Alpha Dog Myths

Your dog is NOT trying to dominate you. Dogs do whatever works to get them what they want. Management, clear direction, and cooperation will get you both what you want.


You might think that after 20-plus years of moving toward a deeper and more scientific understanding of dog training and behavior in the dog-training profession, all of the alpha/dominance myths would have vanished into the sunset. Sadly, you would be wrong. Far too many trainers still promote the old-fashioned “you have to show them who’s boss” approach to training, and far too many caring but misguided dog owners still believe them. Nat Geo’s recently launched “new” Cesar Millan show is stark evidence of this.

“Dominance” is a legitimate construct in the behavior world. However, it’s not about who can forcefully pin the other to the ground, shake them by the scruff, or sit higher up on the furniture. It is simply about priority access to a mutually desired resource. 

This is more often than not accomplished peacefully. For example, two dogs come upon a bone. The first dog says (with body language of course), “Gee, I’d like to have that bone!” The second dog says, “Oh, but I really want to have that bone!” The first dog backs off, and the second dog gets the bone. The second dog was dominant in that interaction. He may or may not be dominant in the next one.

While stable social groups do tend to develop some type of hierarchy, social groups work primarily because of deference, not dominance. Willingness to defer avoids conflict, and conflict in social groups is not healthy for the survival of the group – it can cause injury and death to individuals as well as damage to the social fabric. 

Conflict was avoided in the above scenario because dog number one was willing to say, “Okay, you really want it, you can have it!” A dog (or other organism) who consistently uses aggression rather than healthy and appropriate communication signals is a bully who threatens the well-being of others in the social group. Dog trainers who still use and promote old-fashioned dominance-based training theory and methods are simply that: bullies.

Social groups are made up of conspecifics – members of the same species. As much as we may consider them members of our family, we aren’t conspecifics to our dogs – we are a different species entirely, which calls into even greater question the debunked idea that we have to establish ourselves as “alpha.” 

The Myth of the Alpha Wolf
When a wolf goes belly-up, it’s almost always a voluntary appeasement behavior – offered by the wolf on the ground – not a forcible roll-over by the wolf who is standing. The same is true with dogs.
Photo Credits: Dssimages/

The erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory originated in the 1930s and 1940s with Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. Observing captive wolves in a zoo, the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance and the winner is the alpha wolf. 

Schenkel’s observations of captive wolf behavior were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior and then to domestic dogs. It was postulated that wolves were in constant competition for higher rank in the hierarchy and only the aggressive actions of the alpha male and female held the contenders in check. 

The first problem is, that’s not normal wolf behavior. As David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves, “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.”

What we know now, thanks to Mech and others, is that in the wild, a wolf pack is a family, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring of the past one to three years. Occasionally two or three families may group together. As the offspring mature they disperse from the pack; the only long-term members of the group are the breeding pair. By contrast, in captivity, unrelated wolves are forced to live together for many years, creating tension between mature adults that doesn’t happen in a natural, wild pack.

The second problem is that none of this relates to dog behavior. Dogs are not wolves. Most of our canine companions don’t live in stable familial groups, but are randomly adopted into various homes, sometimes (sadly) multiple homes over their lifetimes. Trying to apply conclusions about wolf behavior to our understanding of dog behavior is simply an exercise in futility, guaranteed to lead to inappropriate and ineffective training methods. Dogs are not wolves.


So what do you do when you have a dog who seems like he’s trying to rule your world? For starters, you can change your perspective. 

All living things do what works. The behaviors that strike you as a potential power grab are simply his efforts to make the world work for him. 

A basic good manners training program (featuring force-free methods, of course) will lay an excellent foundation for communication and understanding between you and your canine pal. 

