Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory

Exerting "dominance" over your dog is the wrong way to build a good relationship.


The alpha myth is everywhere. Google “alpha dog” on the Internet and you get more than 85 million hits. Really. While not all the sites are about dominating your dog, there are literally millions of resources out there – websites, books, blogs, television shows, veterinarians, trainers and behavior professionals – instructing you to use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission. They say that you, the human, must be the alpha. They’re all wrong. Every single one of them.

The erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory (two million-plus Google hits) is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

The Origin’s of the “Alpha” Dog Theory

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. Other behaviorists following Schenkel’s lead also studied captive wolves and confirmed his findings: groups of unrelated wolves brought together in artificial captive environments do, indeed, engage in often-violent and bloody social struggles.

The problem is, that’s not normal wolf behavior. As David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves (Mech, 2000), “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 (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) 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.

Dominance-Based Training is Disrespectful to Your Dog

But that’s all about wolves anyway, not dogs. How did it happen that dog owners and trainers started thinking all that information (and misinformation) about wolf behavior had anything to do with dogs and dog behavior? The logic went something like, “Dogs are descended from wolves. Wolves live in hierarchical packs in which the aggressive alpha male rules over everyone else. Therefore, humans need to dominate their pet dogs to get them to behave.”

Perhaps the most popular advocate of the alpha dog theory, Cesar Millan, is only the latest in a long line of dominance-based trainers who advocate forceful techniques such as the alpha roll. Much of this style of training has roots in the military – which explains the emphasis on punishment.

As far back as 1906, Colonel Konrad Most was using heavy-handed techniques to train dogs in the German army, then police and service dogs. He was joined by William Koehler after the end of World War II.

Koehler also initially trained dogs for the military prior to his civilian dog-training career, and his writings advocated techniques that included hanging and helicoptering a dog into submission (into unconsciousness, if necessary). For example, to stop a dog from digging, Koehler suggested filling the hole with water and submerging the dog’s head in the water-filed hole until he was nearly drowned.

Fast-forward several years to 1978 and the emergence of the Monks of New Skete as the new model for dog training, asserting a philosophy that “understanding is the key to communication, compassion, and communion” with your dog. Sounds great, yes? The Monks were considered cutting edge at the time – but contrary to their benevolent image, they were in fact responsible for the widespread popularization of the “Alpha-Wolf Roll-Over” (now shortened to the alpha roll). Reviewing the early observations of captive wolves, the Monks concluded that the alpha roll is a useful tool for demonstrating one’s authority over a dog. Unfortunately, this is a complete and utter misinterpretation of the submissive roll-over that is voluntarily offered by less assertive dogs, not forcibly commanded by stronger ones.

The Monks also advocated the frequent use of other physical punishments such as the scruff shake (grab both sides of the dog’s face and shake, lifting the dog off the ground) and cuffing under the dog’s chin with an open hand several times, hard enough to cause the dog to yelp.

While professing that “training dogs is about building a relationship that is based on respect and love and understanding,” even their most recent book, Divine Canine: The Monks’ Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog (2007), is still heavy on outdated, erroneous dominance theory. Immediately following their suggestion that “a kindly, gentle look tells the dog she is loved and accepted,” they say “But it is just as vital to communicate a stern reaction to bad behavior. A piercing, sustained stare into a dog’s eyes tells her who’s in charge; it establishes the proper hierarchy of dominance between person and pet.” (It’s also a great way to unwittingly elicit a strong aggressive response if you choose the wrong dog as the subject for your piercing, sustained stare.)

Despite the strong emergence of positive reinforcement-based training in the last 20 years, the Monks don’t seem to have grasped that the “respect” part needs to go both ways for a truly compassionate communion with your dog. Perhaps one of these days . . .

The Birth of Positive-Reinforcement Training

Just when it seemed that dog training had completely stagnated in turn-of-the-century military-style dominance-theory training, marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor wrote her seminal book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Published in 1985, this small, unassuming volume was intended as a self-help book for human behavior. The author never dreamed that her modest book, paired with a small plastic box that made a clicking sound, would launch a massive paradigm shift in the world of dog training and behavior. But it did.

police dog training

Forward progress was slow until 1993, when veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Dunbar’s vision of a forum for trainer education and networking has developed into an organization that now boasts nearly 6,000 members worldwide. While membership in the APDT is not restricted to positive reinforcement-based trainers, included in its guiding principles is this statement:

“We promote the use of reward-based training methods, thereby minimizing the use of aversive techniques.”

