Few terms make dog behavior specialists cringe more than “alpha”.
The idea that social hierarchy dictates a dog’s mindset in relation to aggression (“dominance”) or fearful (“submissive”) behavior is something that has been held as gospel for most of the history of canid behaviorism. It is only until the last few decades that this long-held belief has begun to be questioned, as new research emerges that shows the considerable differences between the social hierarchal structures of pet dogs vs. wild wolves, and even where the behavior is similar, the common knowledge of wolf behaviors were misunderstood to begin with. Although genetically the two creatures are virtually identical, and dogs are indeed a direct descendant of the wolf, behaviorally there has been a huge rift between the two, and the behaviors they do share have been misinterpreted for most of the history of canid research.
The classic belief that dogs are part of a rigid and unmovable social hierarchy and must be forced into submission by the “alpha” of the pack (the human owner) was developed by primitive observation of wolves and the interactions between the alpha wolves and their lower counterparts. These early beliefs were that wolves enforced this hierarchy by force and violence. The more dominant wolf was believed to use force to push a lower wolf into submission and thus maintain the intricate social structure of the pack. This early belief has been debunked time and time again by modern wolf behaviorists, yet it’s impact on the human-dog relationship has stayed alive and well. We now know that although scary displays can be seen between wolves frequently, as canids rely on intimidation to get their point across, force is actually very rare. The classic image of a wolf approaching a lower ranking member and that member rolls over has been one of the most misunderstood behaviors by canines, wild and domestic alike, and has singlehandedly shaped common belief about dog behavior and how to train them.
The reality is that an alpha wolf is much more like a cult leader than a violent dictator. Through manipulation of the pack, the alpha wolf enforces hierarchal order by control of the resources. The alpha decides who eats and when, who breeds and when, how the hunt will ensue, and sleeping quarters. Force does come into play at times, when lower ranking members push boundaries, but ultimately the vast majority of these displays involve a lot of noise and teeth, with one member finally voluntarily submitting, rather than being forced to do so. This is an important distinction when we talk about dog behavior and training, because so much of what we have been raised to believe about proper interaction with our dogs is based on this false idea that in order to be a good “alpha”, you must dominate your dogs into submission (a vague term in itself) by physical force. Instead, an effective alpha canid maintains social structure by control of the resources (food, toys, affection, sleeping quarters) and not by physical force, and that is how we maintain control of our dog pack, too.
This notion of using force to maintain alpha status by a human to a dog is further problematic as it is difficult for a lay dog owner to distinguish the incredibly numerous and subtle cues their dog is giving them during the process. When you ask the average dog owner what submissive behaviors look like, they will likely describe a cowering dog, one low to the ground with retracted ears and sad eyes, or a dog rolling over and/or urinating. Although these are indeed submissive signals, the majority of submissive signs are shown by dogs in virtually every interaction we have with them. Unlike wolves, dogs are naturally submissive to humans. It is part of how we have manipulated their genetics for millennia to fit our needs. Dominant dogs are very difficult to live with. Like dominant wolves, they employ modes of intimidation to maintain their status, which typically means aggression to various degrees. A dominating dog is useless to a farmer needing a herding dog, for example, and so the dominant dogs that are born are usually culled from the breeding stock. This has presumably been going on since the beginning of domestication 10,000+ years ago. A naturally dominant dog is very rare and difficult to handle, are prone to serious aggression and are otherwise useless to the utility need of the breeder and/or handler, regardless of the “job”. Even dogs in law enforcement cannot be too dominant by nature, as dominant dogs often act aggressively when physically manipulated (like putting on a harness or collar) or told to do something they don’t want to do like sitting during a high drive situation. In short, dominant dogs are rare and when they appear, they are often euthanized, typically for aggression that appears to be unmanageable. Even if you are working with a legitimately dominant dog, physical force is a very unwise decision, because if a fight ensued and the dog is more than 5lbs, the dog would most definitely win and you will be on the way to the ER.
Saying all that, when it comes to our dogs or multidog household, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind. First and foremost, a dog showing dominant behaviors (attempt to control resources) should never be physically forced into submission because you will get bitten. If your dog shows guarding behaviors of sleeping quarters or toys/food, which are the most common forms of dominant behaviors, then a professional dog trainer with experience in aggression is necessary. Note, however, that dominant behaviors do not mean a dog is inherently dominant. Second, have faith that if your dog is not trying to kill you every time you touch them, then it is probably already submissive to you. Submission is most frequently shown in the dogs body language: curved body lines, relaxed tail, soft eyes, relaxed open mouth, and licking are all submissive signs from your dog telling you loud and clear that they are perfect clear and content with their place below you in the pack.
The mythology of “dominant behaviors” is baffling. Some behaviors many people constitute as dominant are putting their paws on you, climbing onto your lap, walking ahead of you through doorways and/or pulling on the leash. While in very, very rare cases these behaviors may be employed by naturally dominant dogs, if they are done with a soft posture and affectionate intention (like 99.999% of dogs do) then they are not dominate by nature and should not be punished as if they were. These behaviors are nuisance behaviors and should be corrected if correction is necessary, but they are not inherently dominant.
If you take nothing else away from this article, make it this: alpha rolls are not only dangerous and ineffective (because your dog is already submissive), they are based on very outdated science, no matter what TV trainers tell you. If your dog is exhibiting aggressive behaviors, or you suspect they are dominant in nature, contact a training and behavior specialist with experience in aggression, and if that trainer advocates the alpha roll for lay dog owners, look elsewhere.