top of page

Alpha theory: debunked!

When you enter into the dog training world, you will ultimately come across lots of different people with lots of different opinions on what is right and wrong and how you should be training your dog. If you know me, you'll know one of my passions is psychology and one thing I am really passionate about is understanding the psychology around dog training and behaviour. So today, we are going to dive into one theory that has actually been debunked within the training psychology world and why. That theory is, the Alpha Theory.

So first of all, what is Alpha Theory?

Well the Alpha Theory came about after a study carried out in 1946 by an ecologist and animal behaviourist called Rudolph Schenkel. He began a study observing captive wolves looking at the sociology and the expressions of structure among the wolves and how they behaved together socially as a group in these controlled conditions. The findings of this study were later applied to dogs and then utilised as a training method to gets pet dogs to be more obedient towards their owners. We'll talk later about the criticisms of this way of thinking but first, let's talk about the study itself and the findings.

The studies aim was to look at the sociology and behaviour of wolves in captivity in order to get a better understanding of wolf behaviour and later, dog behaviour. So Schenkel conducted his observational study at a zoo where previously wild wolves were captured from different areas and therefore unrelated and then placed into a completely unknown, controlled environment where the wolves had no choice but to interact with each other in a completely unknown environment. Schenkel observed that the wolves often fought over food and space and struggled to form and maintain a harmonious hierarchy which often led to aggression and fighting amongst the wolves. He observed that within the group, there was an 'Alpha' wolf who seemed to control the other pack members. This 'Alpha' would eat first, claim the best spots to sleep, play and enjoy and would 'tell off' the other pack members who did things they didn't like by biting or nipping them, growling at them and pinning them to the ground, later called the 'Alpha roll'.

This was then applied to dog training and the beginning of the 'Alpha dog trainer' who's training principles were centred around the owners being the 'Alpha' pack member in order to get their dog/s to do what they asked them to do. You'd see common practice like using physical force and harsh punishment in order to replicate what other dogs would do to each other as well as using techniques like the 'Alpha roll' and 'popping' dogs with a claw shaped hand in order to replicate a 'bite' from another dog. The training was centred around getting a dog to 'submit' to the owners leadership by showing them that the owner is the 'Alpha' of the pack and must be listened to.

Now we'll talk a bit later on about why this type of training is simply not beneficial but for now, let's go back to why the original study is considered to be a reliable study when it comes to dog training and psychology.

So why is the Alpha Theory not a reliable study?

1. The study doesn't accurately represent natural wolf behaviour let alone dog behaviour

The biggest criticism of the study is that it simply doesn't accurately represent wolf behaviour for many different reasons, the biggest issue being that the wolves were all from different packs, from different places. Why does this matter? Well simply because in reality, a wild wolf pack isn't a group of random wolves all from different places who just happen to choose to live together and form a hierarchy. In reality, a wolf pack is a family group. These wolves have spent their entire lives getting to know each other, forming relationships and social dynamics and learning the rules of the family group. The 'leader' of the group, is the breeding pair of adult wolves named the Alpha male and female. These two wolves are the ones 'in charge' of the group and make decisions on where and when to hunt, where to make a den, what behaviours are acceptable and aren't and are the only one's are allowed to reproduce as long as they are fertile. You then have the Beta pair who are the pair that are next in line to take over when the Alpha pair are infertile and then the younger wolves and pups are known as the Omega's. In most cases, there is never any fighting as to who is 'Alpha' as the social dynamic dictates that the parents are in charge simply because of their social position within the group. As with humans, although we wouldn't call our parents 'Alpha's', children know that their parents are ultimately the ones who will make important decisions in the family group. The group of wolves chosen for the study were a random group of differing ages who were thrown together in a fenced in area much smaller than a wolves territory would be who then were forced to interact in order to survive. They had no choice but to fight amongst themselves in order to get food, water and shelter as there was no option for them to survive in the situation they were put into. In this kind of situation, it is more likely than not that there will be fighting amongst the animals in order to establish a social dynamic as they haven't been able to do this throughout their lives peacefully. This also doesn't accurately represent dog behaviour as unlike wolves, dogs have been domesticated over the years and live in a completely different world than wolves do. This means that the social dynamics between domestic dogs is entirely different than wild wolves. Domestic dogs grow up learning that other dogs being everywhere is a normal part of life and so they are ultimately more social and generally, if you put a group of dogs together, they will interact more positively. This is also because dogs learn from a young age that their resources are given to them by humans and so they have simply no need to 'fight' for resources in order to survive. Wolves on the other hand have to fight for resources from a young age, including fighting for territory. This means that generally, a wolf pack will not socialise with an 'outsider' wolf and in fact are more likely to act aggressively towards outsiders than even stray dogs would. So in simple terms, this study does not even remotely accurately represent natural behaviour and therefore isn't a study we can rely on for canine behaviour and training.

