Alpha Theory Debunked: 5 Things to Know

There’s a common misconception that dog owners must be “dominant” over their pets. New research has shown that alpha dogs don’t exist, and positive reinforcement is key to training.

Jun 21, 2024byAmanda Henry

alpha theory things to know

Wolves and dogs are closely related, sharing about 99% of their DNA. This has led many people to believe that we can communicate with our dogs like wolves communicate with their packs. But a fundamental misunderstanding of how wolf packs operate has caused some problems within the dog training world.

Positive reinforcement works. Punishing your dog when the “act out” doesn’t. You can learn all about the misconceptions regarding alpha theory here.

1. Alpha Theory Believes in Pack Leaders

Two puppies playing together one standing over the other at golden hour in Don Det Laos
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you know anything about different types of wolves, then chances are that you’ve heard the term “alpha” before. Originating from a study done in the 1940s, this term has since been popularized by books and media, leading to a general notion that wolves battle for dominance.

According to this original study on wolf behavior, all wolves want to be the alpha, but only one is strong enough to become the leader of the pack. This alpha wolf has complete authority over the pack, keeping other wolves in line and controlling all the shared resources.

The alpha eats first, has the first choice for the best areas to relax, and takes from other wolves as it pleases. And when other wolves try to challenge it, the alpha pins them to the ground and puts them in their place. According to alpha theory, this is how all wolf packs operate. But there are many differences between wolves and dogs—including how they communicate.

2. New Research Debunks Alpha Theory

mountain dog and golden retriever
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Alpha theory has been largely debunked because the original study was flawed and did not produce accurate results. The “pack” that was initially studied was not a wolf pack at all. It was a group of random adult wolves put in an enclosure, and they fought over the limited shared resources. They did not have the established relationships that wolves would form in the wild.

With new research, it is understood that wolf packs are family groups. They consist of a mother, a father, and a few generations of offspring. While technically there are still dominant individuals in a wolf pack, they are not dominant because they fought the rest of the wolves and came out on top. Instead, the dominant male and female are in charge because they are the mother and father. The pack respects them in a very similar way to how you respect your parents.

Gray Wolf in Spring (14208643357)
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, other members of the pack wish to become dominant, usually the older offspring. However, these wolves generally don’t try to battle their parents to take control of the group. Instead, they break off from the pack, look for another lone wolf to mate with, and start their own families, with their offspring becoming their new pack.

3. Alpha Theory Does Not Help Train Dogs

White dogs on hind legs
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes also called the dominance method or compulsion training, alpha theory training is an outdated method that was popularized by famous trainers such as Caesar Millan before proper research was widely available. Consisting of techniques such as alpha rolling and taking your dog’s food away, this method is based on establishing dominance so that your dog respects you as the “alpha.”

However, as we’ll explain shortly, this doesn’t work. Overpowering or threatening your dog does not deter common behavioral problems, like excessive barking or chewing. Instead, it can create fear, leading to aggression, resentment, and distrust—all of which can prove detrimental to the dog/owner relationship.

4. Alpha Dog Training Poses Some Dangers

dog biting pant leg
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although it was once popular, the dominance method of dog training is ineffective at best. Choosing to use this training technique is a questionable decision, and it can cause more harm than good.

One of the first issues of this training method is that it intentionally creates conflict—it escalates situations instead of managing them. For example, if your dog struggles with resource-guarding, alpha theory suggests taking your dog’s food away to show them you’re in charge. This doesn’t work. Your dog will not associate the lack of food with resource-guarding. Instead, it could lead to food insecurity, fueling the undesirable behavior even more.

dog howling
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another component of this training method is using physical force, such as alpha rolling or striking your dog. Intended to remind your dog who’s in charge when they show defiance, it teaches your dog to fear you. When faced with a threat, animals have the option of flight, fight, or freeze.

If you forcefully pin a dog to the ground or strike them while they are on a leash, you create a threatening situation and take away the option of flight. This means that your dog is only left with two options, and one of those options is fighting. The other option is that the dog freezes, but this does not mean that it is submitting to you. Instead, they’re in shock.

5. Positive Reinforcement Works; Fear Doesn’t

Dog with treat
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In short, dominance theory doesn’t work. But studies show that positive reinforcement does. Here, instead of punishing your dog when they perform a negative behavior, you reward them when they perform a command successfully or refrain from doing something they shouldn’t. For example, imagine that every time you go on a walk, your dog barks at strangers.

Rather than punish or threaten them, you would give the dog a treat every time they pass by someone without barking. Here, you associate the desired behavior with a reward. Not only does this work to strengthen the bond with your dog, but it also brings out desirable characteristics.

The relationship between your dog should be one filled with love, joy, and patience—not an endless cycle of negative behavior and punishments. Throw out any literature or ideas you have about alpha theory. Instead, focus on cultivating a positive relationship when adopting a new dog.

Amanda Henry
byAmanda Henry

Amanda is an animal lover with over 10 years of experience in dog training and animal care. She has two dogs, an Australian cattle dog named Murphy and a Labrador retriever named Zappa. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, and riding horses.