Dogs are not on a quest for world domination. They are not socialized wolves who are constantly striving to be ‘top dog’ over us, and they are not hard-wired to try and control every situation.
Contrary to what traditional training ideologies and much modern media would have you believe, most canine behavior problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you.
Therefore, teaching dogs ‘who’s the boss’ by forcing them into some mythical state called ‘calm submission’ is precisely the opposite of what they actually need in order to learn effectively and overcome behavioral issues.
Much of this misunderstanding stems from the erroneous application of early studies of captive wolf packs to our understanding of the dynamics of our domestic dogs. There are two problems with extrapolating those wolf pack studies onto dogs:
Despite this, terms such as 'alpha dog,' 'top dog,' and 'pack leader' have become part of our society’s readily accepted and commonly understood lexicon. Interestingly, when used to describe human concepts of leadership and rank hierarchy, these terms can indeed be useful and usually pose no problem. But issues begin to arise when we ascribe these concepts to our domesticated dogs, assuming incorrectly that dogs place the same value as we do on the practice of identifying who is of higher rank in any given situation.
Resisting the urge to assign our human insecurities onto how we believe our dogs think and feel is a prerequisite to being able to understand and build truly balanced and healthy relationships with our dogs.
The History of Dominance (in Science) Our understanding of dominance has evolved over the past half-century as modern behavioral science has continued its study of inter-relationships within the animal world.
For clarity’s sake it is important to understand how the word 'dominance' became so prevalent in describing dog/dog and human/dog social relationships.
The term 'pecking order' was originally applied to explain the social hierarchies of domestic fowl in the 1920's by researchers who observed that chickens commonly established what they assumed tobe social rank by pecking at or threatening to peck each other.
Since then, more advanced studies on social hierarchies have been conducted on many other species, with researchers discovering that although dominant members of certain animal groups were more likely than others to display threatening or aggressive behavior, they most often asserted their influence (dominance) without the use of force. Other members of the group appeased their peers by offering deference (submission) behaviors to the more dominant members.
In other words, dominant relationships among animals are usually exerted without the use of force or threat of aggression, thereby reducing the potential for conflict.