In this chapter, I want to have a look and dispel the myth of the alpha who rules its pack through domination and explore how Integral Dog Training helps to establish a healthy and successful way to solve most behavior issues with your dogs.
Often, when I meet new clients with their fur babies in tow for the first time, emotions usually run high, when they recount their struggles, frustrations, and pains about the various issues they’re experiencing with their dogs.
After years of training dogs and hearing countless vivid descriptions of problems they battle every day, I’ve noticed a common thread that ties many of these issues together: the lack of an established pack order or social structure which results in a fundamental breakdown of communications between the pet parents and their dogs. This leaves our canine companions often feeling confused and unsure of their place in the mixed human-dog pack which for them is their whole world. This leads to dogs making their own decisions, which often results in behavioral issues that become often so severe that a dog trainer has to be called in.
For too long, the idea of alpha dominance and submission has been promoted from popular television shows to books and blogs as the only and the only right way to train a dog. The message it conveyed has been clear: in order to be a good leader to your dog, you must assert your dominance over them.
Some clients, who have watched a lot of dog training online, immediately refer to Cesar Millan and ask me if I use a dominance-based model as my training method. I make it clear that I use my own ways of Integral Dog Training (I.D.E.A) and methods that are not based on dominance, but instead are grounded in the latest scientific research on dog behavior and rely on building a relationship, guidance, and positive enforcement, but also teach dogs boundaries, and limitations, always through understanding and never through punishment.
When it comes to becoming a leader for your dogs, I often tell my clients, that my training is actually 70% teaching them and consists of only 30% training their dogs. My approach to addressing the root of most behavioral problems is by reorganizing and restructuring the human-dog relationship in a harmonious way, with the humans taking the lead. In Integral Dog training, being in control of your dog is not about being a macho alpha who dominates and forces the members of its pack into submission through aggression or bullying, but on the contrary: It’s about being a guiding figure for your dog to look up to you with trust, love, respect, and mutual understanding.
Where Does The „Alpha Dog Myth“ Come From?
Understanding the origins of the “Alpha Dog“ theory is crucial for anyone interested in Integral Dog Training. The theory, which suggests that dogs are constantly competing for dominance, is based on observations of captive wolves in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. Schenkel concluded that wolves fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf. However, these observations were made on captive wolves in artificial environments and were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior and domestic dogs.
In the 1990s, prominent wolf researcher L. David Mech challenged the alpha wolf theory with his study of wild wolf populations. Mech found that wolf packs were typically family units led by a breeding pair and not strict dominance hierarchies. Compare it to a harmonious human family, where the parents guide their offspring by leading by example, rather than a mafia-like patriarch imposing his will on the family clan through force and intimidation.
What Is „Alpha Dominance?“
The term „dominance“ in dog training is often misunderstood and thus abused. In a dog’s world dominance is not about who can forcefully pin the other, the weaker pack member to the ground. It’s simply about priority access to a mutually desired resource, which can be food, a comfortable place on the sofa, or who leads the pack in front row when enjoying a walk together
When two dogs come upon a bone, for example, they will use body language to communicate with each other, about who is getting the delicious treat. One dog may want the bone more than the other and will be more persistent in its efforts to obtain it. Eventually, one dog will back off and the other will get the bone. In this case, the second dog was dominant, but this does not mean that it will always be dominant in every situation. But as every dog has a different personality and a different temperament, some dogs act more gentle and diplomatic with each other, while some immediately let out a growl or shows teeth to make clear that there is no discussion of whose bone it is.
Contrary to popular belief, a dog who is aggressive is not automatically trying to dominate. Aggression is usually a sign of underlying fear or confusion, some dogs use dominance as an adaptive strategy for social interactions as they haven’t learned yet other ways to interact. But once they understood that in a healthy human-canine pack, the calmest dog always gets rewarded first, they usually quickly change their strategy as it’s a sure way to succeed in getting what they want.
Dog Mums Are The Best!
In nature, female dogs, like their wild counterparts, have an innate sense of discipline and leadership when it comes to raising their offspring. They use a range of techniques to teach their puppies about boundaries, limitations, and acceptable behavior.
For example, a mother dog may gently pick up her puppies by the scruff of their necks to move them away from something that could harm them. If a puppy misbehaves then a dog mum might decide to punish their offspring by growling or barking at them. This is a way of showing disapproval and communicating to the puppies that their behavior is not acceptable. But they also use positive reinforcement, such as licking or cuddling their puppies, when they behave well or follow their directions. This helps to reinforce good behavior and encourages the puppies to continue behaving in a positive manner.
Dog mums use their body language to teach their offspring about socialization and communication. They may snarl or snap at their puppies when they overstep their boundaries or become too rough during playtime. This teaches the puppies to recognize and respect the body language of other dogs and to moderate their own behavior accordingly and is never meant to hurt or instill fear in them.
