No Alpha-Dogs

We have three dogs in our family — all are rescue dogs (aka: “pound dogs”). Both my wife and I had dogs throughout our childhoods too. We love our dogs. But we both have naively believed the alpha-dog myths for decades.

I am reading the book “Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz and just listened to an NPO 38 minute program by John Bradshaw who wrote “Dog Sense“. Both these authors debunk the alpha-dog myth which is based on a false understanding about evolution. It assumes that because dogs are evolutionary decendents of wolfs then dogs must be like wolfs. But the authors give us tons of examples of the differences between dogs and wolfs.   If you own or love dogs, and are as stupid as I am, these books will help you.

I love to read stuff that uses science to undermine my treasured ideas. But then, I love change and not everyone loves change — in fact, most people don’t treasure change at all.

I have been slowly realizing the stupidity of my beliefs about dogs over the years but these books have crystalized my slowly growing understanding.  I think the same happens to some religious folks when they slowly take chances reading literature that questions their assumptions.  Change can be difficult — even for something as simple as how we treat our dogs, yet alone if our change can take us away from the communities with whom we identify.  Understanding your own resistance to change and how many unquestioned assumptions you have may help you in your debates with other vulnerable people about their strongly held beliefs.

Question to reader: Have you made mistakes with your dogs?



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

4 responses to “No Alpha-Dogs

  1. Yeah, I’ve always been skeptical of alpha dogs — says I with the appropriate level of hindsight bias 🙂

    I think the classic mistake is when owners think that a dog knows what it’s done because it looks “guilty” when you (say) reprimand it for breaking a vase in your absence — as opposed to just reacting to your body language. But luckily, I think the popular literature criticizes this myth across the board.

    As for mistakes, I think when my family first got the dog, I anthropomorphised her a bit, getting annoyed at her disobedience as if she was doing it out of spite.

  2. @ Michael,
    Thanks for the examples. Anthropomorphism is a big chapter in Horowitz’s book — good stuff.

  3. Book sounds interesting. I’ll have to check it out.

  4. i just finished that book and really enjoyed the read. never bought into the alpha dog as total truth. but have found that dogs respond to confidence and direct and clear leadership. i’m sure i’ve made mistakes with our dog, but we’re both pretty laid back and still respect one another. he’s a greyhound, so that makes him more of a rug than a dog. 😉 but i think the mutual respect and truly understanding one another goes along way both in people and in dogs. but then again, that’s my bias and i look for things and people who have other views. good stuff.

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