Dogs And The Alpha Myth

The Alpha Myth
Do Dogs Really Think We Are Dogs
A New Understanding

The last time I looked, I definitely did not have anal glands, fur, mobile ears, a tail, or four legs. I don’t smell like a dog or look like one, though I am sure there are people who know me that may question the last two statements.

What I am saying is that my dogs know I am not a dog. It does not matter how many times I eat before them, or how many times I come in and ignore them, I still cannot convince them that I am a dog.

Lets look at it in a couple of different ways: If we managed to convince a dog that we are a dog, then wouldn’t all the dogs that show aggression to other dogs be aggressive to us. We know that is clearly not the case. Do you also believe the trainers in Sea World pretend to be killer whales (Orca), or that the the Orca sees the trainer as another Orca?

I believe the killer whale sees the trainer as a vital resource a supplier of food (fish) and other resources such as mental stimulation and physical contact, remember these are a very intelligent mammals, In fact recent scientific data suggests that the dolphin and the killer whale may be more intelligent than a chimpanzee.

Therefore the Orca may use the trainer as an add on to its requirements that will allow it sustenance plus mental and physical stimulation. But I very much doubt it will ever see man as another Orca. So why do we believe the dog sees us as another dog?

In simple terms I cannot be the Alpha. Dogs are conspecific that means they can only truly pack up with their own kind. Unlike birds, dogs do not bond and lock onto the first thing they see when they are born. Dogs know when they meet another dog. When they meet humans they see us as a different species but intrinsically locked into their life as a resource of high value. But what is vitally important is dogs must be taught this.

Even if I dressed up as Scooby-Doo and ran around barking and peeing up the walls, I would not convince even the most naive of pooches. They would easily seeing through my cunning disguise and know that I am not a dog and my family and clients would probably not be overly impressed.

Why? Even in our most fevered imaginations can we believe that gesture eating, ignoring them when coming back in, or going through doorways first will be the magical formula to convince them that we are an Alpha dog and therefore leader of the pack. It is absolute rubbish.

It is my humble opinion that rank reduction programs, where we are told to act like an Alpha does not work in changing behaviour over the long term. In the short term you will see some changes in behavioural patterns, but long term there will be very little beneficial change. In reality quite the opposite can happen. By ignoring and isolating your dog for long periods you can cause confusion, distress, anxiety, and distrust, which can affect the bond and trust you have with each other.

Do Wolves Ignore Each Other or Stand In Line?
Have you ever see Wolves, Dingoes, Coyotes, or Wild Dogs ignoring their pack members when they return from a hunt or a foray? In reality they have an intricate and stylized greeting ritual, which does not include sending each other to Coventry.

They may shun a badly behaved pack member, but that is only temporarily and never when greeting after an absence. I use this short shunning method later in this article as the “naughty step”

Do you ever see wild dogs or wolves lining up in rank order to eat? Just imagine all the timber wolves in an nice orderly queue with numbers on their backs. The Alpha male bellowing, “ come in number four it’s your turn to eat. Now what would you prefer Antelope or Buffalo?”

That’s more like a Gary Larsen farside cartoon than the reality of what happens in wolf or wild canid packs. They all just get stuck in and grab whatever they can. It may involve some snarling and ritualized aggression; however this is generally from the middle to lower end of the pack.

The problem with the people who advocate the Alpha and rank reduction route, is either they do not understand or they choose to ignore the fact that behavioural problems in dogs often has wide and differing backgrounds. Pack dynamics only involves approximately 15% of the cases that I have to treat.

These proponents of rank reduction would have us believe that pack dynamics is the answer to each and every behavioural abnormality, they are sadly and frighteningly wrong. If only it were that simple.

Scientists and biologists no longer use the term Alpha they tend to use the word “breeders” to describe the leaders of the pack. These breeders normally constitute one male and female in each group or pack which can.

The breeders are the only ones that actually breed. And both the male and female breeders cock their legs to mark their territory. The other females do not come into heat and the males do not cock their legs, unless of course they become a breeder at some later stage. This may be a form of hormonal neutering far more effective than anything that humans can come up with.

So where did all this Alpha leader of the pack nonsense come from? For that we have to look back to the study of captive Wolves by the likes of R Schenkel who started writing scientific papers just after the 2nd World war (1) and a marvelous individual called L. David Mech (pronounced Meech) and known as Dave to his friends. I do not know him personally so it would be impolite to refer to him in the familiar so I will call him Mr Mech. As one of the most senior research biologists he got to study Wolves and initially like Schenkel this was on Captive Wolves. The results seemed to bear out Schenkel’s findings and the Alpha role within the pack. And a whole way of training was born.

Unfortunately it was born on scientific evidence that was with hindsight somewhat incorrect, though we were unaware of that at the time. Mr Mech has since done exhaustive studies on non-captive free roaming Wolves and the results are very different from those gathered using a captive pack. (2) Mech states in his paper dated 2000 called: “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf PacksIn captive packs, the unacquainted wolves formed dominance hierarchies featuring alpha, beta, omega animals, etc. With such assemblages, these dominance labels were probably appropriate, for most species thrown together in captivity would usually so arrange themselves.

