How or why urban myths get started is a mystery and not only to me. The phenomenon has been studied by academics and they do not fully agree on how it happens. But there does seem to be a consensus that two elements are typically present - lack of information and fear.
One persistent belief which has become a sort of “urban myth” is the idea that dogs form hierarchies, similar to wolves, and therefore it is necessary for us to establish our status as alpha, or leader of the pack. There is actually no data to support this. It makes me wonder why this myth has persisted. But since research shows us that the persistence of myths involves lack of information and fear, we can wonder what it is we fear. Is living closely and amicably as a family unit, as wolves actually do, such a scary prospect? Are we just more comfortable with the idea of “rank” than teacher and parent?
Here is the good news. One of my favorite dog trainers, Kathy Sdao, in her new book “Plenty In Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace” has provided a clear and thought provoking alternative to training approaches which are based on the misinformation of “leader of the pack” theories.
As a trainer, I have promoted an approach that is popularly known as “NILIF” – or “nothing in life is free.” In this approach dogs are expected to earn rewards, such as our attention or treats.
After reading this book, I am totally rethinking that approach. And Kathy has provided, in her typically concise and witty way, a more equitable and even humorous view of living with our dogs, which is based on science. We have recently started to understand more fully the part that dogs played in the life of very early man. Archaeological finds are now suggesting that dogs evolved less as helpers in hunting, and more as just scavengers living closely with early man, looking for “table scraps” and handouts just as they often do today.
So if you have started to question the approaches that are based on the notions of “alpha dog” and “leader of the pack” and are searching for a method and theory based on scientific studies, read Kathy’s “Plenty In Life Is Free.”
It is amusing and enlightening, and hopefully her approach will replace the approaches which are based on the urban myth of dominance and hierarchy in your pack.