These strategies will help:

  • Implement solid management strategies to prevent him from receiving reinforcement for the behaviors you don’t want (i.e., put the garbage can in a cabinet under the sink, don’t leave food on the counter, give him a bed that is equal to the sofa in comfort, etc.).
  • Create structure in his daily life. Some dogs are happy to roll with anything and everything we put them through as our life companions. Fearful or defensive dogs generally do better with structure and routine.  Unknowns and things that are unexpected are stressful. Being able to anticipate what is going to happen (thanks to structure and routine) decreases stress for fearful and defensive  dogs. This helps them be less fearful and defensive, and eliminates – or at least decreases – their need to be aggressive.
  • Make sure he gets reinforced for the behaviors you do want. Focus on the things you want him to do and reward his efforts. This will help boost his confidence in his ability to succeed – and his trust that you are a consistently kind person that he can trust. 
  • Whenever possible, try to find a nonconfrontational way to get your dog to do what you want him to do. If you don’t want him on your bed, and he jumps on it anyway, toss a treat or his favorite toy (have some ready by your bedside) onto his bed. Or, toss it outside the bedroom door, and then get up and shut the door behind him! As the one with the opposable thumbs and the ability to control all the good stuff, you should be able to do this. 
  • Be a benevolent leader. True authority doesn’t look angry or confrontational in any species. Think about your own life. Are you more likely to follow someone who kindly guides you or one who bullies you? Cooperation, not conflict.
Alpha or Aggressive?

A dog’s aggressive behavior is all too often mistakenly perceived as a dog’s attempts to be “alpha.” That’s not what it is. The most common presentation of canine aggression is fear-related or defensive aggression. While there are many reasons why a dog may be defensively aggressive, it stands to reason that a dog who has been randomly and unpredictably punished for normal dog behaviors such as trying to walk through a door or protect his valuable possessions, might become defensive.

With the extremely rare exception of idiopathic aggression, aggression is, across the board, caused by stress. A dog who is subjected to alpha rolls and other unreasonable and inappropriate human behavior is quite likely stressed. 

The first step to dealing with his defensive aggression is to stop doing whatever it is that is causing him to react aggressively. Find ways to get him to do what you need him to do without using force or coercion. The goal is willing cooperation – and there are numerous effective, dog-friendly tactics available to you today, taught and practiced by trainers using modern behavior-modification techniques, at your disposal.

If positive-reinforcement-based training techniques  significantly reduce or eliminate the aggression, you can continue with your training program to improve communication and relationship. If the aggression continues, seek the assistance of a qualified force-free professional to help you modify the aggression and heal the relationship.

Here are good resources for finding qualified force-free professionals:


Have you ever taken a class with a dog training professional who uses “dog-friendly” techniques and marveled at how easily they seemed to be able to get your dog to understand and do what they wanted him to do? This is not because they are “dog whisperers” or have special “energy.” It’s because they:

  • Pay close attention to the dog we are working with.
  • Understand and respond appropriately to canine body language signals.
  • Communicate cheerfully and clearly to them with consistent cues and body language.
  • Manage them well to prevent reinforcement for behaviors we don’t want.
  • Generously reinforce behaviors that we want/like.
  • Consistently set the dog up to succeed.

If your dog has behaviors that concern you and the basic training and management steps don’t resolve them, seek the assistance of a qualified force-free behavior professional to help you find solutions using methods that will preserve a relationship between you and your dog that is based on mutual trust and willing cooperation.


Dogs and humans have had close relationships for at least 15,000 years, with current research suggesting that domestication of our canine companions may go back as far as 40,000 years. One might think that if they were bound and determined to take over, it would have happened eons ago. It really is time to stop thinking about our dogs as adversaries and just relax and enjoy life with them as our cooperative partners and companions. 

