TIME TO DITCH THE ALPHA
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
View the originally published article in K9 Magazine here.
On February 26th, National Geographic aired an episode of its popular show Cesar 911 in which a Boston Terrier/French Bulldog mix named Simon attacked a pig while in the care of the show’s host, Cesar Millan. The incident sparked international outrage and an animal cruelty investigation into the incident. Millan himself has faced harsh criticism from dog trainers, veterinarians, and animal welfare activists alike. But this is not the first time critics have taken a stand against Millan and his methods. Ten years ago, an article ran in the New York Times called, “Pack of Lies”, in which author and canine historian Mark Derr recounted why Millan’s methods are so controversial. “Essentially, National Geographic and Cesar Millan have cleverly repackaged and promoted a simplistic view of the dog’s social structure and constructed around it a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to dog training,” Derr said. “Corrections abound as animals are forced to submit or face their fear, even if doing so panics them.” Despite such criticisms, Millan’s show continued to air, he continued to write best-selling books, and he continued to bring his dominance-based methods into the homes of millions of viewers. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Millan’s mantra of being a balanced, calm, assertive “pack leader” is based on theories that can be traced back to a 1947 study by animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. Schenkel spent years observing captive wolves in a Switzerland zoo, and identified what he perceived to be two heads of the pack- a “lead wolf” and a female “bitch.” The wolves that Schenkel observed were seen to be perpetually competing for resources, with the heads of the pack always winning out. Thus, the theory of the alpha wolf was born. However, further and more recent studies into wolf behavior have revealed that Schenkel was wrong. His study was based on the relationships between captive, unrelated wolves. As the American Association of Professional Dog Trainers points out, wolves in the wild are organized in a much different fashion, consisting of a male-female breeding pair and their offspring. These packs do not display aggression or “dominance-seeking” behaviors like the wolves in Schenkel’s study. While these natural wolf packs do still have social hierarchies – just like human families do – they are not established by displays of aggression. Researcher L. David Mech, a senior scientist with the Biological Resources Division, said in a 2008 article in International Wolf, "we must once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.” Not only is the colloquially understood idea of the alpha wolf misguided, but the notion that dog training methods- such as those used by Millan and others- based on the behavior of wolves is somehow more “natural” is also an unsupported. "It's natural dog behaviors that humans are often trying to eliminate, such as biting or chasing the family cat. So the idea that alpha-rolling a dog is somehow a ‘natural’ way of curing those problem behaviors is really kind of counterintuitive,” said Kristal Proulx, a dog trainer from Toronto, ON with a degree in animal behavior. “Very little of what we ask of dogs is ‘natural’ animal behavior.” It is no secret that the domestic dog originated from the wild wolf, and while the two do share genetic similarities, wolf behavior and dog behavior are not interchangeable. The many thousands of years that humans have spent domesticating dogs has uniquely changed their social behavior. Proulx said that the biggest misconception behind using wolf pack behavior and dominance theory in training dogs is that it would require that dogs look to us as just other big, weird dogs. “This simply isn’t true,” she said. “Dogs know that humans are not dogs. They have developed distinct ways of interacting with us, and us with them. We ask dogs to perform behaviors a dog would never ask of another dog, like walking in a heel position with prolonged eye contact.” Not only has dominance theory proven to be based on false claims, but studies have shown that many of the methods involved in dominance-based training- such as using force to make a dog comply- can actually be harmful. In 2009, the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior released a study in which they found that many of the methods dominance-based trainers use in order to address problem behavior in dogs actually lead to more issues. “Many owners who attempted these physically manipulative techniques reported that their dogs responded with aggression… forced release of an item from the dog’s mouth, the ‘alpha roll’, hitting or kicking the dog for undesirable behavior, grabbing jowls, and the ‘dominance down’ elicited an aggressive response in at least a quarter of the dogs on which they were attempted.” Vicki Dawe is a professional dog trainer with a National Vocational Equivalent in canine behavior and training from Manchester, UK. For the last decade, Dawe has dedicated to her life to dogs as a member of the Pet Professional Guild and British Flyball Association. Dawe, like many modern dog trainers, doesn’t believe in using physical intimidation to change a dog’s behavior. She said that such methods put dogs under an immense amount of stress. “These dogs have only one choice, which is to remain still until allowed to get up,” she said in reference to alpha rolling- a method used by dominance-theory proponents- in which the handler physically forces a dog down on its back or side until it submits… or so it would seem. “These dogs are not offering submission, they are shutting down,” Dawe said. “They enter a state of learned helplessness; they give up. They realize nothing they do will stop the person from holding them down, so they simply stop trying and become almost robotic. The best case scenario is you end up with a dog that learns to avoid human contact because it thinks that it’s a punishment.” Modern dog trainers largely focus on using positive reinforcement- a method in which a dog is rewarded for desired behavior. “Using management to help dogs make the right decisions, and rewarding them for those decisions, means they’re more likely to repeat them in the future,” Proulx said. “I don’t believe there’s any place for force or intimidation in dog training.” According to positive reinforcement-based trainers like Dawe and Proulx, rewarding a dog for making the right decision discourages them from making the wrong decision in the future. Sal Evans, a dog trainer from Regina, Saskatchewan, trains and competes in several dog sports including agility, flyball, and rally obedience. Dogs that compete in these events have to quickly perform complex tasks, and Evans says there’s a reason why positive reinforcement is the most common form of training in these sports. “Handlers learn how to train quicker and the dogs pick up on the training a lot quicker,” they said. “When speed is the name of the game, you can’t have a dog that second-guesses itself. Traditional, or even balanced training, tends to create a dog that is concerned about not making a mistake – which gets it punished – so they check their speed.” The episode with Simon the Boston Terrier mix shows just what can happen if we continue to ignore what science has shown us. We have learned that dogs are smarter, more capable, and far more cognitively advanced than we thought 70 years ago. Continuing to use such archaic methods on the animals that we so readily welcome into our homes is unfair. Hopefully, we can use this incident as a wake up call and start learning how to better communicate with our four-legged family members.