. Until recent years, the over reaching theory for working with dogs has been based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel and furthered by a book published in 1970 by David L Mech titled The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. Schenkel and Mech studied captive wolves, recording and analyzing their interactions with each other. Both studies found that groups of unrelated wolves brought together in artificial captive environments do, indeed, engage in often-violent and bloody social struggles. They fought each other to seemingly be the “alpha” or leader of the pack. As a result, dog training followed this theory and told us that we needed to be the ‘alpha’ and dominate our dogs in order to gain their respect and their compliance.


The problem with these studies is two fold. First, the behavior of the captive wolves was very different from the behavior of wolves studied in the wild. A wild wolf pack consists of mom, dad and babies. Once the wolves are grown, they find a mate and create their own pack. There is no fighting among adult males or females. The pack is run like a family, with mom and dad gently leading.


David Mech himself has recanted the results of his original book:



In addition, per our studies previously on the evolution of the dog, we know that dogs were domesticated or domesticated themselves thousands and thousands of years ago. They have been living alongside us for that long. Dogs understand our behaviors better than we understand theirs because they have been watching us for generations.


“Dogs have lived in intimate proximity with people for some 30,000 years, evolving along the way to pick up human cues and training us to feel obliged to feed and house them. As survival instincts go, that is pretty smart.” Jan Hoffman, NYTimes.com


The following articles By Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA and Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC explain why the Alpha Theory is no longer valid:


Debunking the Alpha Dog Theory

Canine Dominance: Is the Alpha Dog Theory Valid?


More information on alpha misconceptions presented by By Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB in two separate posts:

Dumbed Down by Dominance Part 1: (make sure to read both pages)


Dumbed Down by Dominance Part 2: (make sure to read all three pages)