Pet parents’ guide to alpha dogs and being the leader of your pack

It is often said that dog owners need to let their animal companions know who is the boss, to show them that we are the ‘leader of the pack,’ and to prevent them from acting on their innate desire to fight for dominance.

There’s an image of the wolf pack that endures—a dominant alpha male fights to defeat all challenges to his authority, chases off any threat to his pack, demands to lead, and punishes those below him. For years, the connection was made that our animal companions retained this innate hierarchy and desire for dominance from their wolf ancestors.

Pet owners have been told that an ‘alpha’ dog would challenge them for dominance in the home and that dogs would fight each other to become the leader. Training models cautioned that we must always show our dominance over our dogs and that they need to know their place in our pack through punishments such as ‘pinning.’

However, research in the last 20 years has shown both that the early studies of wolf behavior were wrong and also that it does not make sense to apply observations about wild wolves living in large packs to domesticated dogs living in a family setting. Wild wolves do live in large packs, and they are structured with a clear leader. Rather than being a constant battle for dominance, however, wolf packs operate in more of a ‘family structure’ with the leaders being seen as parent figures who watch out for the pack from the rear, ensure that younger or weaker members are fed first, and teach younger wolves the skills they need to go off and form their own packs as they mature.

Our companion dogs that have evolved alongside humans for thousands of years enjoy a more complex pack system in our homes. Dogs know we are different species, and their behaviors aren’t geared to dominate us but to feel safe and gain the rewards they enjoy. Our job is to offer clear expectations and to make sure that our pack is a safe and happy one.

Knowing your pack

Just like people, dogs have a range of personalities. And of course, just like people, each dog can exhibit the entire range of these personality traits depending on the situation. It is often thought that a dog’s breed determines their behavior, but recent studies have shown that a dog’s sex, age, and environment are much stronger influences on their actions.



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