Debunking Dog Myths: Science Disproves "Alpha" Focused Dog Training

The alpha roll was promoted due to a theory that has now been recanted and should never be performed on any animal.

Updated February 13, 2024
A long-haired golden retriever lies on his back on grass

An exciting part of my job as a canine behaviorist is following the evolution of our understanding of how dogs work. Dog training methods have advanced significantly in the last few decades due to an increase in scientific research into dog behavior and cognition. As a result, many theories that dog owners and trainers once held central to their techniques have fallen apart under scientific scrutiny. A great example of this is the "alpha" concept in dog training — where even the scientist who originally forwarded it has requested it stop being circulated. Unfortunately, the popularized theory has been slower to die off than it was to take hold, and many loving dog owners with the best intentions still try it today. 

Need to Know

We DO NOT condone this technique and, due to the damage that can be done using it, will not be sharing any videos of "how" to perform it. Continue reading if you want to learn how it started, why it's dangerous, and what to do instead.

What Is Alpha-Based Dog Training?

The idea of the Alpha, or "pack leader," is the misbelief that dogs instinctively seek out and need a strict heirarchical and dominant social structure to thrive. To enforce this structure, physical behaviors that can be found in wolf packs were co-opted and misinterprited initially by some dog trainers and scientists, leading to creation of dog training tactics that are down right dangerous. An example is the "roll" or "pin," which taught loving dog owners to forcibly roll a dog onto their back and hold them there by applying pressure to their neck.

Now you're probably thinking, "Um, what?!" I know the feeling. When I first heard of this, as a canine behaviorist, my jaw dropped. 

This move was meant to show the dog who was "the leader," but the method has fortunately been deemed dangerous and counterproductive for everyone involved. In other words, do not ever use this technique! Thankfully, science debunked the theories that led to these techniques, but not many lay people can explain why, which (perhaps) is one reason why the dangerous technique is still being used in places today.

Origins of the "Alpha" Dog Concept

The idea of an "all-powerful" alpha dog that rules over other dogs, and sometimes people, in a household is based on the idea of the alpha wolf found in nature. The problem is that our understanding of what the alpha wolf is has changed drastically in the scientific community. L. David Mech was a biologist who first wrote about the alpha wolf in the 1970s, where he described a wolf who lorded over the pack using aggression and violence.

However, in 1999, Dr. Mech revised his earlier conclusions and presented evidence that he had been wrong in his descriptions of wolf behavior.

woman nuzzling irish wolfhound
Need to Know

Mech has even asked the publisher of his original book to cease publication and has worked to inform the scientific and dog training communities about this new understanding of wolves.

The 1970s Science Led to False Conclusions

Mech explained that previous research was based on captive wolves whose behavior isn't the same as the wolves in the wild — but we just didn't know that yet. In fact, by definition, many animal behavior scientists now recognize how drastically different (and unfortunately usually unhealthy) wild animals act in captivity. In the wild, packs function as cooperative family units. 

In his 1999 publication, Alpha Status, Dominance and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs, Mech explains, "In natural wolf packs, the alpha male and female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all." Just as human parents lead the family, the breeding pair of wolves lead a wolf pack. 

Fast Fact

"Calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so 'alpha' adds no information. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother?" — L. David Mech, USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

Dogs Don't "Speak" Wolf

Whether a wolf can be seen as an aggressive, all-powerful alpha is important to dogs because many people make the mistake of equating wolves with dogs, though there are many significant differences between species. The alpha training technique is directly linked to the view of a dog acting like a wolf based on two faulty ideas

  1. that dogs are just like wolves and
  2. that wolves display aggressive alpha behavior. 

When it comes to training dogs, it's really important to focus on the specific dog you're working with. Using training methods meant for other animals — even ones related to dogs — doesn't really help. Just because we're similar to another species, like chimpanzees, doesn't mean we should be treated the same way. We wouldn't teach a human baby the same way we teach a baby chimpanzee, right?

Quick Tip

Dogs have been domesticated over centuries, which has resulted in changes to their DNA as well as the type of social structure they thrive best in. 

Being an Inadvertant Bully Can End Very Badly

Along with doing no good for unsuspecting dog owners, these types of training methods are found to be dangerous — to human and dog. A study by the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine found that when dogs were trained using harsh methods like the alpha roll, about one-fourth of them reacted aggressively. Dr. Sophia Yin, a renowned veterinarian and animal behavior expert, also reviewed this study and agreed that these kinds of training methods could cause more harm than good. 

Need to Know

The alpha training technique may increase fear, anxiety, and aggression.

Dog Professionals Are Speaking Out Against Alpha Training Methods

The alpha roll, which is considered part of the "dominance theory" found in traditional dog training, has been discredited by major veterinary and animal behavior professional organizations, including:

  • "The standard of care for veterinarians specializing in behavior is that dominance theory should not be used as a general guide for behavior modification" and "The use of dominance theory to understand human-animal interactions leads to an antagonistic relationship between owners and their pets." — American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior
  • "Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals." — American Animal Hospital Association's Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines
  • "Physical or psychological intimidation hinders effective training and damages the relationship between humans and dogs." — Association of Professional Dog Trainers
  • "Dominance is not a natural order of power between us and our pets, nor is it a healthy or scientifically supported way to approach training and behavior consulting. It certainly doesn't justify the use of punishment in training." — International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
  • "Dominance theory is a counterproductive construct that distracts from the functional relationship between behavior, and the environment, which actually causes and explains behaviors." — Pet Professional Guild

Training Alternatives to the Alpha-Based Methods

Fear not. Science has come a long way in methods that are great for training your dog. Positive reinforcement training focuses on three primary facets:


Creating a Mutual Trust

Like in a family, modern training focuses on creating trust and connection with your dog first. Young puppies benefit from early socialization with people and other dogs. By offering your puppy exposure to a variety of new situations during this crucial development period, they'll learn to adapt easier to other changes that may come later in life. This is easily accomplished by enrolling your pet in a puppy socialization class at your local dog training facility.

Developing a Mutual Language 

No matter what type of training you choose — like standard command work or specialized techniques like clicker training — it's important to work with your dog to create a shared language. A typical beginning "obedience" course will teach you how to train your dog to common behaviors such as sit, down, stay, and come when called. These classes are not designed to increase your dominance over your pet but rather to show you how to communicate effectively with your dog.

Related: How to Create a Dog Training Plan, Plus Printable Template!

Focusing On Rewarding Positive Behaviors

When trained in a positive environment, your dog will develop a deep trust in you and happily follow your cues. This allows you to keep their attention when they're distracted, and it could just save their life in a dangerous situation.

Need to Know

Even if you have a new puppy that is too young to join a class because of their vaccinations, you can still begin practicing at home.

Importance of Positive Training Methods

Current dog training techniques encourage positive reinforcement of good behavior and are generally more effective than punishment methods. Major veterinary and professional animal training organizations recommend reward-based training methods because they can deepen the bond between the owner and the pet and help create a happy, polite dog.

Using positive rewards in dog training will encourage good behavior in a relaxed and safe environment for your pet without the fallout from using more aversive methods.

Avoid Alpha Based Training

You should NEVER use physical force or hit a dog when trying to discourage bad behavior. These types of negative methods, like the alpha technique, may accidentally harm the dog or cause them to be fearful or distrustful of you. Alpha roll and dominance-based training methods should not be used due to the physical dangers and emotional harm to both the human and the dog involved.

Debunking Dog Myths: Science Disproves "Alpha" Focused Dog Training