The establishment of this forum facilitated the rapid spread of information in the dog training world, enhanced by the creation of an online discussion list where members could compare notes and offer support for a scientific and dog-friendly approach to training.

Things were starting to look quite rosy for our dogs. The positive market literally mushroomed with books and videos from dozens of quality training and behavior professionals, including Jean Donaldson, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Dr. Karen Overall, Suzanne Hetts, and others. With advances in positive training and an increasingly educated dog training profession embracing the science of behavior and learning and passing good information on to their clients, pain-causing, abusive methods such as the alpha roll, scruff shake, hanging, drowning, and cuffing appeared to be headed the way of the passenger pigeon.

A Step-Backward for Positive-Reinforcement Training Techniques

Then, in the fall of 2004, the National Geographic Channel launched its soon-to-be wildly popular show, “The Dog Whisperer”. Alpha dog theory was back in vogue, with a vengeance. Today, everything from housetraining mistakes to jumping up to counter surfing to all forms of aggression is likely to be attributed to alpha dog theory by followers of the alpha-resurgence.

“But,” some will argue, “look at all the dogs who have been successfully trained throughout the past century using the dominance model. Those trainers can’t be all wrong.”

In fact, harsh force-based methods (in technical parlance, “positive punishment”) are a piece of operant conditioning, and as the decades have proven, those methods can work. They are especially good at shutting down behaviors – convincing a dog that it’s not safe to do anything unless instructed to do something. And yes, that works with some dogs. With others, not so much.

My own personal, unscientific theory is that dog personalities lie on a continuum from very soft to very tough. Harsh, old-fashioned dominance-theory methods can effectively suppress behaviors without obvious fallout (although there is always behavioral fallout) with dogs nearest the center of the personality continuum – those who are resilient enough to withstand the punishment, but not so tough and assertive that they fight back. Under dominance theory, when a dog fights back, you must fight back harder until he submits, in order to assert yourself as the pack leader, or alpha.

Problem is, sometimes they don’t submit, and the level of violence escalates. Or they submit for the moment, but may erupt aggressively again the next time a human does something violent and inappropriate to them. Under dominance-theory training, those dogs are often deemed incorrigible, not suitable for the work they’re being trained for nor safe as a family companion, and sentenced to death. Had they never been treated inappropriately, many might have been perfectly fine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a very “soft” dog can be easily psychologically damaged by one enthusiastic inappropriate assertion of rank by a heavy-handed dominance trainer. This dog quickly shuts down – fearful and mistrusting of the humans in his world who are unpredictably and unfairly violent.

Most crossover trainers (those who used to train with old-fashioned methods and now are proud to promote positive reinforcement-based training) will tell you they successfully trained lots of dogs the old way. They loved their dogs and their dogs loved them.

I’m a crossover trainer and I know that’s true. I also would dearly love to be able to go back and redo all of that training, to be able to have an even better relationship with those dogs, to give them a less stressful life – one filled with even more joy than the one we shared together.

We Aren’t Dogs, and Our Dogs Know It

Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. They know how impossibly inept we are, for the most part, at reading and understanding the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties. Any attempts on our part to somehow insert ourselves into their social structure and communicate meaningfully with them in this manner are simply doomed to failure. It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species – and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully.

The fact is, successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, not because of aggressively enforced dominance. The whole point of social body language rituals is to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. Watch any group of dogs interacting. Time and time again you’ll see dogs deferring to each other. It’s not even always the same dog deferring:

Dog B: Hey, I’d really like to go first. Dog A: “By all means, be my guest.” Dog B passes down the narrow hallway.

Dog A: “I’d really like to have that bone.” Dog B: “Oh sure – I didn’t feel like chewing right now anyway.” Dog A gets the bone.

Social hierarchies do exist in groups of domesticated dogs and in many other species, including humans, and hierarchy can be fluid. As described above, one dog may be more assertive in one encounter, and more deferent in the next, depending on what’s at stake, and how strongly each dog feels about the outcome. There are a myriad of subtleties about how those hierarchies work, and how the members of a social group communicate – in any species.

