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What does Alpha mean?

What does Alpha mean?

As I write, I am reminded of a client who called me a while back because her dog was being aggressive towards people coming to her house. The dog was a fearful, medium sized (70 lb) Chesapeake Retriever who would lunge and bark at anyone entering the house. The client had been watching TV and was trying a technique a trainer had recommended to force the dog to lay down when people came through the door. Unfortunately not only was this technique not working, the dog had gotten worse and for the first time had snapped at the owner who practically had to lie on the dog to get him to into a down. The trainer on TV had said "You have to get the dog to lie down and submit using any means necessary to show them you are the Alpha."

Often the first training tip dog owners hear, and the first thing I hear when speaking to owners with dogs with behavior problems is "You have to be the alpha, or my dog is the alpha." This term "Alpha", has caused many dogs to develop severe behavior problems as owners relentlessly try to dominate and control their dogs through physical means and trainers blame everything on the dog trying to be the "Alpha".

Dr. Mech, one of the world's leading wolf experts and one of the few to study a wolf pack in the wild, found the accepted notion, that the alpha pair rules with an iron paw to suppress constant underlings, was a mistake. "Calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is the dominant figure to its young offspring, so 'alpha' adds no information."

Dr. Mech no longer uses the term "Alpha" to describe a dominant male and femal wolf; rather, he describes them as a breeding pair. "The family structure of wolves is much like our own," he explained. "The whole business of Alpha wolves came about because the first wolf researchers didn't understand wolf families, and they put unrelated wolves from different locations together. While the wolves sorted out who was in charge, the researchers concluded that every wolf pack had an ongoing fight for dominance, hence the so-called Alpha, Beta,and Omega wolves. That's just not how it works."

"In the wild, a pack is a family. A breeding pair has a litter of pups, and the following year, they have another. Now the pack consists of two parents, who are in charge of things, plus yearlings, who are one year-old, and infant pups. The following year, the pack is older and larger, with two year-olds, yearlings, and pups. By the time they are three or four years old, most young wolves have dispersed, gone out to start their own families."

"The basic fallacy is that [domestic pet dogs separated from wolves by 40,000 to 100,000 years] dogs form a pack with you," said Andrew Luescher, DVM, Ph.D director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University. "That's nonsense. They don’t even do it with each other." Instead of being a forceful alpha, the owner's goal should be to become a leader – one the dog will look to for direction and defer to. "Dominance and leadership are not the same thing. The former implies authority, dominion, command and control. The latter implies initiative and influence others willingly accept," said Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D., certified applied animal behaviorist and clinical assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

The root of the alpha problem is that scientific studies on wolves – the source of the theory – have been oversimplified and misinterpreted, said Dr. Moon-Fanelli. The term Alpha has inspired many a trainer and owner to "alpha roll, pin, scruff, shake, yank, shock, choke, growl and yes even bite their dog!" Owners and trainers alike attempting to mimic wolf communication patterns, and not very effectively has transformed many a happy puppy into neurotic aggressive dogs.