Posted by: Linda Trunell | March 9, 2014

Being the Alpha Dog

In the first session of a Puppy or Beginner training class I explain how we will be training and why.  When I talk about positive reinforcement and force-free methods, this usually leads to a discussion about being the Alpha dog.  I am still amazed that so many dog guardians base their training methods on a TV show.  Some have never read a book or done any research on how dogs learn before bringing their dog into the family.  Most people do more research before buying a phone than getting a dog!

There are, of course, some very informed and responsible people who are in class because they know how important proper socialization and training is.  These are usually Puppy Class attendees or people who have just adopted an older dog and join the Beginner Class.

Some are there because they are having problems with behavior – these are usually Beginner Class attendees with dogs over 6 months of age that they have had since they were pups.  Some have done no real training or they tried to train using correction-based methods (as seen on TV).

Best part of the day - walking with my best friend

Best part of the day – walking with my best friend

I came across an article by Alexandra Horowitz, Published February 10, 2014 in the Washington Post “Five Myths” Series.  I think I will include copies of this portion in my class handouts.

Perhaps the most influential tenet of the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, is the notion that in the dog-owner relationship, the owner needs to be the leader of the pack. Ignore this principle, proponents say, and the dog in your house will try to displace you as the pack’s alpha.

But this conception of “pack” and “alpha” is inapplicable to dogs and humans. The idea is rooted in legitimate research — but the conclusions of that research hold only for the study population: wolves, most of them adolescent males, held captive in a small enclosure. In the mid-20th century, animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel determined that these wolves established a hierarchy in which certain individuals ate and mated first, and he suggested that other members of the group were in a perpetual struggle to take over the alpha position.

But wolf behavior in prison-like conditions doesn’t extend to wolves in the wild — or to dogs. Indeed, researchers have found that wild wolf packs are typically family groups. The parents are in charge, but only in the same way that I am in charge of my son. My son doesn’t try to overthrow me, nor do younger wolves try to overthrow their parents. Studies of free-ranging dogs have found that they don’t form strict dominance hierarchies, either. They do stay together, but they don’t hunt cooperatively like wolves do.

It makes sense to be a leader for your dog insofar as you make your expectations clear. But trying to dominate your dog, lest he dominate you, is like taking a parenting lesson from “Lord of the Flies.”

Alexandra Horowitz is the principal investigator in the dog cognition lab at Barnard University and the author of “On Looking” and “Inside of a Dog.”

I am thankful that these people have decided to join my class and that we have this discussion.  Dogs are not wolves, and we are not dogs.  We are the leader of our family unit because we control the resources.  We have the superior intelligence and control every aspect of a dog’s life – when and what they eat, when and where they go, and what training and enrichment they have in life.  We should strive to be wise and benevolent leaders – not Alpha dogs.

Here’s to being our dog’s best friend,



  1. Great read!


  2. Go on TV and it spreads. Go on a book, harder to spread. I’ve started reading that book but haven’t found the time to finish it!! *Boo me*


    • I assume you mean “Inside of a Dog” – not “Lord of the Flies”. 🙂 lol


  3. Never read the second one…I’m at the age where I’d rather read happy things 😉


    • I only read about dogs these days. There is so much to read that I don’t have time to read anything else – but nothing else interests me as much anyway. lol


  4. Hi,
    I just read this post and LOVE it! I’m a vet, and I’m SO tired of the old dominance nonsense. I have owners telling me about how they scruff or ‘alpha roll’ their dogs to show them who’s boss, and it just makes me so sad. Certain popular dog trainers certainly have a lot to answer for. I even know some older vets who subscribe to that sort of approach and so pass it onto owners who come to them for advice..
    Anyway, my fave line of your post “dogs are not wolves, and we are not dogs” thank you! 🙂


    • Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I wish that all vets were as well-informed. Many people are given bad advice by their vet.


  5. I just took in a poor dog who was dumped in my apartment complex, which is in a VERY bad area of Memphis (Orange mound) This dog was being abused by everyone, either out of fear (people are afraid of dogs and would kick it away) or trying to make her a fighting dog, and sheer ignorance. There is a 500$ fee here to own a pet, and I don’t live in the ghetto because I have lots of money 😛 Anyways, after calling rescues and shelters and learning what Animal Control here does with the dogs they pick up, I decided the people I buy Christmas stuff for have homes, this pup needs a Christmas miracle, so I paid the fee and got her the essentials so I could take her in. After some solid sleep, meals, baths and exercise I realized she is a pit bull adolescent…I have always had a special place in my heart for pits but never owned one. Actually I have only owned one dog in my life, I got her when I was 16 she was 4 and that makes her 16 now but sadly about to be put down. I never had to do much training with her so I am lost on this whole training thing. Initially the dog (Shinna) had no behavior problems she was just grateful! As I started training her I tried the Alpha thing, and then it started hitting me,,.Shadow (my senior dog) I just treated like family. If what they say about the pack/alpha thing is true I want my dog to let go of that. My fiancée recently became paralyzed from waist down. I certainly do not want my dog to constantly be trying to move up in some hierarchy! I just want her to be my fur baby! I have to do some back tracking and I feel bad I jumped in trying to train with what google first brought up. If dogs do feel that way with each other, why on earth as a loving guardian would we want to encourage that kind of rivalry? One more note, after I started trying to Alpha training Shinna started getting more “playful” but sometimes just scary how hard it is to calm her down, the other day my fiancée was in bed and Shinna grabbed her arm and pulled her off the bed and wouldn’t get off her, trying to rise up in a pack…I feel stupid admitting this but I hope someone can learn from it!!! From now on I am going to stick to my gut and that is to just love on her, make her my partner, love her like she is my child, because in my heart she is!



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