Breed Specific Legislation and Alpha Dog Mythology

Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary.

helen keller with her pitbull
Helen Keller with her pitbull

As smart as we humans consider ourselves to be, we can be remarkably short-sighted or inconsiderate of the effects of our beliefs or actions. Antibiotics have saved countless lives and I consider myself among the lucky in history to have lived in an age during which we have access to them. But we have also learned that unless we use them judiciously, the fall out of resistant bacteria is very real and can be deadly. Yet for many, including, surprisingly, doctors, they continue to be misused.

When I meet trainers or dogs owners who believe that dogs need to be dominated in order to be appropriate pets I rarely doubt that they enjoy having dogs in their lives. However the perpetuation of the myth that dogs need to be ‘shown their place’ in the household pack hierarchy may have had serious consequences for breeds of dogs some trainers and advocates have specifically targeted for image improvement. This impact goes beyond the routine effect on a dog who has been ‘dominated’ displaying increased fear and aggression. That alone should be enough to reconsider the practice.

Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary. Growling, used by dogs to indicate that they want to maintain or increase their personal space, which may include food, locations or toys, is upsetting enough that many pet owners and trainers will punish a dog for it. It scares us.

It scares us even more if we believe that it is a rung on the ladder up to domination. ‘Nip it in the bud’ is the tactic employed by many, and can have unintended consequences. Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.

As sophisticated as humans are we are still ‘animals’ and have retained many of the responses that kept us alive long enough to evolve and achieve our own level of global domination (germs and cockroaches aside). We are as concerned about being attacked as the next fellow mortal regardless of how many limbs they use to walk, or whether they swim or fly. When we incorporated the myth that status seeking in dogs is a powerful enough desire that they are willing to attack and kill humans to get it, red lights started flashing in the parts of our brains that respond to immediate threats which affect our survival. This unfortunately has led to less use of the parts of our brains that are capable of critical thinking.

There is plenty of information, provided by biologists, ethologists, behaviorists, and writers, far more skilled than I, to include in this post the research done on both wolves and dogs which indicates that both animals interact within a system that promotes cooperation far more than it does conflict, especially conflict which might lead to grievous bodily harm. My goal for this post is not to address that, but rather to suggest that when you convince people that dogs need an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in order to be a safe, ‘balanced’ pet you instill a level of fear in people about dogs which may have led to the increase in breed specific legislation and heightened laws regarding which dogs communities feel safe having in them.

I have rarely doubted that trainers like Cesar Millan and others who follow his ‘premises’ about the relationship between people and dogs, like and love dogs, but the unintended consequences of maintaining the ‘alpha’ and pack leader paradigm, including practices and handling techniques which can increase aggression, may be proving to be deadly to the very dogs they claim to care about.

5 thoughts on “Breed Specific Legislation and Alpha Dog Mythology

  1. I completely disagree with your article and have ALWAYS assumed the pack leader role. I have 12 years of experience rescuing pit bulls and have turned around several foster dogs using this model. In fact, I currently foster a sharpei/pit mix with a history of fear biting and urination. It has taken me 3 months to gain her trust and respect, but after much patience and perseverance, I can trim her nails without any issue whatsoever. Honestly, I think it boils down to people being LAZY and wanting to take a “one size fits all” approach, rather than modifying their own behavior.

  2. No one really realizes pitbull is a term for 3 breeds and in the 90’s out came another. ‘bluenose’ no one knows that these blue colored pitbulls or XL XXL large buff stocky big headed dogs are American bullys. Not American pitbull terriers. American bullys come in 5 different sizes/looks like a poodle comes in standard,miniature. These dogs should be called petbulls they were never bred to do anything in a pit. American pitbull terriers do not come in blue unless they are inbred it’s just a freak accident of the black genome getting diluted. Classic american bullies sport the look of a Much more thicker stocky version of the APBT or Amstaff being that they come from both of those and Staffordshire bull terriers were mixed in. People are breeding American bullys more than APBT. I know this because i own 3 APBT’s and 1 American bully(not bulldog) i frequently show my pitbulls in the ADBA/UKC shows and my Ambully in the ABKC(american bully kennel club). I have also fostered many and adopted them out in to loving homes and taken them off of deathrow to recover. Your article is rubbish dogs are pack animals they thrive in a pack and they follow under a leader that is strong and confident

  3. maybe in the states “pit bull” refers to one of only 4 breeds – but everywhere else, it’s not a breed, it’s (as you rightly pointed out) a job description. however, ppl are lazy and the media gets bored so now the term “pit bull” basically refers to any breed of dog with a block-shaped head, whether it’s an actual APBT, the classic terrier breed trained to fight bulls in a pit for the purpose of meat tenderization (staffordshire terrier), or not even, as in the case of my bff who had to produce CKC papers to prove her dog was, in fact, a purebred chocolate lab!

    as far as canadian law goes, “pit bull type” refers to any dog that even resembles a staffordshire terrier, APBT, or american bulldog which is basically any dog with a block-shaped head or short snout.

  4. I think you are right in saying that dogs are not status driven beasts that are driven to dominate and take control of their “pack”. And I think that’s a really important message.

    The science seems to clearly indicate that wild wolf packs and dog packs (in particular village dogs in certain developing nations) are much more cooperative, familial structures than the early evidence (of captive wolf packs) suggested.

    Consequently I think it is also true that we should not feel the need to be overly harsh in our corrections or unduly watchful for signs that our dog is trying to dominate us.

    However I do think that dogs respond best to strong, fair, firm and consistent leadership and look up to the person/people that provide this and feel much more secure and happy as a result.

    I have a young GWP, who has endless energy, which often leads him into mischief or misbehaviour. He is also an incredibly sensitive and affectionate young fellow. Being too harsh with him risks ruining his beautiful temperament but not being a leader for him, not correcting his mistakes and making clear what is acceptable and not acceptable has the same risk and would also result in disharmony in the house.

    Being a pack leader does not need to mean that you dominate your dog in the traditional sense. But you do have to be the boss. The trick of course is getting that balance right. Being firm and consistent and clear so that your dog respects you, trusts you and listens to you without being unduly harsh.

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