The Problem with the "Pack Leader" Mentality

One of the recurring themes or questions I get from dog owners is the idea about being a "pack leader" or the "alpha" to their companion dogs.  Due to the countless tv programs and information one can get on the internet on this subject, there seems to be this general struggle between those who believe in the pack mentality or dominance, and those who do not.  All one needs to do is go on the internet and do a couple of searches, and you will quickly see all the research that has been done on this subject, and the vehement disagreements between dog trainer and owners.  It is a good idea to do this if you care about dogs, whether you work in the field or are a caring dog owner.

     All of this discord between trainers and owners does have me concerned, however.  It is not that I think a goodhearted respectful debate is a bad thing, but it seems that a big part of what is being missed here is what the "pack" or "dominance" mentality does to many dog owners and dogs themselves.  After training many different owners and dogs over the past 13 years, I see many owners after they have gone to other dog trainers.  Many times, I hear things like, "I'm just not the pack leader" or "my dog is dominant and I am not".  This bothers me a great deal, because often what results is a misunderstanding between dog and owner eventually ending in a breakdown of the relationship.  Even if the dog trainer did not intentionally mean to do this, the owner starts to feel that they are "not good enough for the dog" or "failing".  That is unfortunate and sad.

    After meeting and working with these kinds of situations, I realize how many people receive poor information about their dogs.  Many of these dogs are fearful, insecure and distrust their environment, yet many dog trainers and "experts" tell the people they need to "assert their dominance" over the dog.  The big trouble here is how the individual takes that approach varies greatly.  Some people try to get vocal, physical and pushy with their animals, which can be an ineffective way of training the dog and in some instances dangerous.  This can end up being very frustrating and confusing to the owner and dog.

    Another big problem with the words "alpha", "dominant" or "pack leader" is the idea that a person needs to change who they are to be a companion to the dog.  The reality is, people are who they are.  It is not that we are incapable of rising to the occasion to meet the dog's needs or are unwilling to compromise, but the whole notion of people changing who they are to be a good dog owner is fallible.  Every dog owner I have met (including myself) has both strengths and weaknesses. The approach of being the best person (dog owner) you can be by managing and understanding your weaknesses as well as utilizing your strengths seems to work well.  For example, many people are highly physically active, where others are more about mental enrichment.  Both attributes are needed for dogs, but every person is different.  It comes down to compromise like any healthy relationship.

    So, what this all boils down to is training.  Yes, good old fashioned obedience training.  All the talk about "dominance" or "pack leadership" in human and dog relationships is fascinating on some level, but what seems to be undebatable is how the learning theory works to train a dog to do certain actions that you need them to do.  All you need to do is go to an agility show, and you can see how all these "difficult" and "pushy" dogs will do what their owners want, without physical or emotional dominance, but with reinforcement using positive training techniques.  One of the best parts of my job is when a dog owner realizes the effectiveness of positive reinforcement to train their animals. When I see the light bulb go off in their head, it is a pleasure to witness.  It is not to say things are perfect when training your dog, but what is?

    One thing I will leave with is a recommendation for people, particularly dog owners and trainers, to make a point to see Dr. Ian Dunbar speak.  From what I understand he is retiring from doing lectures soon, so if you have an opportunity, go and check him out.  He is one of many great, long time trainers/behaviorists that seem to be able to put this topic in great perspective with research and personal experiences from training dogs for a long time.  But whether it's the lure-reward training or "clicker" training, this seems to be the way to go.

    So, I vote for being happy with our dogs and doing proven training techniques like lure reward training, despite the cloudiness of tv and the internet when it comes to buzz words like "dominance", "alpha" or "pack leader".  Keep it simple and have fun.  If you are dealing with an aggressive or fearful dog, positive techniques do work, although I would advise contacting a CPDT trainer to help you.