Alpha Flaws

We would like to remind you of all the flaws in the following absurd – but potentially very harmful – alpha/dominance myths about our relationships with our dogs that are still circulating around the dog world:

You must use an “Alpha roll” (or “scruff shake” or “hanging”) to “correct” your dog’s alpha behavior. This is probably one of the most harmful and dangerous myths. When you see a dog go “belly up” to another, that dog is voluntarily offering an appeasement behavior to avoid or defuse conflict. In contrast, when you aggressively force your dog onto her back, all you do is either intimidate your dog into shutting down – or provoke her into fighting back. In either case, it can cause serious, potentially irreparable damage to the relationship between dog and human, and can cause significant injury or even death to the dog. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

You always have to eat before your dog does. This is based on the misconception that the “alpha” always eats first. This is not the case. While a more assertive member may choose priority access to a resource, they don’t always. 

You must go through doorways first. In truth, the canine group leader (if there is one) does not always go first. We may want to train our dogs to wait for us to go through the door for safety reasons and general politeness, but don’t be fooled – it’s not about dominance.

Letting your dog sleep on the furniture will make him dominant. This myth has to do with the absurd idea that the alpha has to be physically positioned higher than other group members at all times and that allowing dogs on the furniture gives them too much “status.” You are perfectly within your rights to not allow your dogs on furniture for other lifestyle reasons, but don’t buy into the “status” garbage.

You shouldn’t play tug with your dog – or, if you do, you shouldn’t let him win. Actually, tug is a great game for teaching your dog to trade politely when she has something in her mouth – but this is about safety not dominance. (See “Rules for Playing Tug,” December 2016.)

You have the right to anything your dog has and you should demonstrate this regularly. Some people really do believe that you should be able to take away your dog’s food, toys, bone, bed, or anything else, without any resistance from her. But resource-guarding is a natural, normal behavior. Organisms who don’t protect their possessions (food, water, home) will die. There is great value in teaching our dogs to share their possessions with us, and to be relaxed when we are in proximity of their valuables, but that doesn’t give us the right to just willy-nilly take anything and everything away from them on a whim. (See “Changing a Resource Guarder,” April 2020.)

Your dog should earn everything he gets from you. According to the “Nothing in life is free” school of thought, everything your dog wants has to be earned, in order to maintain her lower status. While I do encourage a “Say Please” behavior (my dog sits to “ask” for something), it is just about polite manners, not about my maintaining dominance over my dog. And some things in life are free! My dogs don’t always have to do something to earn my pets and kisses.

If you do not establish yourself as the alpha/pack leader your dog will assume the role. Well, since the whole alpha/pack leader thing is wrong, this one makes no sense. Structure, rules, and consistency are important; they help a dog understand his environment. But it’s not about being an alpha; it’s about simple good manners when living with others!

If your dog is lying in your path, you should either move the dog or step over her. The implication here is that if you walk around your dog you are deferring to her and thereby giving her control. This is just absurd! There is nothing wrong with being polite. Heck, I bet even the President of the United States sometimes walks around folks who are in his path, and I sincerely doubt he ever steps over them!

You should never back down or look away from a “staring contest” with your dog. Oh my. This is an excellent way to get bitten in the face! In the canine world, a direct, hard stare is a threat. I see a lot of dogs with aggressive behaviors in my behavior-consultation practice, and if a dog is giving me a hard stare, the very first thing I do is look away to defuse the tension and give her a better option than escalating her aggressive acts. Dogs use many behaviors, including a hard stare, in order to warn others to back away and give them some space. If you ignore their less-aggressive warnings, they may feel forced to intensify their behavior. If you plan on staring back, make sure your medical insurance is current.

You must punish your dog for growling, snarling, or showing any grouchiness toward you, other humans, or other dogs. Again, this totally overlooks the fact that all of these valuable canine communications are your dog’s efforts to tell you she is uncomfortable. They are not her attempt to rule your world. She is trying her hardest to ask you to back away and give her some space, to not to bite you. Punishing her for these signals will likely to push her to more aggressive communication such as biting. Instead, stop doing whatever is causing her discomfort, and either don’t do it anymore or figure out how to help her be comfortable with it.

