“The alpha dog is in charge.” “If your dog is climbing on the furniture it’s because they’re trying to assert dominance.” These are things that I’m sure we’ve all heard before. Did you know they’re all based on one 1947 study by Swiss biologist Rudolf Shenkel? It was popularized in a book creatively titled The Wolf, by L. David Mech who went so far as to publicly disavow the theory in 1999.
Why would a biologist disavow his own theory? Because it was faulty. The wolf pack that Shenkel originally observed was a family of captured grey wolves. The wolves were behaving as captives, not as they did in the wild, based on later observations of wild wolves. The sample was far too small to be considered definitive. And to cap it all off, the “alpha” wolf that was dominating the smaller more submissive wolves– was their father.
Dogs are social creatures, who learn by observation. If your dog wants to climb on the couch, it’s because they see you sitting on the couch and figure that it must be a comfortable place to sit. If they want to jump up on the counter it’s because that is where food lives, and they want the food.
While an immediate stern response to bad behavior may have an effect, once the moment has passed all you are doing is conveying that more aggressive behavior between the yourself and your dog is acceptable. After the initial act has been done, further reprimands will just have a negative effect- and may lead to further acting out.
Pet training in the past few decades has begun to accept this new information and evolve accordingly, with a greater emphasis being placed on positive reinforcement and treat based training as opposed to discipline and scolding. Try to reward your dog for good behavior instead of punishing the bad.
The canine safety advice for people has changed as well, for the above mentioned reason. All dogs are different, and if you respond to the aggression of strange dog, by being aggressive yourself in an attempt to achieve dominance, you are far more likely to escalate the situation than not. As the human in your relationship you must be in charge of your dog, but remember that being “an alpha” is not the same as being a caretaker.