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The Alpha Dog Dominance Myth

Myth: Dogs are descended from wolves and therefore operate with hierarchical behavior. The Alpha male rules over all. Humans must dominate their dogs to get them to behave.

Truth: This belief has recently been made popular by National Geographic’s award winning show, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan. This belief based upon de-bunked animal studies incorporates training techniques that are viewed as cruel. i.e. The Alpha Roll. This is where you roll your dog onto it’s back and grasp it’s neck.

“Says Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): ‘We are on record as opposing some of the things Cesar Millan does because they’re wrong.’”

When I first started dog walking I was of the belief that dominance theory was actually true. I really thought that dogs were constantly doing things to work their way up the social hierarchy of the pack and establish dominance over me. I did certain things such as making sure I was the one that walked out of the door first.

When I realized that a dog trying to get out of the door before me was probably just excited,  I realized that for the dog, going outside was the ultimate treat. I used that as a way to train patience. From there I found much more ease and relaxation in my profession as a dog walker.

It you think about it, it takes a lot of mental process for dogs to constantly consider trying to establish dominance. Most likely they are busy sniffing, looking for attention, treats or just plain ol running around having fun.

The roots of this the dominance theory seemed to stem from a 1940’s study of wolves held in captivity. They were drawn from random places and were placed in a forced living situation. They began to naturally compete for status and the winning male and female were named the Alpha Pair.

In their natural environment wolves are in nuclear families and are not randomly put together in captive environments. The young naturally follow their parents and status is based upon birth order. They are not fighting to the top.

Basically, Dogs are not wolves and are not naturally pack animals. If you label dog behavior as being dominant or submissive then you will find it to be much more difficult to train your dog without having negative unseen affect. If your dog is barking at another dog and you put her in an alpha roll then  you may find that they are more nervous when dogs come around. They would associate the dogs with the alpha roll.

What we here at Outdoor PetCare do is employ positive reinforcement techniques. I won’t go into specifics of those techniques in this article (you’ll be able to read about them in upcoming articles).

What to do instead:


  • Remove the idea of Dominance Theory from your mindset when viewing any dog behavior (both positive and negative).
  • Look at the behavior for facts. Pay attention to what is happening and what might be stimulating a certain behavior from your dog. Does he/she seem to react the same way when dogs are around, other people, food etc?
  • Don’t label the dog behavior with human attributed descriptions. (i.e. He’s angry and barking at me for yelling at him. He’s getting back at me for taking his food away).


By objectively looking at the context and facts of a behavior I tend to find it easier to actually manage and change behavior to more desirable accounts. Once I let go of the dominance theory in my own mindset I found myself getting frustrated a lot less and better equipped to change behavior.