The much over-used construct of “alpha” got a good roll over recently on the opinion pages of The New York Times. Carl Safina, the founder of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, writes in his insightful op-ed, “Tapping Your Inner Wolf,” about how the alpha notion is rather misguided and demonstrates a misunderstanding of what it really means to be a leader. Instead of the aggressive, snarling, chest beating male alpha posture that many see as being “top” wolf—or dog for that matter—he points out that true alpha wolves don’t need to be aggressive at all, and actually have a quiet self-confidence that is “not domineering and nor aggressive to those on his team.” Making them, in fact, an exemplary role model for our species.
Debunking of what it means to be “alpha” and how this plays out with our relationship to dogs, has often been the subject of Bark articles. Sadly there are still some trainers (especially ones with large TV followings), who still don’t get it and claim that dogs are trying to “dominate” us and it is up to us to show them who’s “alpha.” How often have you heard something along the lines of, “my dog is trying to dominate me by pulling on her leash,” or “he’s trying to be alpha by blowing me off when I call to him,” sadly the list of misapplied notions of dominance and what it means to be alpha, goes on.
As to why people still cling to this false alpha meme, even though leading experts have demonstrated that positive reinforcement is far more effective and humane, is anyone’s guess. A few years back Patricia McConnell, PhD offers a “simple” suggestion in her Bark column “Down with Dominance.”
“Perhaps another reason we are so susceptible to the fallacy of “getting dominance” over our dogs is that it makes dog training seem simple. One-step shopping — just get your dog to accept you as “alpha,” and voilà! Your dog will stop jumping up on visitors and will quietly walk through the neighborhood at your side, ignoring all the interesting stuff, like squirrels and information left by other dogs as they passed by. No training required, either for your dog or, as importantly, for you.” She goes on to note that, “although there are questions and quibbles about some of the finer points, experts almost universally agree that the concept of “getting dominance” over our dogs is, at best, not useful, and more often is harmful to our relationships with our best friends.”
And Bark’s behavior columnist, Karen London, PhD thinks that it might feed into our desire for control, which sadly can have far reaching consequences, as she observes, “far worse, it can lead, at best, to a dog who performs because he is intimidated, and at worst, to a dog who is abused. The fact is, dogs will respect us only if we are consistent, clear and fair. They will love and trust us only if we are loving and patient and are able to communicate to them in ways that they understand.” This is very much the same well-oiled family/pack dynamic that Safina describes about wolves.
So it’s great when someone with respected science chops like Safina takes on alphaness and it gets even better that he also points out that biologists are now suggesting that the wolf family/pack structure work with having shared leadership, with the females doing “most of the decision making.” This can includes “where to travel, when to rest and when to hunt.” As wolf researcher, Rick McIntyre, told him, “It’s the alpha female who really runs the show.” Which leads Safina to conclude that human males can definitely learn something from real wolves, and that includes a “respect for females and sharing responsibility” in their families. Proving once again, that we have a whole lot to learn from the ancestors of the species that we share our lives with.