You should do (X), because this is how mother dogs (or wolves) do it. 1) It’s probably not, and 2) even if it is, we are not mother dogs or wolves and are likely to be very clumsy and ineffective at communicating what other canines are communicating.

Dogs need to learn that they are dogs. Seriously? Do we really think that dogs don’t know that they are dogs and that we are humans?

Don’t let your dog see you clean up his house-training accidents. According to the myth, if the dog were to witness the human cleaning up, the dog would think that that human is the servant. This is a relatively harmless myth, but … seriously? Where do people get this stuff?

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.


  1. This is a good article and I concur wholeheartedly. I do think that the myths listed as the first lines of paragraphs in the Alpha Flaws section should make it clearer on the surface that they are myths/flaws for those who are skimming and not inclined to read all the lines of the article. Maybe use Bold type and label it as in “Myth/Flaw: You must go through the doorway first”. I’m afraid some people will read only first line and think that’s what they SHOULD do.

  2. This is NOT just good, it is an AWESOME article on the facts!!
    Which is normally the problem understanding the “facts” about dog behavior.

    Love this article. This is one those articles to hang on to.

  3. Thank you for a concise and detailed article. It’s unfortunate that with all the knowledge we have access to,cthis myths are still so prevalent, especially given the potential damage to dogs and the humand-dog relationship.

  4. EXACTLY! Thank you. First time I ever saw this in print. Always felt this way and have NOT had problems with my dogs over the last 50 years. OK… there was this one Alaskan Husky that HAD to take the seat/chair of my husband EVERY time he left it. And he had the LOOK. But we treated it with a sense of humor. It was a game to both of them. If my husband REALLY wanted the chair when he returned he would just set something in it when he left (a box of kleenex, a pad of paper). All things the dog could have easily moved… but didn’t.

  5. Thank you this is a very good article. My new rescue has problems and people have been telling me you are the Alfa. I talked to 2 trainers and they both said Alfa Alfa. A week before reading this I decided maybe if I sit down next to him when he is aggressively upset with a neighbor or a visitor and talk to him maybe this would work. ? He likes my neighbor across from me but has started to be mean and growl at her. We can not figure out why ? I picked him up March 17, 2021 he is a small guy 8 pounds, 6 when I got him. He is a Bichon Frise, I think mix but who knows. Reading this I will work harder with him and just try to let him know I love him. I always believed in a steady routine for dogs and babies, I know it works great. Thanks again. Wish me luck.

    • Hi Harriett,
      Have you tried having your neighbor toss you dog treats as he otherwise ignores your dog and talks quietly with you? We have people do this with our not so friendly German Shepherd rescue, and he learns that “strangers” can be a positive thing.

  6. There is a line between being a leader and being a bully. Dog behavior problems arise when that line is crossed.

    I find the best results are when I:

    1. Clearly communicate what I want.
    2. Am consistent.
    3. Provide immediate feedback for positive or negative results. Praise, pets or treats when they do what I want and nothing when they don’t.

    My current rescue, Freyja is so eager to please that she is learning positive behaviors simply for pets and praise. She is also becoming a more confident and happy dog. It helps that she has a “sister” to observe and copy.

  7. Great article! I sometimes wonder why some people are so afraid to not allow their dogs to have personalities. Not human personalities, but dogs seem to have personality traits all their own! I wish that people would take the time to observe and learn their dog’s behaviour and nature. So much easier to anticipate their actions and working together for a positive result.
    I never could get ‘eating your meal before the dog.’ For one, I never felt like eating earlier than my dogs, plus I found feeding them first resulted in them stretching out and sleeping while I ate my dinner undisturbed!
    My GSD Gracie, who sadly died this summer, was very sensitive, and I caught on that she was kind of insecure. She seemed to spook easily. So a daily routine, walking the same route, really worked well for us.
    I think a lot has to do with the vibe you put out. Animals are naturally so tuned into our moods, our general demeanour. If you radiate impatience, forcefulness etc. what behaviour would one expect from your dog? It takes a lot of patience, and we make mistakes too. But hopefully we can learn together and turn out to be an unbeatable combination!