Today, educated trainers are aware that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by reinforcement. Behaviors that are reinforced repeat and strengthen. If your dog repeats an inappropriate behavior such as counter surfing or getting on the sofa, it’s not because he’s trying to take over the world; it’s just because he’s been reinforced by finding food on the counter, or by being comfortable on the sofa. He’s a scavenger and an opportunist, and the goods are there for the taking. Figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviors you don’t want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do, and you’re well on your way to having the relationship of mutual love, respect, communication, and communion that we all want to have with our dogs.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Author of numerous books on positive dog training, she lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog training classes and courses for trainers.

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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. Are we permitted to reprint your article for students of our dog trainer classes as long as we link to your web site and give you and Pat Miller credit or by line ?
    WE love your articles–they are vital to the community and we would love to help promote your publication for our students .
    Do you have a program where we can set that up on our web site ?
    layne kizler

    • but yet still not true. Look at everywhere else in the animal kingdom. monkeys, lions, humans (yes, we also organize in social hierarchical structures, but I’ll point this out to you since maybe this isn’t obvious. Think Military, Police, etc etc).

      I think anyone who believes this really didn’t watch nature documentaries growing up.

  2. So, I’ve approached this with open mind for several years now. As a trainer myself, I must say that the definition of Alpha most have is not the definition of Alpha. It simplyeans leader. I have witnessed time and time again the transformation, love and respect the most difficult dog has when they encounter a human who is a leader, calm, understanding, never having to show dog who’s boss, the dog just knows. There isn’t the pampering spoil em.rotten ,stuff either. The dog breeds you to be the leader. Caly, not bullying, but when the dog challenges the human leader tracts as the the alpha wolf in.a pack..And the fog loves it. But so many so called alpha trainers out there tryna look macho
    I will say The Fog Whisperer, Cesar Milon seems to be as completely misunderstood as dogs are. He is so far above the rest of the pack of trainers out there,that theyust tear him down , he is iny opinion, one of the only human beings to come along, known to all , that truly understands dogs. And they were ,are better for having had lives. Instead of tearing a good man and trainer down , seek to understand him and the dogs in your life and maybe you’d be half as good as he someday.

      • Brenda – Spot on! If someone cannot do something as simple as run spellcheck then they are in way over their head when discussing a subject like animal behavior.

        For the Millan devotees, dominance-based training does work – but only sometimes, for some people and on some dogs. It is most definitely not a transferable skill. If you think it is then send video of your grandma “alpha rolling” an over-threshold full-grown Rotty. This is not a challenge – just trying to illustrate what a dumb idea it is.

        Our local Millan-wannabe always showed himself working over small submissive dogs. Bullies are bullies – insecure people who make themselves feel superior by forcing their will on weaker beings – whether with dogs or people.

    • Full of crap! Milan doesn’t know jack squat about dog behavior. He can’t even read dog body language. (Ex on one of his episodes, a dog has its tail down and is quickly wag ing it and lifting A paw. He said oh this dog is happy! It most certainly was not-anyone who really knows dog behavior knows those are signs of a scared nervous dog) He got bitten because he was bullying and pushing a dog and escalated the situation. (Was trying to bully resource guarding out of her. Kept staring her down and flooding her by trying to take the food away, until eventually sir but him) Alpha does not mean leader. It means “I’m the boss, I’m stronger than you and you WILL do as I say.” Milan isn’t misunderstood. He’s just uneducated. I don’t doubt he loves dogs….but he just doesn’t know about their behavior or a kinder way to train. He only teaches dogs to shut down and fear punishment.

  3. I practice Caesar Milon, way of training and it works. Dogs are pack animals and need guidance and it is up to us to give it to them.I volunteer at the local animal shelter and I work with the harder dogs to place. When you treat a dog with respect, earn their trust and respect,,they will want to please you, I see it in these dogs everyday.I was trained by people who work with Caesar Milon,, when I see how dogs respond to them makes me want what they have.
    It’s good to have different ways of training,,that is how we learn. It is not ok to put down someone else’s way!

