Based on a misconception of wolf behaviour, dog owners have often been directed to establish themselves as the Alpha or pack leader, maintaining a hierarchal dominance order within the home in order to solve behaviour problems and prevent the dog from becoming the pack leader, top dog, Alpha, dominant, or whatever term you choose to use. The term Alpha (in relation to wolves) was first introduced by David Mech (animal ecologist and wolf expert) who later, as he learned more of the wolves true nature, greatly regretted the term.
Wolves, in actual fact, do not hold any ambition to become the pack leader. The leaders of a wolf pack are the parents. The only way to head a family of wolves is to leave the family, find a mate, and produce a family of their own (just like humans do). Even if that wasn’t the case (which it is), dogs are not wolves any more than we are Chimpanzees.
The belief that dogs want to become pack leader has often led to mistreatment because owners are often encouraged to use force to establish their dominance. Ironically, as the Alpha theory is a complete misnomer, dogs are not able to understand our intentions when we use force to dominate them.
Despite overwhelming evidence, the pack leader theory persists. What really bugs me is that there are still professional trainers and behaviourists who charge people a lot of money to tell them how to dominate their dog based on a total fallacy.
They even have a name for it – ‘Rank Reduction’. The idea is that the dog’s behaviour problems are due to them thinking they are high ranking. This instant diagnosis means the trainer doesn’t have to think about what else might actually be causing the issue (that’s convenient). I must have heard a thousand times of straightforward behaviour issues which have been put down to Alpha theory.
A quick search for rank reduction programs revealed 26 exercises (from 6 trainers) for supposedly reducing the dog’s rank. I’m not going to publish the trainers’ names as my intention is only to explain why I believe them to be nonsensical, not to ridicule individuals. I was, however, extremely disappointed to find that one of the authors is very well educated in canine behaviour but still chooses to prescribe (what I consider to be) nonsense.
You may think I’m joking when you read them. I’m not joking and these are absolutely genuine recommendations from professional trainers and behaviourists, aimed at reducing a dog’s rank within the household. My view is written in green, following each item of nonsense.
- Prevent the dog from entering or leaving the living room uninvited. This would prevent the dog leaving an area where he feels uncomfortable, prevent him finding a quiet spot, remove the little bit of freedom that dogs have, create anxiety, potentially prevent access to the water bowl and increase behaviour problems because you have removed one of his options for increasing distance from something he doesn’t like (the only other option is to make the thing he doesn’t like, go away!) Does anybody want a dog that’s not permitted to leave or enter the living room (the dogs home) uninvited?
- Ignore the dog when he seeks attention. This removes the freedom of a highly social animal to interact, increasing boredom and depression for dogs. The gentle nudge of a dog’s nose on your hand as he seeks to interact is a beautiful thing. Why any dog lover would not find this pleasant is beyond me. Why any behaviourist would consider it an act of dominance is rather odd also. It also contravenes the Animal Welfare Act 2006 which stipulates that animals must be permitted to exhibit normal animal behaviours.
- Don’t walk around the dog, walk straight into him so he has to move. You could easily injure a small dog and you could easily create a conditioned emotional response, which means the dog becomes fearful of people walking towards him. This doesn’t tell the dog that you are the boss, it tells him that you are a jerk to be avoided.
- If the dog tries to go through the doorway first, slam the door. This from a highly qualified behaviourist. It is (or should be) perfectly obvious to anyone who’s studied learning theory that this could easily create a fear of doors, or going anywhere near them with the owner. When we are dealing with behaviour problems, fear isn’t something we are trying to increase. Utterly shameful!
- Hold puppies upside down and growl if they struggle. Continue until they relax. (see number 6)
- Press puppy against the floor (don’t allow struggling or nipping), praise when they relax. These things are more likely to cause the puppy to fear being handled, increase stress and cause aggressive behaviour as he grows.
- Prevent the dog from getting on bed or chairs. Dogs get on beds and chairs for the same reason we do, ‘COMFORT’. However, if you do have a dog which is prone to acting aggressively, it’s probably not a good idea to have them next to you in bed due to you being in a more vulnerable position. It’s fine to keep dogs off the furniture, but not for rank reduction reasons.
- Grab scruff, stare into their eyes, shake and place in a crate for 15 minutes. The dog is not able to comprehend why you are acting in this aggressive way. The only thing you are teaching him is that you are sometimes aggressive. If your timing is good, you may teach him (by association) that a particular behaviour (by the dog) brings on the assault but you could have just taught him a more appropriate behaviour in the given situation (differential reinforcement) rather than causing fear, anxiety, further behaviour problems and a lack of trust. Furthermore, a crate should be the dog’s place of absolute safety. Used as a punisher, the dog is hardly likely to be relaxed in there. This will result in increased anxiety and behaviour problems.
- Prevent dog eliminating (going to the toilet) unless instructed to do so. Whilst I see nothing wrong with associating a cue word with elimination, to encourage them to go, preventing it at any other time is ridiculous. How would you prevent an animal from performing necessary bodily functions? Why would you want to? Who on earth would think that going to the toilet increases your rank within a group??? Do we really want to control dogs to the extent that they cannot even eliminate without permission? (Permission to poo sir?). Let’s not forget that according to number 2 (no pun intended) he can’t ask for permission because he’s not permitted to solicit attention!
- Prevent dog sniffing unless instructed to do so. I ask you to consider why you ever decided to get a dog if you do not even want to allow them to sniff without permission. Sniffing is an integral part of being a canine. It’s a genetic predisposition and a very strong behaviour trait. It’s how they make sense of the world and it’s great mental stimulation. It is clearly in contravention of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to prevent sniffing. A sniffing dog isn’t attempting to become the pack leader, he’s just sniffing.
I won’t evaluate all of them, I think you probably get the idea, but here’s the rest of what I found. I’m sure a few more hours online would turn up hundreds more.
- Keep all toys out of reach
- Prevent dog entering doorways first
- Sit in the dog’s bed
- Make the dog sit before he is permitted to do anything he wants
- All interaction should be initiated by the owner
- Hold puppies off the ground and growl if they struggle. Continue until they relax
- Don’t allow dog to walk ahead
- Ignore dog for first 2 minutes
- Don’t lay on the floor with the dog
- Remain higher than the dog at all times
- Don’t blink first when looking at the dog
- Never play tug
- Make dog perform a 20-30 minute stay each day
- Act big, powerful and assertive so the dog is happy to follow you
- Force the dog onto his back and hold him down until he relaxes (alpha roll)
- Always eat before the dog eats
Rank reduction programmes, I would argue, prevent the dog from functioning normally or having any choices. They remove enjoyment and cause increased anxiety for dogs. To the untrained eye, they can appear to work, but what they are actually doing is moving the dog toward a state of learned helplessness. They may not behave badly because they are afraid to behave at all.
The whole idea that dogs are trying to work their way up some imaginary dominance hierarchy to become the pack leader simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and contrary to helping, many of the exercises designed to help dog owners will more likely increase their problems and/or dramatically decrease the dog’s quality of life.
Dogs certainly should know their place. It should be a safe, comfortable place, where they are not abused in the name of training.
If you enjoy my blogs you may also like my book Canine Enrichment – The Book Your Dog Needs You To Read