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It was only a few centuries ago that scientists and philosophers believed dogs were dumb animals incapable of thought.  Descartes, suggested dogs had no intelligence, reasoning or consciousness, instead they were controlled by physical reflexes and unthinking responses to things that stimulate them. Darwin challenged this with the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (Darwin, 1859), which detailed the theory of evolution by natural selection.  Darwin concluded humans were not special in their mental abilities; describing animals and people as having differing levels of awareness, reasoning ability, intelligence and memory.  This meant a dog might be conscious and self aware but not to the same degree as a human (Coren, 2006).

Modern theories of behaviour began with the work of Pavlov, who in the course of his study into the digestion of dogs, observed the dogs would salivate before food was placed in their mouths.  He thought they were associating his laboratory assistants or the sound of the laboratory door opening with food. Pavlov tested this theory by ringing a bell just before feeding the dogs.  Over time the sound of the bell ringing was enough to cause the dogs to salivate. This work explained reflexive behaviour, referred to as ‘classical conditioning’, and led to the modifying training technique of ‘click and treat’.  While the work of others such as Thorndike and Skinner paved the way for our more modern understanding of animal behaviour, laying the foundation for treat based dog training methods today.  Thorndike developed a theory known as the ‘Law of Effect’ – if a consequence is pleasant; the preceding behaviour becomes more likely.  If a consequence is unpleasant, the preceding behaviour becomes less likely. This is referred to as ‘operant conditioning’.

Hence, there have been a number of theoretical models on the laws of behaviour, yet it was not until studies of captive wolfs made by Schenkel in 1947, then by Mech in 1970 did the notion that wolves were dominated by a male and female lead wolf or “alpha”, come into play.

Pack rules thinking
The studies by Schenkel and Mech frequently drew parallels between wolves and domestic dogs.  Despite nearly a quarter of a century between the two studies, both noted there were violent rivalries in the groups they were observing.  As a result, the majority of books and programmes about canine behaviour promoted the idea of using pack rules to control man’s best friend.  In fact, this belief has become so embedded in popular culture, one of the most commonly used metaphors in training is that of the wolf pack, and the dog owner needing to behave as the ‘leader of the pack’.

Yet, the increasing amount of scientific research into canine behaviour has challenged pack rule theory, and the use of ‘traditional’ dog training techniques has been vehemently contested with what we could term as the ‘modern’ view.

Flawed research
The alpha dog concept was introduced when Schenkel made the first-ever study of wolf behaviour, publishing his results over seventy years ago.  His observations were made on a group of wolves that were unrelated and living in captivity – which is a classic ethological and psychological way to look at animal behaviour.  By observing wolves in zoos and other facilities, Schenkel came up with the theory that wolves form social hierarchies. This resulted in frequent occurrences of fighting amongst individual members of the group and findings on dominance-subordinate relationships. Schenkel’s results were reinforced by Mech (1970) with the view there was a rigid hierarchy in which the alphas had priority access to resources, and forcefully maintained the group structure through displays of aggression to others.  Because dogs are descended from wolves, it was assumed similar social groupings and violent pack dynamics must, therefore, exist amongst domestic dogs.  Consequently, the received thinking was dogs seek to dominate and it is our task to assert ourselves as pack leaders, and not allow dogs to think they are ‘in charge’.  It is this thinking that determined, for many, how we should interact with and train dogs.

While studying wolf behaviour is important in helping us understand dogs, it comes with the caveats that; firstly, dog is not a wolf.  If a domestic dog is let out into the wild, he does not resort back to the behaviour of his wolf ancestor.  Secondly, the studies of Schenkel and Mech were not based on dog’s ancestor the European Wolf, but rather American timber wolves. John Bradshaw from the University of Bristol says: “There are thousands of years that separate wolves to domestic dogs. So to assume the two canids behave in the same way simply because their DNA is almost identical is flawed.”

While wolves typically avoid interactions with humans in the wild, the domestication of dogs has led not only to a change in morphology and physiology but also psychological changes too.  For example, dogs typically seek interaction with humans and are skillful at using social cues to find food (Hare, 1998), as well as reading our gestures; even gestures they have never been exposed to before (Hare et al, 2002). Yet when wolves were tested in these experiments, they did not use social cues nor demonstrate flexible behaviour in relation to human gesture.  Moreover, dogs even outperform apes in various cooperative communication tests.  Thus, demonstrating just how socially bonded domestic dogs are to humans due to the thousands of years of collaborative working and living together.

Since the original studies of Schenkel and Mech were made, the findings have been renounced by many as outdated, including by Mech himself who reversed his thinking stating: “the pack’s hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead” (1999).  Yet, the public view of dog training has been very much led by television in recent years.  Supporters of the pack rule model include the Monks of New Skete and the commercially successful Cesar Millan (known as The Dog Whisperer), who has over 8.2million fans on Facebook and 810,000 fans on Twitter.