In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage. Rather, it is usually a family (Murie 1944; Young and Goldman 1944; Mech 1970, 1988; Clark 1971; Haber 1977) including a breeding pair and their offspring of the previous 1-3 years, or sometimes two or three such families (Murie 1944; Haber 1977; Mech et al. 1998).”

Therefore the facts are that we were following out of date information that was gleaned from Wolves forced together in captivity, whose behaviour has now been shown to be very different from the previous studies.That and the fact that dogs are somewhat removed from their ancestors the wolf by many thousands of years, and that dogs can only pack up with their own kinds (conspecific) leads me to offer an alternative.

Resource Controller:
though I clearly cannot be an Alpha ( after all I am not a dog), I can be a controller of resources and a leader of sorts. I can change the behaviour of my dogs from unacceptable to acceptable. I can also initiate programs of change using psychology and sometimes just simple basic obedience training. My actions and how I relate and communicate with my pets is the basis of how I work and why I get the level of success with my clients and their dogs.

To be a controller you need to convince your dog that mutual respect is required, that includes your body space. I may not want to be leapt on every time I come in. Greeting is fine as long as it does not include jumping all over me or my friends, which is considered rude and inappropriate in wild dogs and wolves.

I believe we should strive more for democracy than outright autocracy, or the opposite which is totally ignoring the bad behaviour and only praising the good, which appears to be the misguided belief of the so called positive reinforcement trainers. I use operant conditioning methods. And if these trainers understood “operant conditioning” they would know there are four parts to it. Not just positive reinforcement in isolation.

How can any animal, including humans differentiate between right or wrong, if they are not shown or told?

How Do I Become a Resource Controller?
What we must first ascertain is what is an important resource to your dog. In many cases food is extremely high on the agenda, especially very tasty treats. But not always. A resource can also include toys, games, access, and anything else you dog may consider important.

I tend to start with food and use either sausage or mild cheddar cheese, because they tend not to create crumbs. Which distracts the dog’s attention at a time when you need it to be concentrating on you.

I have designed and developed a training device called “The Jingler” which aids many training requirements including walking to heel, jumping up, recall, sit stay, mutual respect, some types of aggression and even car and bike chasing. More importantly it sets your position as a resource controller. Though you will need to purchase “The Jingler” to get the full instructions on exactly how to do this.

I would also recommend purchasing my leads, for two reasons. Firstly, the length, 5 feet 8 inches which is the perfect length for working with and training most dogs. The majority of the leads are see are too short and uncomfortable. Secondly, if you do not believe it is the most comfortable lead you have ever purchased (it is made of cushion web) then I will refund you in full less postage. Most leads are far too short to work effectively and in many cases actually cause the dog to pull.

What my techniques actually do is to realign your dog to the fact that you control vital resources. in my jingler instructions you are actually saying is this is my bone/treat, I am prepared to share it, but only when I give you permission”. You are actually training control of one of the greatest resources of all FOOD. Permissions round everything you wish to control is the key to working and training dogs successfully.

Once you have completed these exercises you will have set into your dogs mind that you are a resource controller, then all other training will become much easier. The dog will come to respect your body space and not abuse or invade it without being invited. You can then start working on the lead work, recall and many others behaviour’s you wish to overcome.

Attention on Demand:
The second part of being a controller is to control attention on demand. Many of the behavioural issues I see involving what the owner believes is dominance, is in reality a form of attention seeking. Barking, biting, nipping, growling, jumping, destruction of objects, (especially in your presence) some toileting problems and object stealing may be forms of this behaviour.

Now we are going to effectively mimic the naughty step type of behaviour training used in rearing children. Except with a dog you have to effectively isolate them immediately the bad behaviour occurs. It is important to understand that social isolation should only ever be used for very short periods. This is nothing to with ignoring your dog when you come into the house, it is about non-reward for bad behaviour.

Keep the dog on a short lead, preferably 3ft long made of nylon, cut it down if necessary. I would only use this size and material for use as a house lead, not to walk to heel. If the dog is misbehaving such as barking. nipping, biting or other behavioural problems, simply pick up the lead with no command or visual acknowledgement and take the dog to another room. (a downstairs toilet is ideal). Place the dog in the room and shut the door trapping the lead in the door so the dog cannot move too far away from the door.
Leave for two minutes at the very maximum (unless still barking) then go and let him out. If he continues with the behaviour he was displaying before, then simply repeat the exercise until the behaviour stops. It will not take too long for the dog to realise that it is getting non-reward for its behaviour and gradually the problems should subside. Always praise for good behaviour but do not ignore bad behaviour, act on it and be consistent and fair in all your training.

Some dogs are more stubborn, slow, control complex and pushy, therefore give the dog time to understand that non-reward is happening because of the dogs behaviour. Losing your temper or becoming aggressive will only set the learning curve back. Remember training should be little and often, always end any session on a positive note never finish on a negative.

© Stan Rawlinson January 2009

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