Training Dogs as Wolves?

Training your puppy and/or dog is an exciting and rewarding journey. In order to get the most out of your training, it would greatly help if you understand how your canine learns. In this blog post we will look at the "myth" that dogs are equal to wolves and how training them by establishing "dominance" and making them "submissive" to you is not only ineffective but it will ruin the incredible bond you could achieve with your dog.

Did dogs originate from wolves?

Yes. People started domesticating the wolves for not only companions, but helpers when it came to hunting for food. Wolves probably took interest in humans by realizing they could benefit from the ability to get animal carcasses and scraps left behind by the humans. Humans, more than likely, realized they could benefit from having the wolves as hunting companions. As wolves and humans started living alongside each other some wolves became more social and started accepting human contact. This is where the beginning of "mans best friend" started to occur.

Selective breeding would begin with taking the friendliest of the wolves and observing their pups. They would keep the pups that showed interest in and affection to humans. This process would be done repeatedly to create the first dog prototype. 

What does domestication look like?

In order to better understand this selective breeding, as well as the concept of domesticating wild animals, we can look at the Russian scientist, Dmitry Belyaev's study with foxes. About half a century ago Dmitry started breeding wild foxes to re-create the evolution of wolves to dogs. The wolf to dog process is said to have started over 15,000 years ago, so our understanding of how wolves became dogs is pretty vague. This is what Dmitry wanted to understand first hand. 

Dmitry and his team focused on the foxes' behavior to human contact. The first foxes were aggressive, as any wild animal would be. They snarled and showed teeth when humans approached the cages. Over time some foxes would be curious and welcome the interaction. As he bred the friendlier foxes he started to see a change in the next generation of pups. This new generation of foxes were more excepting to human contact. Dmitrys' experiment started working. In fact, it exceeded the expectations set and in the mid 1960s they were producing foxes that were no longer afraid of humans and, maybe most exciting of all, wanting to bond with them. This was huge! In only a short amount of time they had taken wild, aggressive and fearful foxes and created a fox that craved human contact and attention. We started to get a glimpse at what might have happened all those years ago with the wolves. 

Dmitry's study didn't end there. He wanted to see if the appearance of the foxes changed as well. When you look at wolves next to dogs they have different characteristics and features. He wondered if the foxes would change, not only in behavior, but also in appearance. As he and his team selected the foxes that desired human contact, an exciting change happened. Only nine generations later, a litter was born with floppy ears and patterns on their coats. In addition their coats got wavy and curly. Even the way they greeted humans changed. The foxes would wag their tails and make vocal sounds... this was never before seen in wild foxes. 

  • Wild Fox

    Wild Fox

  • Domesticated Fox

    Domesticated Fox

From Dmitry's experiments we were able to see what happened when foxes became domesticated:

  • Their behavior changed.
  • They started to look different.
  • They were no longer the same as their fox ancestors. 

Finally a glimpse into the evolution of wolves becoming dogs!

For more on Dmitry Belyaevs experiment read National Geographic 

What does this mean for dogs?

The dogs descendants are wolves. Through the domestication process humans chose the wolves that were less "wolf-like". Positive training guru lan Dunbar says that since humans share roughly the same amount of DNA (98.6%) with chimps as dogs do with wolves, then, logically speaking trying to train dogs by studying wolf behavior is like learning how to raise a child by watching chimps, to "see how they do it". There are differences when it comes to how dogs relate to us and how wolves do. Canines make eye contact to communicate, wolves do not. A dog will look to his owner to help solve a problem, wolves will figure it out on their own and not look for help. A dog will whine, bark, growl, yelp, cry and make funny talking noises, wolves do not (they communicate primarily through body language, they will occasionally use vocal communication). Granted, wolves do howl and make noise but this is not their main form of communication. So to train your puppy or dog as if it was a wolf would be a terrible mistake. It would be unwise to try to copy wolf behavior when training our dogs, particularly when most of the behaviors we're told to copy (alpha roll, becoming the pack leader) don't actually exist in nature. 

Fighting for Dominance, Becoming the "Pack Leader"

There are many people who will tell you that "you must establish the head of the house" or "you must make your dog submissive to you". This is completely wrong. Let me explain how wolf packs work. I personally dislike the word "pack". Wolves form families, not a group constantly fighting for the throne.  This "pack" language we have adopted is false. Using dominance, submission and the "alpha" dog idea, as a training method, needs to be addressed as a ridiculous notion. It will kill the relationship you can have with your dog. As you have read above, dogs ancestors are wolves... but that does not make them wolves. 

Even in the wolf world our idea of "pack" is way off. A wolf pack is a family, meaning almost all of them are related or they are mates. When you look at this family, you will find a breeding pair and a few generations below them. Only one pair mates in the family and the rest help raise the pups, hunt for food, etc. Usually only some of the wolves hunt, unless the prey is to large. It's teamwork, a family chemistry. 

The breeding pair or "parents" guide the family and their behaviors... but to say they are "alpha" would not be accurate. In Alexandra Horowitz book "Inside of a Dog" she says, "They are not alpha dominants any more than a human parent is the alpha in the family.". Wolves do not scramble for power and rank is by age rather than pecking order. Top dog is not under negotiation. Not only is our view of "packs" different from what they in reality are, dogs do not form packs. If your dog escaped from your yard he wouldn't go out to find a pack, neither would he form one. When you look at stray dogs or those who have never been in a family, they are usually solo. You may get two dogs together, but not seven to five-teen (for more information click here). How is it that we have adopted this idea that dogs have this mindset when we don't see them live it? It's unfair to the dog to force a habit on them that they do not understand. The reason we resort to training this way is:

  1. It gives us a sense of stability.
  2. Puts us mentally in charge 
  3. Because being "top dog" is all we know and have been taught. 

