Imagine yourself captured. Taken from your home. Your family. And thrust into a cage with others, similarly captive. Your cage is a large one with room to explore, and you're permitted free reign of the enclosure, but you aren't able to escape.
Would your behavior in that setting be at all comparable to your behavior at home? Would your interactions with your fellow captives be similar to interactions you have with your family? Friends? Coworkers?
Picturing ourselves in such a scenario, it's rather easy to imagine we would behave very differently. That this behavior would not provide any accurate information about how we would behave naturally. So, why expect the behavior of wolves studied in captivity to be representative of natural dog behavior?
This is where Dominance Theory comes from. The idea of an Alpha dog. Wolves had been almost completely eliminated from the United States during the westward expansion of the 1800s, and in the mid-1900s, captive populations were the only ones that could be studied. There was vicious infighting and posturing in these captive packs, establishing strict hierarchies with wolves on the lower rungs looking for opportunities to usurp the tyrant-like authority.
The Alpha concept seemed to resonate with many men in our culture that similarly includes social structures with infighting, bullying, and posturing for authority, strength, and power. A societal issue now recognized as toxic masculinity. It was popularized. Found its way into film and literature in stories about wolves, dogs, and werewolves. And even into psychological theories about human behavior.
But as wolves were introduced to Yellowstone and The Boundary Waters in the 1990s, wild packs formed which ecologists, wildlife biologists, and wolf enthusiasts were able to track, follow and study behaving naturally. Now, nearly 30 years later, we know that wolf behavior in the wild is very different from that observed in captivity.
Packs are family groups. Typically a mated pair and their offspring. Sometimes including aunts, uncles, cousins. And they all work together cooperatively to protect their territory from other predators, hunt, and care for their pups and any sick or injured members of the pack. They play together. Eat together. "Sing" together... And even form cooperative relationships with other species, particularly crows and ravens that help lead them to food which the wolves then share.
Unfortunately, many dog owners and trainers have not caught up with this more recent science and they still reference this incorrect Dominance Theory when interpreting dog behavior. While you may find yourself with a well-behaved dog asserting yourself as an Alpha in your family pack, such strict hierarchical dominance is unncessary and can pressure dogs into a state of learned helplessness. You then make it MORE LIKELY that your dog may eventually lash out, looking for an escape from the high stress brought on by constantly being corrected and pressured into submission.
So if you find yourself thinking you need to be a strict authoritarian with your dog, stop and regroup. Certainly, we don't want untrained and unruly dogs in our homes, but there is a better way to get the behaviors we want to see. A way that focuses on dog intelligence and problem solving skills. On their desire for play, companionship, and social connection with their people.
Rather than a dog who is obedient out of fear, you can have a dog who is confident in their ability to please you and earn your love and affection. Given direction and purpose with a "job" they perform for their human pack family. Protecting you. Playing with you. Comforting you. And working with you.