  8. Excellent article! I wish every dog owner could read it. Two years ago, we adopted a skittish dog with aggressive behavior. He would snap and try to bite us with no growling or warning. I asked our vet clinic and a rescue group for dog trainer referrals. I also checked online for local trainers that had excellent reviews. After reviewing their credentials, or lack of, as well as their training methods, I did not feel comfortable choosing any of them. It took several months of searching, and eventually I was able to find a trainer who used positive-reinforcement method of training (similar to Victoria Stillwell’s and Karen Pryor’s) at the local SPCA. They also helped us manage our dog’s aggressive behavior without using punishment or fear. It was a game changer.

  9. Hmmm. I disagree that the “Dominant Individual ” is the one that “gets the bone”.
    The dominant is the one in charge,
    The dominant can be a bully or a kind and supportive individual. The dominant individual can give subordinates food, or take food away from them.
    Social structure has not been well studied in domestic dogs — basically because I think they are so strongly affected by the human hierarchy.
    There are many very good books and studies on other non-human societies. Jane Goodall’s “Innocent Killers” was my starting point:-) I know that Konrad Lorenz is a bit oudated but I still like his “Man Meets Dog”. (His best is “The Year of the Greylag Goose”)

  10. Overall I agree except I do not understand why so many feel the need to disparage Cesar Milan. No specific example/episode was given. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

    I have watched every episode of Cesar’s shows and read a couple of his books and it seems to me he treats every dog as an individual and assesses his tactics based on specific observations. I have seen him place a dog (didn’t seem overly forceful or cruel to me) on his side so another dog could sniff his butt. I will say that I personally may not feel comfortable applying every tactic he employs, but it’s largely due to my lack of confidence and experience.

    When I adopted my then 2 year old American Bully he had been labeled dog-aggressive by the shelter. I consulted with several trainers and found their methods widely varied. I was simply not comfortable with a couple of them who immediately wanted to go for the prong collar and ‘force’ compliance. And yet those trainers have success stories and supporters rallying around them.

    My dog turned out to be a mostly compliant people-pleaser who responded beautifully to distractions and redirections with treats. I certainly believe patience and rewards should be the first attempts at training. Yet I have seen dogs who simply will not respond to all the gentle coercion you can muster. I don’t believe it’s a matter of being alpha but I wouldn’t let my dog charge out the dog in front of me because it’s better for both of us that he learns he has to exercise self-control. He can be stubborn and I have had to at times be more stubborn – though of course always as a benevolent leader. I haven’t been able to make him into a dog-lover yet I can now have him leashed around other dogs calmly and he can usually handle a controlled, brief greeting. I just don’t let him play because he’s too strong and yes, has bully tendencies. This is where I may differ with Cesar in that I don’t feel the need to force him to accept other dogs in his space; I love him just as much even though I don’t fully trust him with other dogs. (With people he’s a gem, works as a therapy dog.)

    I guess what I’m saying is no one trainer is perfect or has all the correct approaches at all times; even the best trainer is human and may at some point fail with a dog, fail to read them correctly or fail to know what is best in each and every situation. That’s why at times you’ll hear a story of a supposed experienced person getting bitten by a dog. We’re all human. There are a lot of dogs with issues out there (I observe them near daily) and a lot of humans who have no idea what they’re doing or don’t care enough to even try. So the way I see it, Cesar Milan is someone who is out there trying to help people and their dogs, and he does help a lot of people, his perceived missteps notwithstanding.

