Myths about Dominance Theory.


In this Holidays4Dogs article we will re-visit the subject of canine dominance theory when applied to raising and training pet dogs.  Thankfully, the idea of forcing our dogs to do as we ask, is a method of training that has been waning over the past decade. Sadly, however, there are still trainers who continue to advocate this outdated theory, to drive their training philosophies. 


What is dominance theory in the context of pet dog behaviour?

What exactly does canine dominance theory refer to and what are the problems associated with it?  Here’s what the RSPCA has to say;-

“Dominance theory assumes that the most unwanted behaviour such as aggression is due to the dog trying to be ‘dominant’ or wanting to be the alpha dog in the pack.  Therefore, dominance theory suggests, the way to solve many behavioural problems such as aggression is to establish dominance as pack leader over the dog” (RSPCA August 2020)”.

The RSPCA are not alone in the belief that this is now highly misleading when it comes to approaching the training of domestic dogs. The general consensus, amongst academics and professionals, is that dogs are not wolves. Both animals have evolved in significantly different ways. Therefore, pet dogs do not behave either socially, or behaviourally, in the same way as wild wolves.

‘Alpha roll’. Is this natural?

Many people may be aware of the term ‘alpha roll’. This is mistakenly thought to happen in wolf packs. It refers to a situation where a dominant animal rolls a more subordinate member on its back. In reality, this does not happen in wolf packs at all. Some members of the pack may roll on their backs as a sign of submission, but they are not forcefully rolled. 

There are still less enlightened dog trainers around who advocate alpha rolling as a means of controlling pet dogs. The aim of this method is to, ” show the animal who’s boss”. However, informed dog trainers now understand the irrelevance of this theory.

The science of positive reinforcement.

Dominance theory is highly suggestive of a hostile relationship between dog and human. This is of no benefit to either party. A dog, subjected to threats, or physical punishment from its owner, may well react submissively. It is also likely he will react aggressively because he is afraid. dog sitting, pet sitting

This is certainly no way to have a good relationship with any dog. This approach can simply lead to extra problems, as well as raising serious welfare issues.

Canine dominance is a broadly misused term when it comes to describing a dog’s behaviour. It is a key point to watch out for when choosing a dog trainer.

There are still many trainers who include this discredited theory as a means to drive their own agenda. Sadly, others do not even base such misguided approaches on anything other than their loose belief that an owner must be pack-leader, at all costs.

The only true way to understand and communicate with different species, including dogs, is to apply sound scientific principles. This must be based around positive reinforcement in order to develop positive behaviours. At the same time, this approach ensures the dog is able to express his natural behaviours – an important point.

Genome sequencing sees dogs and wolves as totally separate. 

In 2014, an international team of researchers carried out studies on genome sequences of three wolves from Croatia, China and Israel. These being the three countries where experts believe dogs originated from.

Genome sequencing was carried out on a basenji dog from Africa and a dingo dog from Australia. In both these regions, it is believed there had been no previous wolf populations.

In conclusion, researchers could not establish any clear link between the dogs, or wolves, in the samples. Instead, samples showed the dogs were more closely related to each other; as were the wolf samples.

It was further suggested that the domestic dog was more likely to have evolved from, a now extinct strain of wolf population – and not the common gray wolf.

Domestic dogs are not wolves.

While many people still believe that pet dogs are simply a less aggressive, more sophisticated version of the wolf, research is providing increasing evidence that this isn’t the case. The theory originated from studies carried out by Schenkel in the 1930’s on captive wolves. However, captive wolf behaviour is very different from that of wild wolf packs – a fact now well-established.

In a recent review published in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, claim that comparing pet dogs with wild wolves is not appropriate.

Instead, it is far more logical to study wild wolf and dog packs independently, focusing on those animals living in a natural environment.

Indeed, the comparison shows that wolves are actually less aggressive than dogs within a pack. It is essential for wild wolves to be cooperative and cohesive when it comes to defending territory, hunting and reproducing. Wild dogs do cooperate in packs, also to hunt for food alone. They are also more independent in other ways.


Canine dominance theory has no place in the raising and training of domestic pet dogs. The domestication of dogs has led them to be less fearful with respect to living alongside humans. These adaptations, have evolved over time and with the help of selective breeding dogs and humans can now form strong and meaningful bonds. Domestic dogs most certainly have their own unique species characteristics and qualities – quite separate from the wolf.