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The toughest, most dominant canine gets the resources and respect - or at least that's the idea that caught on culturally. Turns out, that's not necessarily how it works.

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There are some cute, well-trained dogs out there. You know, the ones that can high five or walk on their hind legs.

But the methods people use to /train/ their dogs can be much less adorable. In dog training, the term “alpha” is thrown around a lot, and this idea of the “alpha dog” has been popular for years. According to so-called “alpha pack theory”, dogs live in social hierarchies where the top dog — or alpha — decides who gets to mate, eat, and do basically anything else.

And /every/ dog wants to be the alpha. So to train or even live with your animal, you have to get them to think /you’re/ the “alpha” by exhibiting behaviors that — according to this theory — /dogs/ use to let other dogs know they’re on top. Things like staring your dog down, always going first through a doorway, or rolling them onto their back to show them who’s boss.

But, here’s the thing: Alpha pack theory isn’t true. It comes from a misunderstanding of both wolves /and/ dogs. And there are much better ways to interact with animals.

This theory had its roots in a study done in the 1940s, when a scientist did behavioral tests on a pack of /wolves/ that had been caught in the wild. He placed ten wolves from different packs in a small enclosure and noticed that they formed a social hierarchy. Some animals seemed to control the distribution of resources, and resources were passed down to other wolves based on their rank in the group.

The researcher named these ranks after the letters of the Greek alphabet. So, the alpha wolves got the first pick of food, the betas, just below them, got the second pick, and then came the omega or omegas: the most submissive. Based on this, he proposed that the bigger, bossier wolves used aggression and hostile behavior to establish that they were in charge.

And then… everyone took this idea and ran with it. See, the domestic dogs we see today, from the smallest poodle to the largest Great Dane, are all descended from a common ancestor shared with wolves. And although dogs have been comfortably living with us for at least 15,000 years, their relationship with their wild cousins often leads us to believe the animals act in similar ways.

Which is how the public’s understanding of wolf pack research from the mid-1900s led to the idea of alpha /dogs/. Today, dog owners are often instructed to take the role of the “alpha” and show their animals that they’re in control of all resources, and therefore must be obeyed. But… wolves don’t actually act like that.

Since the ‘40s, many scientists and naturalists have observed wolf packs both in enclosures and in the wild. Including one hugely influential one named David Mech, who spent /thirteen summers/ in the late ‘80s and ‘90s observing wolf packs in their natural habitats! Mech found that wolves in the wild live in large, family-style groups where two parents will sire and raise a couple litters of pups.

He also noticed that wild wolf packs /don’t/ exhibit the intense aggression and competition that were seen in the captured wolves. In fact, they work together as a family to raise young and keep each other safe. Although some of the animals are natural leaders of the pack, they didn’t grow into this because of competition and aggression, but rather because of personality, seniority, and mentoring their younger siblings.

So, how was that study from the 1940s so off? Well, /turns out/, if you put a bunch of unrelated animals from different regions in an enclosure with few resources, they’re going to act differently. That experiment got rid of the only social structure those wolves knew, so they had to come up with something else.

Also, these experiments were founded on an incorrect idea that wolf packs start fresh each winter, with new wolves joining and some leaving. It wasn’t until Mech’s research that scientists realized this error. So, that’s two strikes against this alpha dog thing.

And strike three? Despite the common ancestor, dogs aren’t wolves. Studies show that thanks to domestication, dogs respond differently to humans than wolves do: For instance, they show more attachment to their humans than wolves in captivity, and some studies suggest they’re better at picking up on our cues.

That’s not to say that all dogs live in harmony: When they live together, they can still have conflict over resources. But it’s /not/ because of some ingrained, linear social hierarchy. Today, the consensus among researchers is that alpha pack theory is ineffective when training dogs and actually detrimental to their welfare.

Punishment as a training method isn’t pleasant for a dog, and it can lead to aggressive behavior where they wouldn’t normally be combative. Also, even though this theory was based on behaviors dogs use to communicate... we’re not dogs. And they seem to know that.

They’ve actually evolved unique ways of communicating with us, so trying to mimic their behavior through, say, physical correction, isn’t an effective way to get a message across. Instead, the most effective way to train a dog is to encourage their behavior using positive reinforcement — things like giving them a treat when they sit or saying “Good boy!” when they wait for their food bowl. Rewarding them with something /they/ like for doing something /you/ like.

This has been shown to not only work, but to work /better/ than other forms of training. Because not only is it less potentially-confusing, but it’s /motivating/: Dogs learn that it’s worthwhile to keep doing some behavior. So, in short, dogs aren’t wolves, and captive wolves aren’t wild wolves, either.

It’s all based on misunderstandings and unintentional problems with study design. But now that we know that, we can treat animals better. If you want to learn more about how dogs became our best friends, we recommend checking out an episode from one of our sister channels, PBS Eons.

They recently came out with an episode about dog domestication, and like everything from the PBS Eons team, it’s a delight. As always, thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, and we’ll be back tomorrow with more cool science. [ ♪ OUTRO ].