Training Tips and Tricks Part 11 - Alpha Theory?

If you Google dog training you get over 57 million results! There are so many different ideas out there on how to get the best out of your dog. Since adopting our second greyhound (the first was almost perfect, the second needed help in her perfection) I have read just about everything I can get my hands on. I've also spoken to, and had coaching from, numerous trainers and have been to a number of seminars. There is so much conflicting advice out there and in the beginning it was very hard  to decide what to try first.

One key idea that comes in and out of vogue all the time is Alpha theory, so I thought I would do a blog on my thoughts on this.

Alpha theory was developed through scientists studying captive, non-related wolves in zoos. Their behaviours and interactions were observed and it was concluded that wolves fight to gain dominance or status and the wolf at the top was then the alpha or pack leader. These behaviours were then matched to the domestic dog and methods derived to help humans become the 'alpha' or 'pack leader'.

This theory has since been disproven for a number of reasons. Firstly, wild wolves behave very differently to captured wolves. Wild wolf packs are generally made up of a family unit of mum and dad and their offspring until they are big enough to find a mate of their own. Captured wolves are trapped with strangers, have no escape, and are forced to try behaviours to maximise their survival - which unsurprisingly leads to violence.

Secondly, and most importantly, these studies were done with wolves not dogs. Yes they are closely related in the animal kingdom, sharing over 98% of DNA, however we as humans share 98% of our DNA with Chimpanzees. If you were having issues with your children would you take them to a chimpanzee expert?

Similar trials using dogs have generated some interesting results which do not support the Alpha theory that all dogs are on a linear scale between dominant and submissive. Instead the results showed that dogs have a personality that works along the line of 'how bad do I want it'. This makes sense in that so many people I have spoken to who have a multi-dog family have noticed that there is a boss of the beds, toys, food etc but it's not usually the same dog!

Trainers who believe in Alpha theory assume that a dog is either dominant or submissive and someone has to be the 'pack leader'. Though I agree that a dog needs a leader, I do not think a naughty dog is dominant or a good dog submissive. Some Alpha theory trainers rely heavily on positive punishment using force and the mentality of 'do as I say or I will hurt you'. As you can imagine I find this treatment of an animal revolting. The dog may well learn to do as you want him to, but he will do it with resentment and will possibly shut down - it cannot lead to a great partnership.

Doing something to avoid something bad happening to you is not a good place for any family dog to be in. What might happen when they really feel backed into a corner. Caesar Milan has run with this theory and injected his own ideas, he has a very hands on approach and some of the things I have seen border on abuse - not a good way to train any dog let alone a sensitive greyhound. One thing I do like about Caesar's methods is that he has a huge focus on dogs getting enough exercise. More physical and mental exercise can 'cure' many behavioural issues in dogs. Jan Fennell is another Alpha Theory trainer, and although I disagree with the why in her methods most of the 'how to' can be useful. She has a very hands off approach and places a lot of emphasis on expecting and getting calm behaviour from our dogs.

So if your dog is jumping on the furniture, stealing food and pulling at the lead, he is not being 'dominant'. He has not been trained to act in any other way.

He's jumping on the furniture because the furniture is comfortable - and he hasn't been taught not to.

He's stealing food because it has been left in a place where he can get it - and hasn't been taught not to.

He's pulling on the lead because he has learnt that that is how he gets places - and he hasn't been taught not to.

If you want your dog's behaviour to change then you need to change your behaviour and train him to do what you want him to. Whether you realise it or not, you are usually communicating with your dog. They watch and listen to you constantly. It's your job to teach them what your actions and words are trying to tell him. They pick up a lot on their own - whose dogs get excited the minute you think about taking them for a walk?

Ignoring your dog completely will only tell your dog that you don't give a stuff at all and that's not going to achieve much in building your relationship. The same as yanking a pulling dog on the leash is not going to achieve a dog that doesn't pull. He'll just go back to pulling right away and resent you for throttling him!

I have heard a lot of trainers pooh-pooh using treats and rewards in training. They say 'it's bribery to use treats' and 'dogs will only listen/work when you have treats'. Which I have discovered to be nonsense, true reward based training means the dog gets the treat as a reward if he does what you ask him to. If he does the wrong thing then he has to keep trying till he gets it right. And you phase out the use of treats all the time with asking for more behaviours between treats. And the result is your dog wants to hang out with you because you are interesting and fun - not because he has to. Treats are a great motivator. I use treats for training, it's the currency my dogs will work for. But I don't always have treats on me and my dogs will still do the things that I ask of them - happily.

At the end of the day we are humans (not dogs or wolves) and dogs know this - they are not idiots. We are supposed to be an intelligent animal so I would much rather use the brains I have to teach my dogs to interact with me than pretend to be a completely different species.

This is a topic that I could go on and on about and feel quite passionate about!

This week (thanks to Sue Muir!) I saw this post on teaching recall, which I know is a big thing for a lot of owners. I think it is a very good explanation EXCEPT for the bit at the end about shock collars! So rather than reinvent the wheel I thought I'd share it with you all.

Happy Training,

Bec, Priceless & Blondie

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