Instead of taking my word on how the wolf pack dynamic works, take a look at these links:

"Since we have so many television shows, books, and other media which have, unfortunately, not only been perpetuating this faulty view, but basing training and behavior modification methods upon it, it is important that the public be made aware of the real truth of wolf packs."

The Man Who Cried Alpha

"The "alpha" concept is an outdated one with almost no data to support it."

Dr. Karen Overall

"Dominance theory is so muddled that it often contradicts itself. For example, if a 'dominant dog' is acting aggressively and the solution is through 'calm-assertive' energy, which makes the human the 'dominant pack leader,' wouldn't a dominant dog always act calm-assertive instead of aggressive?"

The Dog Whisperer Controversy 

"The concept of the alpha wolf as a 'top dog' is particularly misleading."

Professor L. David Mech

"The dominance hierarchy that has been described for wolves may be a by-product of captivity. If true, this implies that social behavior, even in wolves, may be a product more of environmental circumstances and contingencies than an instinctive directive. Second, because feral dogs do not exhibit the classic wolf-pack structure, the validity of the canid, social dominance hierarchy again comes into question."

Wendy van Kerkhove

"If you use aggression in training your dog, you’re likely to elicit aggression back."

Live Science

How to train your DOG

Let's toss out the idea of being the "pack leader" or "alpha" to your dog. Dogs are extremely observant and attuned to our actions and reactions. Take a moment and look at your dog. Now walk across the room. Did Fido watch you? Did he get up to see what you were up to? Our dogs gather their information by observing our behaviors. My puppy, Phantom, started digging in the yard after he saw me pull weeds. In his mind that was what he was supposed to do. He was watching me and wanting to join in on the fun (or rather his idea of fun, weeding is not on the top of my "fun list")

If your dog misbehaves and you turn into the "bully" by using dominance and punishment you will have a fearful, sensitive dog. This is because your dog doesn't understand. How is your puppy supposed to know not to pee on the rug or chew on the cabinets? Is your dog born knowing that barking at cats outside the window is annoying? No, you train your puppy to go to the bathroom outside and chew on bones instead of table legs. You show your dog that barking has its place. This is your job, you are the one molding your best friend... by treating him as a friend. Just to burst your bubble a little bit more... it is almost always your fault for your dogs bad behavior. One of my teachers used to tell me (ALL the time) "Good dog! Bad handler."

Without using aggression how will my dog know who is in charge? From observing your family they will understand their place. You feed them, train them, play with them. You are the parent, you take care of them. They are not above you and they see that. Not to say they won't test you or run all over you, this is where training comes in. If you let them boss you around or do whatever they please, then you will have a disobedient dog that doesn't know any better. It's up to you to teach boundaries and stop bad behavior. The method you train them by is extremely important. The whole reason you got a dog instead of a wolf is because they are different. They are wired differently. Because dogs are watching and reading us, the best way to train your dog is with positive reinforcement. Resorting to hitting, yelling, grabbing when your puppy/dog misbehaves will only cause fear and aggression. A better way to correct is through loving correction. If Fido is biting your arm, grab a toy instead and praise for him choosing the correct object. Fido pees on the floor? Gently pick him up and take him outside. Praise for relieving himself in the appropriate area. From this method of training your canine will pick up correct behaviors fast and you won't damage the relationship between the both of you. You want you puppy/dog to look at you as a safe place. Not a ticking time bomb.

I will admit that it can be hard. Phantom tests my patience on an hourly basis. He is figuring out his place and how to live in our family and I am trying to figure out the same thing. It's no easy task and sometimes it feels like a recipe for disaster! What works for me is treating myself for not blowing up. Let me give you an example.

One day Phantom decided that chewing on my cabinets was awesome... on an epic level. Now, Phantom does every behavior (good or bad) with his whole heart, mind and soul. There is no half hearted way of doing things in his mind. So picture this whole ordeal as full force, intense playtime. Because I hadn't taught the command "Leave It", I gently pulled him away to his appropriate chew toys. I repeated this action a few times hoping he would pick up what I wanted. But in his mind this turned into a game.

  1. Chew on the cabinet
  2. Get moms attention
  3. Get moved to my toys
  4. Nibble on toys till mom turns...
  5. Now, RUN back to play again!

This was beyond frustrating, so instead on grabbing his collar and dragging him to his place (oh, and yelling the whole time), I simply stopped the game. I told him to go to his crate (a trick you should teach your pup right away), praised him for racing to his bed, gave him an awesome chew toy, praised for chomping on the right object, closed the gate and walked away. This is the fun part... I have a hidden stash of my favorite foods, the high calorie items (I have them hidden so my husband and son don't devour them all). Cheetos, Potato chips, Reeses, Hershey bars, M&Ms (especially the pretzel ones!), Oreos...the list goes on. In all its glory, this is my treat box. I didn't blow up at my puppy, I didn't physically hurt him, I had patience therefore, mom gets a treat! Pretty awesome right? And then I look over at Phantom. He is happy, his eyes are glowing and he is calmly chewing on his toy. I got the correct behavior and neither one of us are frustrated. This is a sneak-peak at positive training.

If you have used the "alpha" method of training and it worked it's because you have, quite frankly, bullied your dog into forcing a behavior or he has already figured out the correct behavior by occasional praise... or worse, fear of you. Don't fret because it can be changed. You can have a relationship with your dog thats based on love and praise.

My belief is that positive training is the only way you will be able to get that smiling canine beside you.


*For additional information I would highly suggest reading Alexandra Horowitz's book "Inside A Dog"*


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