"Coren’s Turnaround on Dominance."

Has Stanley Coren Made a Turnaround on the Alpha Theory?

Originally published in slightly different form on July 22, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

Coren's Turnaround?

In his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren was, to all intents and purposes, a firm believer in the alpha theory. In one section of the book he recommends doing a gentler version of the alpha roll (much gentler than the one favored by Cesar Millan), because by rolling a dog over on her back you’re ostensibly putting her in a position “that signifies submission to the authority of a dominant member of the pack.” His latest article here at Psychology Today seems to show a complete turnaround.

However, I don’t think Coren goes quite far enough. So I’m offering those interested in this topic a chance to read one of my earlier articles (with commentary relevant to Coren’s recent article), which I think contains a deeper look into why the pack leader model of dog training is flawed. Hence this is not an argument against Coren’s most recent post, but an addendum.

Pack Leader or Predator (originally published at PT.com on May, 22, 2009)

One of the constant bits of advice you’ll hear from Cesar Millan on The Dog Whisperer is: “you have to be your dog’s pack leader.” In fact on his website he even sells T-shirts and hoodies with Pack Leader printed on them. Millan is not alone. For years many dog trainers and training experts have been saying the same thing.

This idea has a lot of appeal for most people. “Yes!” they think. “That’s what’s wrong with my relationship with my dog. He doesn’t see me as his pack leader!”

Here’s the problem though. According to David Mech, the world’s leading experts on the behavior of wild wolves, real wolf packs don’t have alpha wolves, or pack leaders, at least not in the traditional sense of these words. The idea that they do came from studies done on captive packs, culled from various sources, who didn’t know one another, and behaved more like rival wolves than true packmates.

Facts About Wild Wolf Behavior:

No wolf walks ahead of the group when they’re traveling. They take turns. That’s a fact.

No wolf always eats before other members of the group. That’s a fact.

No wolf always goes through an opening or crosses a threshold before other members of the group. That’s a fact.

No wolf tells his packmates how to behave. That’s a fact.

No wolf is always in control of all resources. So-called inferior wolves are often allowed to keep possession of a prized bone or other object that a more dominant wolf might want, i.e., possession is 9/10ths of the law. That’s a fact.

Dominance displays are actually quite rare in wild wolf packs and usually only take place between the mother and father over how to disburse food to their young. And the female wins these displays by acting “submissive” (which means she dominates him via submission!). That’s a fact.

Finally, if dominance exists, it can only take place between two members of the same social group who are also members of the same species. Thus a wolf may be said to dominate members of his own pack, though not wolves from other packs, and definitely not ducks, deer, or dragonflies. This means that no human being can exert dominance over a dog because humans and dogs are two different species. That’s a fact.

These are all facts. And here’s what they all add up to:

The idea of being your dog’s pack leader will instill willing obedience is completely false.

Yes, it’s true that in any animal group there will be one member who is more experienced, more knowledgeable, and who has more animal magnetism than the others. And most members of the group will tend to be drawn to or gravitate toward that animal. But animal magnetism—which is felt on a visceral level—is something quite different from rank, leadership, and authority—which are almost purely mental constructs.

There’s another factor. In wolf packs it was long believed that the alpha or leadership role changes hands during the hunt. We now know, through the principles of emergence theory, that the reason this seems to happen is simply because one member of the pack will have a better skill set for a certain type of terrain at some point during the hunt, or another wolf may have more emotional flexibility for adjusting to the changes in the prey animal’s movements and trajectories during that part of the hunt, or what’s even simpler: one wolf may suddenly be in closer proximity to the prey at certain points, giving the impression that the others are now “following” his leadership when in fact the hunt is always led by the prey. (This is why the Tuscan dogs Coren mentions in his article seem to have as many as 5 pack leaders at a time, an idea which, according to dominance theory, doesn’t make any sense.)

Dog Listener or Predator? In any situation where dogs are in conflict it’s always about who has control over resources, i.e., things in the environment. (This is an idea that Coren also discusses, although in a different context.) And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you automatically have more control over your dog’s environment than he does. Who has the keys to the car and the house? Who knows how to operate doorknobs? Who knows how to use a can opener? Clearly, if a dog is capable of perceiving things like leadership or superiority, your dog already sees you in that light.

So why doesn’t your dog listen to you the way the dogs listen to Cesar Millan? Because Millan acts like a predator.

A predator?

Yes. The spatial relationship between two dogs or wolves takes place on the horizontal. Their eyes face each other. They’re on the same level. But the spatial relationship between dog and human is quite different. We move through space on the vertical. Our eyes are far above theirs. They look up at us, we look down at them. Spatial relationships—which are concrete and visceral—are far more important to dogs than intangibles like leadership or status.

Domesticated Dogs Don't Form Packs

This brings up an interesting point about wolves, which is that in the wild the only animal that poses serious threat of deadly harm to a wolf (other than homo sapiens) is the same animal the wolf usually hunts: elk, moose, deer, bison. These animals have horns and sharp hooves that could easily kill or maim a wolf. When a moose is running away from a wolf, the wolf is energized by its movement, and is highly attracted through a desire to chase and bite. But if a moose finds itself cornered, it turns and stares back at the wolf, brandishing its antlers, causing the wolf to stop dead in his tracks.

In the wolf’s experience the prey has now become the predator.

I’m not suggesting that a dog thinks his owner is a moose. What I am suggesting is that even if there is such a thing as a pack leader in wild wolf packs, and even if dogs had inherited that behavioral tendency from wolves, there is no way a dog could confuse a human being for another dog, i.e., his “pack leader.” It simply could not happen.

As I said before, the relationships between objects in space is concrete while the idea of the “pack leader” is more abstract and cerebral. So when you add yet another cerebral element—that the human owner or trainer is a stand-in for or symbolizes the already abstract idea of the pack leader—you’re getting into mental territory that is way beyond what a dog’s brain is capable of.

The Eyes Have It

The facts of nature and evolution strongly suggest that wolves, and by extension dogs, have a long adaptive history of being cautious about any animal whose eyes are set in a large head and are looking down at them from above, particularly when that animal is facing them directly. They would feel even more fearful or cautious if that vertical being happened to be coming toward them.

Now think of the way Cesar Millan acts when he enters a room and believes he’s being a “pack leader.” Picture the way he stands and stares down at a dog. The level of gaze he has seems “magnetic,” correct? The dogs are on their “best behavior.” Is that because they see him as a pack leader? It’s doubtful. After all, the spatial dynamic is nothing at all like that between a wolf's supposed pack leader and another dog or wolf. But remember, when a moose suddenly turns and looks down at a wolf, the wolf stops dead in his tracks. And that has much more in common with how most dogs act when Cesar Millan enters a room.

Another of looking at is that when Millan acts the way he does the dog isn’t thinking, “I respect your authority and leadership over me so I will submit and do as you ask.” It’s far more likely that the he’s thinking, “What can I do to survive this moment? Show me how I can keep from being injured or killed.” So the feeling Millan is actually stimulating in dogs is the polar opposite of magnetism or leadership. It’s pure fear and intimidation.

This doesn’t mean that Millan’s techniques aren’t sometimes effective. It just means it’s not because dogs see him as a pack leader. There’s something else going on.


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