A wolf is not a dog is not a wolf

Just playing, or an “alpha” dog asserting his authority?

If there is one phrase I would like to erase from the world of dog ownership, it is “You must be the alpha.” Dog owners across the country have been spouting this line for years, citing the fact dogs and wolves share common ancestors and must be managed accordingly. Well, based on that logic, I should be picking the lice out of my niece’s hair and eating it, because, after all, humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor.

Let’s get serious though. Dogs are not wolves and haven’t been for a very long time. Dominance theory, in which dog owners do things like roll over and pin their pets to the ground as punishment for bad behavior, is a bit outdated, although its late arrival to popular television seems to have given it a fresh start.

Proponents of dominance theory will claim that dogs follow a pack order, and if you don’t establish yourself as “top dog,” then your dogs will suddenly start knocking you down in the dirt, stealing food from your plate, and embarrassing you at dinner parties (or something like that). But for me, a lot of dominance theory is a combination of bad science and bullying.

Three of my biggest problems with the use of dominance theory are:

  1. Dogs are a very far evolutionary step from wolves. Are they related? Sure. But a Pekingese was bred to be a lap dog 2,000 years ago, and since that time, they could not be further from a wolf in physical traits or behaviors. Are other breeds so different?
  2. We do not treat our dogs like wolves in any other ways (expecting them to hunt for their own food, exercising 50 miles or more a day, leaving them to naturally cope with disease without veterinary intervention), so why would training require the need to replicate long-gone behaviors?
  3. Dogs do not follow the same pack order that wolves are believed to follow. Domestic dogs, when stray, might hang around with two or three of the same dogs most of the time, but they do not maintain a consistent “pack.” Even more relevant to the question of pack order, is the fact that stray dogs can leave a group at any time. A pack of multiple species chosen by you (humans, other dogs, and even cats) in a single home is not natural for a dog in any sense.

Certainly, I recognize the importance of making sure your dogs have boundaries but giving your dogs a set of house rules is different than grabbing them by the scruff to show that you are boss. If you were forced to live with a group of strangers, would you rather have a designated hierarchy or a sense of mutual respect?

If you are having trouble with training your dog, find a certified dog trainer who uses positive methods of training. And lets scruff dominance theory because I don’t know anyone who wants to take their dog for a double marathon every day and a raw food buffet before bossing them around.