2. Because of the issues with the study, it has been highly disregarded among the professional scientific and psychological communities

Part of being a good scientist or psychologist is your ability to professionally analyse the studies in which we rely upon in order to be able to confidently say whether they are valid and reliable in their findings. Unfortunately, because of the issues with the Alpha Theory study, the study has been highly criticised, it's findings disregarded and even Schenkel himself has since retracted his findings due to the issues found. So within the professional dog training community, the Alpha theory is no longer used a a scientific theory to explain dog behaviour and therefore draw upon methodology to train. Those who did rely on the study for training methods often rely on overly harsh methods to 'make dogs submit' and 'dominate' them causing dogs to become shut down or act aggressively out of fear. This harsh and borderline abusive training is simply not beneficial for dog or owner as it is not building a relationship and although some dogs will listen and respond, it is simply out of fear which is not how we want to train our dogs.

3. It has been widely shown time and time again, that other methods are more successful, kinder and more reliable long term

I could probably list you a handful of studies, cases and real life situations of dogs trained with kinder methods that have proven time and time again that this dominating and aggressive method of training is simply not necessary. Science and psychology shows time and time again that dogs learn best through positive reinforcement partnered with correction and redirection. Dog's trained using punishment only or mainly punishment methods have been shown to 'relapse' into unwanted behaviours at a later date due to the fact that they have not been taught how what they should be doing instead of what they are currently doing that is unwanted. In some cases, the punishment may stop the unwanted behaviour for a short term as some dogs simply shut down and go into 'learned helplessness' which is a mindset often seen in abuse cases in both humans and animals. It causes the learner to simply 'put up with' the abusive behaviour as a means of survival as they see no other way out of the situation. Dog's continuously trained in this way may stay in learned helplessness, start showing unwanted behaviours again or will become aggressive as a means to protect themselves and get out of the situation they see no other way out of. Using punishment training in this way also causes high amounts of stress and cortisol. Prolonged stress leading to long term stress can have a huge impact on the body causing long term negative effects on the dogs mind and body, something we want definitely want to avoid when training our dogs.


So why is this type of training not beneficial for our dogs?

1. It creates stress and fear in dogs

As mentioned above, studies have shown that dogs trained using the 'Alpha theory' method show increased signs of stress and high levels of cortisol which if continued, create hugely negative affects on the dog body long term

2. It does not deal with the route cause of the problem

More often than not, these types of trainers will punish the symptom that the dog is showing rather than addressing the route cause of the issue in order to get quicker results. So for a dog that is reacting towards other dogs, they will often punish the dog for reacting instead of spending the time to find out why they are reacting and address the cause of the behaviour.

3. It often leads to dogs continuing with unwanted behaviours

Following on from above, not addressing the route cause of the issue means the dog does not have any alternative behaviour they know to offer and so dogs often go back to their unwanted behaviour at a later date as the actual issue wasn't resolved.

4. It often leads to dogs becoming shut down or aggressive

Again, as we already mentioned, dog's continuously punished and given no praise or alternative behaviour often become shut down or act aggressively as a means to 'survive' through the stressful situation. Dog's trained this way will be constantly living in fear of being punished and therefore shot down and not want to do anything in case it's wrong or will reach their tether and lash out in order to stop being constantly punished

5. There are so many more kinder, effective and less damaging ways to modify behaviour

As mentioned above, there are so many other kinder, more effective and less damaging ways to modify behaviour! So sing the example above, if a dog is being reactive to other dogs as they have been attacked and are scared, the first thing you need to do is help them to gain confidence using games and confidence building activities. Then you can introduce working at dogs from a comfortable distance, rewarding them for being calm and disengaging and encouraging them to follow you and walk away if they are uncomfortable. Then you work on proximity and length of time with another dog before then phasing out the owners ongoing help and allowing the dog to make the right choices them self. It may take a few months rather than a few hours, but it leads to a more happy, confident dog with a long term behavioural change you can rely on. It's worth the extra effort, trust me!

There aren't many things in the dog training world that I will outrightly say are cruel and not necessary, but 'Alpha theory' trainers are one of those that none of our team will ever agree on supporting. So if you're struggling with your dog and need help, or your dog has had a bad experience with a trainer and you need support, get in touch with a member of our team. We've worked with dogs previously trained this harsh way and have worked hard on building back their trust and confidence and seen great success at turning things around for them and their owners.

Never be ashamed to ask for help, it's never too late to turn things around.


bottom of page