The “alpha” or “top” dog is a concept that has been incorrectly applied to the human-dog relationship. The term “alpha” came from the idea that wolves have an alpha wolf or so-called “head honcho” that calls the shots for the rest of the pack. The true meaning was to be designated to a breeding pair of wolves, who maintained control over life-sustaining resources and reproductive rights in regards to a specific, related pack of wolves. This idea was then transposed to inter-dog relationships and, further, to human-dog relationships. Recent studies of packs of unrelated dogs show that they do not form stable linear hierarchies as was originally suspected. Free-roaming dogs do not hunt or rear young cooperatively, and therefore do not even fit the definition of a true pack. There is not this struggle to get to the top of the hierarchy, despite the popularity of this concept. A better explanation is that dogs are a social species and do, indeed, live in groups when given the opportunity. They will defend their familiar territory against intruders (unless, of course, there is room for an additional member for breeding purposes), and major fights between social group members are infrequent. Sources of contention between familiar dogs include valuable resources, such as mates, food, and key shelter or resting areas. It is evolutionarily normal for dogs to defend such resources, and some are more effective than others at protecting them. When resources are plentiful, the need for competition or fighting is low. When resources are scarce, and survival is at stake, aggression levels may rise. Intelligent dogs will learn what level of aggression is necessary to protect valuable resources without putting themselves at risk of injury. Dogs learn from experience when an aggressive act is effective and tend only to use it when resources are scarce. Some dogs have a genetic predisposition to resource-guard more than others. In a free-roaming environment, these dogs won’t last long, as they are likely to be injured more severely and waste precious energy on fighting.
In a home environment, resources are typically abundant, and most dogs take no issue with owners removing food items or disturbing them when in a valued resting place. There are some dogs, though, who have a proclivity to overprotect such resources and may use aggression towards people as a means of maintaining possession of what they perceive to be valuable. Obviously, dogs who are malnourished or have a history of starvation are likely to defend the food available to them. If they learn that aggression is an effective means of holding on to such items, they are likely to use that behavior again, and the behavior tends to get worse with each incident. Some dogs may also perceive seemingly benign interactions with people — such as bending over, reaching for, petting, and staring — as threatening and, therefore, use aggression to defend themselves. This is likely due to a genetic predisposition for anxiety or a lack of appropriate early socialization to human body language. Remember that we are asking them to live in our world, and we have to teach them early on what to expect and what is safe.
There is inherent miscommunication between human and dog body language: humans tend to show friendliness with forward-facing, direct gestures, while dogs tend to approach each other from the side and avoid direct frontal body or eye contact. Most dogs learn at a young age to habituate to such direct, frontal body language from people, but others do not. Here lies the major issue. Dogs that feel threatened — for example, by someone taking their valued resources away or approaching them with what they feel are threatening gestures — are likely to defend themselves. We humans then assume this defense is some sort of insubordination or an attempt to be alpha. In reality, these dogs tend to be quite insecure and are often fearful in many situations. A DESIRE TO BE ALPHA HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT!
If we can teach our canine companions when they are young to trust human body language and interactions as safe and predictable, the chances of their feeling threatened are minimized, and their motivation to be aggressive is greatly reduced. You can see, then, why forceful or even covert means of dominating dogs can lead to a worsening of behavior, an increase in aggression, or in some cases, complete emotional shutdown. Dogs are not trying to lead; they are not trying to dominate or be the alpha to their lower-ranking human companions. They don’t see people as other dogs, but rather social companions of a different species. We don’t secrete the same pheromones, we don’t mate with them, we don’t hunt with them, so why on earth would we assume they want to outrank us? If we are not consistent or predictable with our interactions and do not teach our dogs to trust that what we ask of them is in their best interest, they are not likely to comply with our requests. And in some cases, they may be prompted to use aggression, if they perceive we are a threat to their safety or the resources they view as essential to their survival.
Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVB, Clinical Associate Professor — Behavioral Medicine, School of Veterinary Medicine, The Ohio State University