    • No they are NOT PACK ANIMALS. That is a huge misunderstanding people have. DOGS. ARE. NOT. WOLVES. If you see wild dog “packs” you will notice that they don’t have any leader nor do they really function as a pack. The dogs follow each other for resources. The more dogs in a group, the more resources are easier to get.
      Milan is NOT an animal behaviorist. He’s a “self taught” trainer who is stuck on info from old school thought. Doubt he’s even ever picked up a book on MODERN canine behavior. Because any educated behaviorist knows that positive reinforcement (and this has been wrongly interpreted as spoiling your dog with a treat to bribe them and they won’t behave if there’s no treat-they will if when they start to understand what behavior you want from them you only reward them some of the time. Eventually you’ve conditioned them to know good behavior means good things happen. I got a dog to love coming to get groomed in this way. Couldn’t touch her the first time, but now she trusts me and will let me do whatever I need-WITHOUT treats even being present in my salon)
      Can you honestly look in a mirror and say you feel good about yourself when you kick, choke, or force your dog into behavior and call it “training”? Do you have kids? Would you teach them respect with physics punishments and be afraid to obey or get hit, rolled on their back, etc? Doubt you would….why would dogs be any different?

      • Actually get your facts straight. Cesar studied many dog behaviour books one being the “ dogs mind “so you think he can’t know about dogs because he didn’t have a piece of paper to say he studied canine behaviour 🤣🤣.. so people in universities know more than people who’ve actually done things in the real world ?
        Cesar just has a natural gift of understanding dogs . No one has that gift . He’s saved thousands of dogs lives . Helping rehabilitate the worse issues in dog behaviour.
        Show me One other behaviourist who could drive down LA IN A CONVERTIBLE WITH 5 Rottweilers sitting calmly not jumping about .. you can’t 🤣.. THEYD LOVE TO HAVE AN INCH OF HIS SKILL 👑

      • Michelle – dogs most certainly ARE pack animals. You’ve clearly never seen a pack of dogs LOL. Go to many countries in Africa or Asia and there are ferral dogs roaming around in PACKS. I’ve watched them. And yes, they have leaders.

        Now whether a dog sees a human as an “alpha pack leader” is another matter. It’s very hard to know how a dog sees us. They don’t sniff our butts or treat us like dogs but in other ways they do seem to react in a manner that suggests a dog-like relationship. I suspect we have a unique relationship which is somewhere in the middle. I doubt the dog even knows.

        They’re not humans. They’re not wolves. They don’t need a pack of dogs to be happy. But are dogs pack animals? yes they clearly are.

  4. Sorry, this article is wrong. Im a veterinarian assistant and a Cesar Millan fan. I’ve used his methods to raise my dog and he is now my registered service dog. Being dominant does not mean to force your dog into submission by force. That’s what they do in the wild, yes absolutely. But we are not animals, we have better ways to teach animals without the use of force. Dogs need an alpha to follow just like children need parents to follow. When you’re in trouble and 1 of your parents gives you “the look” you know to go to your room, no questions asked. No force needed and it’s the same for dogs. If they are about to eat a piece of chocolate you dropped, the command “Leave it” comes in handy. If you’re not the alpha, what do you think the dog is gonna do? Being the alpha means, whatever you say goes. You decide when to go for a walk, which direction to go, you choose when to feed them etc… That’s not forcing your dog into submission, if so that means every adult is forcing children into submission. Every child knows it is disrespectful to talk back to any adult, whether you’re a Dr, Parent, Teacher, Priest,Grand Parent, Principal, Police Officer or any other authority figure, you can discipline a child for talking back. Depending who you are to the child, depends on what type of discipline is acceptable.
    Everyone, humans and animals alike needs Rules, Boundaries and Affection.

    • theres no such thing as a ”registered” service dog. the closest thing to registry a service dog can get is a doctor and or psychiatrist letter of approval stating that per your disability, you can train or purchase a service dog to mitigate said disability. you were most likely scammed. training makes a service dog, not a paper off the internet.

    • Before making assertions about how animals behave in the wild, do some research on the history of how the concept of “alpha dog” came into being. Hint – it’s not a generally accepted behavioral condition in biology. Then do some more research on wolf pack behavior in the wild – if for no other reason than to understand that domestic dogs and wolves share basically nothing other than DNA. Humans and chimps share approximately the same amount of DNA as wolves and dogs (98.8% and 99.9% respectively), but we hardly ever see humans picking bugs off each other or marking their turf by flinging scat at trespassers.

  5. Great article. I have one of those soft personality types. I was very upset with myself when as a pup I played a bit too rough with him (just a game of tug) and he went and hid as a result. I have had many German Sheps and they were always enthusiastic in play. I cannot even raise my voice without him looking like I have beaten him half to death.

    I have only used positive reinforcement and he is a happy confident dog now. Trained to silver and we do freestyle heelwork to music – his desire to please is out of this world – none have been as obedient or as loving – and I put this down to always being gentle but firm with him.