I wanted to include this article because of the current popularity of Dog Whisperer: Cesar Millan. Some time must be taken to discuss his views, techniques and false assertions about dogs and their behavior.
One of the main premises of his methodology is Dominance Theory. This is simply the notion that in any pack (or group) of canids, one or more is always competing for the ‘alpha’ position. They will do this relentlessly until a leader is decided by the last one standing dripping in blood and drool. Now he is in charge, makes all of the decisions and has his choice of breeding females.
Cesar Millan asserts this theory relentlessly on his show “The Dog Whisperer”, and it is the foundation on which his training is built. The assertion is completely false.
What is a pack?
A pack forms when a solitary male and a solitary female pair bond, breed and produce off-spring. The off-spring will stay with the pack for up to 3 years then leave to create their own packs.
The primary male and female in the pack are called ‘alpha’ as a means of identifying them, not because they are in charge. There is a social hierarchy within the pack that is based on deference not dominance: The alpha male/female are in their position by virtue of having give birth to the pack and that they have the most wisdom about their environment. All members of that pack will be alpha at some point in their lives.
Simply put, a pack is a family.
Dominance Theory: Wolves
The misunderstanding about dominance in wolves comes from a study done in 1947 by Rudolph Schenkel. It based its conclusions on a biological and behavioral study on a random group of 10 captive wolves. These had been problem wolves, captured and put into a compound. The group was mostly young males, resulting in a lot of aggression over resources and food.
Schenkel was gathering facts and observations based on a number of false assumptions, not the least of which was studying an amalgam pack interacting in an enclosed artificial environment. Amalgam (random grouping) packs almost never occur in the wild.
Dr. L. David Mech, a renowned authority on wolves, states it this way:
“Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.”
The social structure of these wolves was altered dramatically, resulting in highly stressed animals exhibiting abnormal behavior rather than normal. Here are some reasons why the conclusions about dominance are flawed when applied to wolves, and disastrous when applied to dogs.:
- Dogs are not wolves: If you want to study dogs, then study dogs. Do not choose another species then try to make comparisons
- Dominance Theory has been scientifically repudiated
- The study was done using wild, captive wolves. Dog have been domesticated for 15,000 years
- The study observed an amalgam (random grouping) pack. True packs are families.
Dominance Theory: Dogs
Dogs are not wolves, they share 99.96% of wolf genes, a wolf also has those genes yet no one dares to call them dogs. The dog evolved from the (Eurasian) Grey Wolf not the American Timber Wolf: This occurred on the order of close to a million years ago and it has been domesticated for around 14,000 years. There are theories and archeological evidence that challenge this domestication period and postulate that they have been domesticated for nearly 25,000 years and ‘with’ humans for nearly 100,000 years.
John Bradshaw – Dog Sense writes:
“Apart from deliberately bred wolf-dog hybrids, it has not been possible to trace the DNA of any of the dogs in the Americas to North American Wolves, not even the “native” dogs that were there before Columbus.”
Dogs are not pack animals, studies of dogs from around the world paint a picture of a relatively solitary animal who can from time to time live in loose groups, sometimes engaging in cooperative hunting but usually not. They are predominantly scavengers and have evolved as such. Wolves on the other hand are true predators, (although they can scavenge when the opportunity presents itself).
Oddly, the dog training world siezed onto this simplistic view of wolves and dogs and started to employ it in obedience training. This is still in evidence today, go to any training school on a Saturday morning and you will see this being applied, or just watch the Dog Whisperer.
Here is a video from renowned ethologist, Dr. Adam Miklosi explaining the Dominance Theory and why it is false:
I think we must come to the conclusion that what the Dog Whisperer TV show does first is to provide entertainment. If there is any good to come of it, it must be said that Cesar Millan has made people more aware of the impact they have on their dogs lives and behaviors.
The downside of course, is it’s leading people to believe that dog behavior problems can be fixed by simply being dominant and showing your dog who’s boss, (an assertion so silly it is laughable). We have enough empirical evidence in behaviour science to know why things go wrong without resorting to lies and myths for solutions.
If you think you have a problem with your dog, or you just aren’t sure please click here for more information