Punishment based training can promote aggressive responses

Supporters of the pack rule theory use techniques within dog training designed to ‘mimic’ the bite or claw a mother may deliver to her errant pup.  This may include: hanging a dog by its collar or swinging the dog around on its lead known as ‘helicopter’, the Alpha roll (where the dog is forcibly held down) and sharp hits or jabs with the hand delivered into the dog’s side or neck area – all with the purpose of getting a dog to submit, especially when dealing with aggression.  However, studies have shown mothers that use less aggressive corrective behaviour with their puppies develop stronger social bonds with their offspring; the same could be said when it comes to dogs and their humans.

Confrontational methods often used in traditional training that have been noted as eliciting the greatest aggressive responses in dogs, include; hitting or kicking the dog for undesirable behaviour, growling at the dog, physically forcing the release of an item from a dog’s mouth, the Alpha roll, staring at or staring down the dog, pushing the dog into a ‘dominance down’, grabbing the dog by its jowls and shaking the animal.

Despite advocating a philosophy that “understanding is the key to communication and compassion with your dog,” the Monks of New Skete endorse confrontational punishments and Cesar Millan has frequently been filmed using some of these techniques within his television programme which may, as a consequence, elicit dangerously aggressive responses in many dogs (Herron et al, 2002).  In Prescott Breeden’s article Dog Whispering in the 21st Century, he states: “Ultimately, humans lack the morpohological and hormonal traits required to reproduce such maternal behaviour towards a puppy, thus using occasionally observed maternal behaviour as support for a highly confrontational technique on a broad scale is behaviourally flawed.”  Furthermore, by using force (whether that involves shouting at the dog or force delivered by our hands) only succeeds in creating stress in the dog and develops distrust in humans, especially a fear of hands as noted by Rosado et al in 2009.  In fact, Gail Fisher says Cesar Millan’s programme has “set back dog training to about fifty years.”

Modern view
As such, scientists have been pushing in a different direction.  The modern view supports the use of force-free methods (backed by scientific research).  This means, in positive dog training you do not correct the dog, you correct the dog’s behaviour.  For example, if you want the dog to stop jumping on the table or stealing food, you use prevention and management first; set up the environment so the dog cannot do the unwanted behaviour, then you teach the dog the substitute behaviour.  The late Dr Sophia Yin said: ”Critics of science based training think it is all rewarding the bad behaviour. No – you mustn’t let the dog have the opportunity to do the bad behaviour. If you want my attention and start pawing at me, I’m going to make it clear that isn’t going to work, but once you do the correct behaviour, I’m going to reward. That’s the difference.”

The idea of dominance has been used to explain away most inappropriate dog behaviours.  Dominance is not a character trait it simply describes a social relationship between two or more individuals.  Hence, the way people interpret the behaviour of their dogs has a strong influence on the way they behave towards them. Studies show reward-based training (modern view) is more effective than punishment-based training, and punishment may well trigger problematic behaviour in dogs (Hsu et al, 2015; Casey et al, 2013; Rooney et al, 2011; Hiby et al, 2004).

So, with all this evidence the question should be “why is the theory of pack rules and subsequent training methods still employed today?”

The answer perhaps lays in our own human psyche.  Programmes such as the Dog Whisperer continue to be aired; therefore on a biological level these broadcasts create strong learning associations in the brain (Tavassoli, 1998; Stammerjohan et al, 2005).  Combine this with, as Breeden says: “the very normal human phenomenon of dismissing new information that does not conform to a pre-existing understanding because it is threatening to their world-view”, this could explain why many owners and dog trainers alike continue to refute modern methods.


  • Coren, S. (2006) The intelligence of dogs. Pocket Books, pp 49-63.
  • (Retrieved 5th August 2015) Theory of evolution.
  • Burch, M., Bailey, J. (1999) How dogs learn. Howell Book House, Chapter 1, pp 4.
  • Schenkel, R. (Retrieved 5th August 2015) Expressions Studies on Wolves 1947.
  • Mech, D.L. (1970) The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. Natural History Press.
  • Internet: Kellaway. Kate (17th July 2011) Interview with John Bradshaw, Why dog trainers will have to change their ways. Website address
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  • Casey, R.A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G.J., Blackwell, E.J. (2013) Human directed aggression in domestic dogs – occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 152, pp 52-63.
  • Rooney, N.J., Cowan, S. (2011) Training methods and owner-dog interactions: links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 132, pp 160-177.
  • Hiby, F., Rooney, N.J., Bradshaw, J.W. (2004) Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behavior and welfare. Animal Welfare, Volume, 13, pp 63-69.
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