A man kneeling in front of a sitting dog with his finger in the dog's face issuing a command.

DeBarking Pet Myths: Do I Need to Be the Alpha to Train My Dog?

Welcome to another installment of “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs, cats and their nutrition.

To properly train a dog, do you have to be the “alpha” of the pack?

It’s a good question, and entire training philosophies have been born out of the answer. The bullet points of the theory of alpha training are based on the belief that dogs are descended from wolves, and wolf packs have a clear-cut hierarchy of dominance that seems hardwired into the pack. If it works for wolf packs, it should work for human/domestic dog packs as well, right?

Well, it does work. Celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan has written at length about how to be the pack leader. Millan’s version of alpha training is to train your dog like a mother dog trains her puppies. She controls when they eat, when they play and basically their every movement, and she never second-guesses her decisions. “A pack leader doesn’t project emotional or nervous energy, so neither should you,” Millan says.

Millan’s way is framed as a positive take on being the alpha to your dog. It’s about finding what fulfills your dog and then offering them the chance to earn it. “Tough love” isn’t the right description, but it’s in the general ballpark. It’s about making sure that your trainee knows who is in charge, but also being respectful and always with the ultimate goal of nurturing your pup.

While Cesar’s Way seems like a reasonable dog-training method, there are those who can take it too far. “Establishing dominance” does not mean physically or mentally abusing your dog. There are some schools of thought that maintain that, in educated and professional hands, the more aggressive alpha training methods can help rehabilitate violently aggressive dogs. However, choke chains, shock collars and fear tactics can easily just lead to a jumpy and aggressive dog.

Opposition to alpha?

There has been some opposition to the theory of the pack mentality when it comes to people and their pet dogs.  Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, who operates the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab and has written numerous books about dog behavior, dismisses the alpha dog theory at its roots, because she feels that it’s based on misinformation. Horowitz says that any observation of pack mentality in wolves comes from wolves held in containment, and that wolves in the wild behave much differently, favoring “the good of the pack” over dominance tactics.

Getting positive

Instead of the alpha method, Horowitz subscribes to the theory of positive reinforcement dog training. This popular training method is based on the idea that a dog will repeat his or her behavior if the behavior is followed by something positive. Sitting on command earns a treat, for instance. Or coming when called is met with praise. Rather than scolding for wrong behavior, an incorrect step isn’t even acknowledged, so there’s no true “negative” to this method.

There are variants of positive reinforcement training. Clicker training is more or less positive reinforcement training with sounds attached to acknowledge the exact moment a good behavior happens. Another variation of positive reinforcement training is “relationship-based” training. It’s built on establishing a trusting relationship with your dog; rather than force respect, you earn it. But it requires a deep understanding of your dog’s every action to be truly effective. You need to know what makes your dog tick in order to best change their behavior.

You know your dog best

There are arguments for and against all of the methods of training we’ve mentioned, and there are plenty of other methods that have proven to work as well. For many people, a little bit of alpha training can go a long way to teaching your dog who is in charge, but it’s not the only way. You know your dog better than anyone, so talk to your vet and a professional trainer and figure out which way is right for you and, more importantly, your best pal.


RELATED POST: Strategies that make your dog training easier

An interior graphic with text that reads, 'Debarking Pet Myths: To train my dog, I need to be the alpha — Partially True'.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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