The Integral Dog Training Approach
Exactly as in nature, by using Integral Dog Training methods, I teach dog owners how to establish themselves as calm, assertive, and gentle, yet very effective leaders by using positive reinforcement and clear communication to establish boundaries and set examples and expectations for correct behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a member of the „positive only approach“, and allow dogs to roam around the house and do just whatever they want. Female dog mothers taught me that as a pack leader, it is crucial to guide your dogs by clearly making them understand the rules and boundaries which I set. I firmly believe that using harsh, old-fashioned dominance-theory methods like the infamous „alpha roll“ can have damaging effects on a dog’s behavior and personality. Dominance theory suggests that in order to assert ourselves as the pack leader, we must fight back harder when a dog fights back. This approach can lead to the escalation of violence and aggressive behavior, as it does not solve the underlying reason for misbehavior. Integral dog training is based on the understanding that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by social bonds and through reinforcement of desired behaviors. Boundaries and limitations are taught by making dogs understand that they will not get what they want, if they make their own decisions and thus causing issues unwanted behavior. They are shown an alternative option of how to behave and if they decide to follow how I want them to behave, there is always lots of praise and rewards.
One of the most important aspects of Integral Dog Training is understanding the voluntary nature of appeasement behavior in dogs. When a wolf goes belly-up, it’s almost always a voluntary appeasement behavior offered by the wolf on the ground, not a forcible „alpha-roll“ by the standing wolf. The same is true for dogs. This means that when a dog shows submissive behavior, it’s not necessarily a sign of dominance or submission, but rather an attempt to appease and communicate.
It’s important to understand that every dog is an individual and recognize that dog personalities lie on a continuum from very soft to very tough, and that’s why it is utterly important to tailor the training methods accordingly.
Dogs are not our equals, just as children are not our equals, but that does not mean they need to be dominated. Instead, what they need is for us to be clear about our expectations and to train them in a way that increases their happiness by cooperating with us. Same as in a school class, not every pupil learns in the same way and at the same speed. Why little Susan might need the teacher to explain something over and over until she gets it, and lazy-ass Kiran might need a bit more of a firm reminder that he has to finish his homework if he wants to go out and play.
Some clients tell me that their dogs sometimes act mean or do something just to piss them off. This is utter nonsense as none of their behavior is intended to piss us off, but rather a natural response to the availability of food or comfort. It’s always important to remember that dogs are dogs and not humans!
Strategies For Improving Relationship With Your Dogs
Building a strong relationship with your dogs requires more than just obedience training. It’s about creating an environment that promotes positive behavior and prevents negative behavior. The following strategies can help you build a deeper connection with your dog and improve your communication with him.
The first step is to implement solid management strategies to prevent your dog from receiving reinforcement for the behaviors you don’t want. This means making changes to your home environment to remove temptations, such as putting away the garbage can or not leaving food on the counter. By doing so, you create an atmosphere that supports your dog’s success in following your expectations.
Creating structure and routine in your dog’s daily life can also help him feel more comfortable and confident. Some dogs thrive on predictability and benefit from a set routine, which can decrease their stress and make them less fearful or defensive. By establishing a routine for your dog’s daily activities, you can help him feel more secure and reduce its need to be aggressive.
Another important factor in building a strong bond with your dogs is to focus on reinforcing the behaviors you do want. Rewarding your dogs for positive actions, such as sitting on command or walking calmly on a leash, helps them build confidence in their abilities and trust in you as their owner, who always knows what is best for them. By focusing on positive reinforcement, you can create a mutually respectful relationship with your dogs based on understanding, trust, and respect.
It’s important to find non-confrontational ways to train your dogs. Yelling, hitting, or punishing your dogs for unwanted behavior can damage your relationship and create fear and anxiety. Instead, try using positive reinforcement to redirect your dog’s attention to something you want them to do instead. Tossing a treat or toy onto their bed or redirecting them to a designated area can help them understand what you want without conflict. Dogs are opportunists and always choose what they think is best for them, so make sure you offer them alternatives to bad behaviors, which they cannot resist!
Finally, being a benevolent leader is key to building a strong bond with your dog. This means guiding your dogs with kindness and patience, rather than using dominance or aggression. Your dogs are more likely to trust and follow someone who treats them with respect and kindness, rather than someone who is confrontational.
By following these strategies, you can create a relationship with your dogs based on mutual understanding, trust, and respect with a clear line of communication instead of trying to dominate them through force. This type of relationship can lead to a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life for both you and your best friend.
Find here a blog post about how to Walk Like a Hero: The Role of Leadership in Integral Dog Training for Better Behaviour