Myth: I need to be the alpha.


The idea that our dogs are trying to dominate us, and that we need to be the alpha to correct that, comes from misunderstandings of wolf behaviour and how it relates to dogs.

Studies of wolves in captivity concluded that they vied for dominance over each other through displays of aggression and conflict over resources

  • captivity, unrelated – like putting a bunch of unrelated young adults in a frat house and attempting to draw conclusions about normal human interactions. Artificial conflict over resources, including space
  • Mech’s later conclusions on wolves in their natural environment was that packs operate like a family unit

Are dogs like wolves?

  • Free-ranging domesticated dogs have been found to not operate in family units. While they are social, the connections they form are generally loose and temporary. They don’t form cohesive packs.
  • Wolves differ from dogs simply by nature of being domesticated. The domestication process selected for dogs that created less conflict. Dogs digest food differently, seek out eye contact with humans more frequently, and have different thresholds for fear/territory.
  • In any species, aggression is a risky behaviour that could result in injury or death. In a social species like dogs, aggression is used to de-escalate conflict.

What is dominance?

getting access to resources

fluid and situational

maintained by submission

not a useful way to look at your dog’s behaviour

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Learning by Consequences (Operant Conditioning)

From single-celled organisms to humans, we all change our actions in order to get the results that benefit us most, or hurt us the least. We learn to stop by the reception desk to get a candy, or to be careful on ice after we slip and hurt ourselves. We go to work because we get paid, which allows us to get the things we need to survive. When something works, we do it more, and when it doesn’t work, we try something new. This is operant conditioning. Without this process, animals don’t survive, so it’s hard-wired into all of them.

Learning by Association (Classical Conditioning)

When two events consistently occur close together, we start to anticipate the second event, and often make a choice about what to do based on that anticipation. This process is classical conditioning, and is often occurring without us realizing it. We smell dinner cooking and come to the kitchen to get some. We pick up the dog’s leash and take them for a walk, and before long they’re beating us to the door at the first sign of the leash. We pick up the nail clippers to trim the dog’s nails, and soon they’re disappearing as soon as they see you searching for them. Classical conditioning creates strong, involuntary responses that affect an animal’s behaviour.

All dogs learn differently and need different training methods.


While it’s true that dogs differ in their natural skills and preferences, all organisms share one important thing: they learn (change their behaviour) in two basic ways.

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My dog isn't food motivated, so I can't use positive reinforcement.


Any animal that needs to eat to live is food motivated, although the level of motivation may change depending on the situation. There are also many other options available for positive reinforcement!

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