Understanding the Alpha Fallacy in Dogs

10 May 2013 | by | Posted in: Wag Wiki

So much has been written on dog-human interaction and alpha training methods. Many dog psychology training books have been published as if people were wolves, rather than humans who have apparently superior brain power. Most of the theories have been laid on the assumption that dogs are bound to dominate us.

Lot of dog owners seem to be hung around questions like

“Why did my dog do that?”

“Why did he act in that way?”

“Why am I not able to teach him the way I would like him to act?”

If they find the behaviour of their dog unacceptable or inappropriate, they assume that it is due to the failure in teaching their dogs appropriate manners and inability to bend their normal psychology. They wonder why they cannot change the behaviour of their dogs.  

alpha fallacy in dogsThe Fact of Alpha Tendency

The theories of “dominance hierarchy” in dogs being the supreme leader, is not fully true. Dog behaviour in terms of their social interactions with human is completely different from their interaction with other animals. The fact is few dogs live in packs. When dogs live in packs, it is true that they organise themselves in rankings from a leader to followers. However these hierarchies are not created on the basis of physical dominance. Young puppies play and fight when creating rankings within their litter. But when they enter the group there is no competition. They enter into a group of adult dogs and remain under them till older members pass on. In domestic dogs, hierarchies are not created out of physical dominance. Alternatively, hierarchies are developed to curb down disagreements, fights and aggression.( Aggressive Dog Breeds )

Dogs like to be in the similar relationship with human beings. They just like to get along with them and not get physically bullied every time. All they wish is that the aggression (physical) and dominance be expelled from their relationship with human beings.

Most of the advices like, do not let your dog jump on you; do not look into your dog’s eyes; never get down on floor with them; never let a puppy mouth or bite; never play tug of war; never play run and chase with your dog; never let him stand and reach over your head; never allow him on your bed; never let him mount; enforce a restraint on your relationship with your dog. These behaviours are often assumed as the intention of dog to overpower humans. However, these behaviours have nothing to do with social hierarchy or aggression. Sometimes these suggestions may ruin the fun and pleasure of living with a dog. Most of the advices are just too stupid for words. Some are counterproductive while others are absolutely risky.

On the whole, if you are fine with the behaviour of your dog, then there is no problem. On the other hand if you are worried about his behaviour and are not able to prevent it, then there might be some trouble with your way of training him.

Misconceptions about alpha fallacy in dogs

Number of books on dog trainings mention growling, prolonged barking, food protection, snapping and snarling as examples of alpha behaviour and aggression in dogs. However, these behaviours are in fact an indication of insecurity in dogs. These can easily be treated by systematic desensitization and loads of classical conditioning or counter-conditioning. Desensitization is used to treat aggression, fear and insecurity in dogs. Dogs feel the need to growl or threaten people because they feel the same response by people. When we look at the social system of dogs, we’ll notice that growling, threatening and fighting are the traits of middle ranking dogs who lack confidence in their society. Pack leaders rarely threaten or growl because they do not need to do that. A study on dog’s social hierarchy showed that top male dogs were cool, they rarely growled or fought. Instead they were happy to share their food with other dogs. On the other hand, the lower ones protected their share out of insecurity, with extreme physical dominance. This indicated their lack of confidence.

Puppy biting is natural and necessary. The fact is if your pup does not mouth or bite he cannot develop bite inhibition behaviour in future. Obviously it has to be eliminated before he grows to be an adult dog but it has to be a gradually and naturally. Make your pup learn to inhibit the force of biting before you teach him to stop biting or modified gentle mouthing.

In the same way, if you play with your dog correctly, games like tug-of-war, run and chase can help to preserve your dog’s bite inhibition. This way you can teach him rules and practice control when he is excited. Playing correctly implies going by the rules and being in control. If you don’t play by the rules and are out of control, your dog will be excited and will be out of control. Play with your dog in controlled manner so that the game is enjoyable and productive.

You must build your dog’s confidence and teach him that there is no nead to be afraid of people and therefore no reason to bite them.

Let your dog live his normal life. Barking, urine marking, jumping, mounting and stealing food are signs of a perfectly healthy dog. Extreme cases of barking may be resolved by feeding the dog only from chew toys and teaching to Woof or Shush on cue. In house scent marking is the sign of basic housetraining. Stealing is a sign of an ill-trained dog living with a person who continues the habit of leaving items within his dog’s reach.

Jumping up is a way of greeting and is natural for a healthy dog. It is his friendly gesture that is accidently reinforced since he was a puppy. Train your dog to sit while he meets people. Instead you can teach him to give a hug on command.

Not coming when called has nothing to do with domination. Basically it simply signifies the insufficient training given by the owner who continues the dog off-leash in distracting settings. Mounting is again the result of misguided sexual urge. If you are embarrassed by his behaviours of mounting on pillow, leg, cushions, train him to sit or lie down as soon as he starts mounting.

However, whether to or not allow your dog sit on bed or come in your living room depends entirely on you. You should set rules and train him to follow them. Be consistent.  All these things should be done so as to make your dogs reliable. These things make sure that you are in control. Never allow your dog to do any activity without your permission. To be in control is the solution.

Understand your dog, respect him, as far as possible meet his requirements and establish a mutual relationship. Do not take dominance as an excuse to eject your frustrations on the ill-trained creature. Assuming the motive of domination in your dog’s behaviour and using aggressive methods, severely restrains him from living his normal dog life. Come on, let us be wise in training our dogs properly.

“Discipline is not about showing a dog who is boss; it is about taking responsibility for a living creature you have brought into your world.”- Cesar Millan

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