    • I agree! I don’t understand why the authors on the site want to bend over backwards to disparage Cesar Milan. I know for a fact that many of his techniques work and work well for the long haul. His philosophy is based on being a calm, balanced and consistent Leader. So many people can’t seem to achieve even those basic principles, and then wonder why their dog is acting out or ignoring them. Naturally, it depends on the dog, the person, and the specific situation. But to completely disregard and/or disparage the insight that Milan (or any other trainer who’s technique is different, but is not abusive) seems like petty jealousy and only brings one’s credibility down.

    • Basically because few of his methods ‘work’ in the long run, and they also come with even MORE problems than the ones you think you have solved.
      His methods ARE also abusive. Unless you think that holding a dog up by a slip collar
      around its neck is not abusive, or kicking the dog is not abuse.
      I will s ay no more in case I get flack, but if you want to continue the discusiin (politely), message me on FB

  11. Excellent article and it hits (no pun) on all points. I laughed out loud at the comment that staring down a dog is a good way to get bit in the face. You’re absolutely right, and I have said different versions of this so many times, it was funny for me to see it in print.

    One of the things I try to explain to clients who ask about aversive or force-based techniques is the concept of transferability. Yes – I have seen the video of the grown man “alpha rolling” a Papillion and that dog really gets the message that that trainer is boss, but can that be replicated by a little old man in a walker and a 140-lb. over-threshold Ridgeback? Easy answer – no. And it’s a good way to get bit in the bargain. If the training technique is valid then it is transferable – it doesn’t rely on the physical strength of the trainer nor the size of the dog.

    The concepts in the article do a great job of bolstering positive reinforcement techniques. Thanks.

  12. @Janie B – take a look for a video featuring CM & Holly – the food resource guarding labrador. This poor dog gave so many signals to him that she was uncomfortable with his behaviour while she was trying to eat (he was doing some weird “Ninja” moves) that eventually she gave him several decent bites to his hand. The only funny part of the video was when CM says “I didn’t see that coming” when Blind Freddie could have seen what was going to happen! I believe this poor dog ended up going to his “Dog Psychology Centre” & after that her story was unknown. She would have been so much better if she’d just been allowed to eat her food in peace on her own.

    Incidentally for those who don’t live in North America another great resource for finding force-free trainers is the Institute of Modern Dog Training (IMDT) – they have trainers in the UK & also Australia. Initially started by Steve Mann, IMDT runs regular courses for trainers & would-be trainers & only use force-free methods. They are excellent. Incidentally, I’m not affiliated with them in anyway – I just know that they are good trainers.

  13. Muriel, as I said, I do not think Cesar error-free, nor do I think ANY OTHER TRAINER IS. It seems to me he does admit to not getting it 100% right every time, and I just think he does quite a bit of good. For some reason people want to discount anything good in his work.

    At least you did give a specific example of what you take issue with, which the article did not do.

  14. Thank you as usual WDJ for debunking this myth. I’m so disappointed in NatGeo for continuing their 2 shows that use the Alpha method. Bullying never works out in the end. Trust is the goal.
    After 25 plus years as a dog groomer I would have not survived if I used any “alpha moves”. Trust and respect and positive reinforcement has been my mantra.

  15. Great article but I will defend Caesar Millan. While I would not feel comfortable using some of his techniques myself as I do not have the experience it is my view that he has done amazing work often with very difficult dogs who may have otherwise had to be euthanised. He also freely states that there are other methods other than his own.

    • Thank you for your comment; I agree with you completely. I enjoy learning new things from Whole Dog Journal, and I try to keep an open mind to the different approaches to working with and caring for our dogs.

      Having said that, if I see another article taking a swipe a Cesar Milan, I’m going to cancel my subscription.

      • Maybe you could actually READ some good books re training. Or Even Google. And IF you are afraid to use these non-violent methods, then maybe you could get your self another an animal to try they methods on.
        Though I converted my reluctant self by teaching my dogs tricks with the positive methods, The worked so well I gave up every sort of punishment in training.
        Pat Miller’s books are ​an excellent start 🙂