Time to Ditch the Alpha: Let’s Be Partners, Not Pack Leaders

On February 26th, National Geographic aired an episode of its popular show Cesar 911 in which a Boston Terrier/French Bulldog mix named Simon attacked a pig while in the care of the show’s host, Cesar Millan.

Time to Ditch the Alpha: Let's Be Partners, Not Pack Leaders

The incident sparked international outrage and an animal cruelty investigation into the incident. Millan himself has faced harsh criticism from dog trainers, veterinarians, and animal welfare activists alike writes Taylor Lima.

But this is not the first time critics have taken a stand against Millan and his methods.

Time to Ditch the Alpha: Let's Be Partners, Not Pack Leaders

Ten years ago, an article ran in the New York Times called, “Pack of Lies”, in which author and canine historian Mark Derr recounted why Millan’s methods are so controversial. “Essentially, National Geographic and Cesar Millan have cleverly repackaged and promoted a simplistic view of the dog’s social structure and constructed around it a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to dog training,” Derr said. “Corrections abound as animals are forced to submit or face their fear, even if doing so panics them.”

Despite such criticisms, Millan’s show continued to air, he continued to write best-selling books, and he continued to bring his dominance-based methods into the homes of millions of viewers.

According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Millan’s mantra of being a balanced, calm, assertive “pack leader” is based on theories that can be traced back to a 1947 study by animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel. Mr Schenkel spent years observing captive wolves in a Switzerland zoo, and identified what he perceived to be two heads of the pack- a “lead wolf” and a female “bitch.” The wolves that Schenkel observed were seen to be perpetually competing for resources, with the heads of the pack always winning out. Thus, the theory of the alpha wolf was born.

Time to Ditch the Alpha: Let's Be Partners, Not Pack Leaders

However, further and more recent studies into wolf behaviour have revealed that Schenkel was wrong. His study was based on the relationships between captive, unrelated wolves. As the American Association of Professional Dog Trainers points out, wolves in the wild are organized in a much different fashion, consisting of a male-female breeding pair and their offspring. These packs do not display aggression or “dominance-seeking” behaviours like the wolves in Schenkel’s study. While these natural wolf packs do still have social hierarchies - just like human families do - they are not established by displays of aggression.

Researcher L. David Mech, a senior scientist with the Biological Resources Division, said in a 2008 article in International Wolf, we must “once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.”

Not only is the colloquially understood idea of the alpha wolf misguided, but the notion that dog training methods- such as those used by Millan and others- based on the behaviour of wolves is somehow more “natural” is also an unsupported.

“It is natural dog behaviours that humans are often trying to eliminate, such as biting or chasing the family cat. So the idea that alpha-rolling a dog is somehow a ‘natural’ way of curing those problem behaviours is really kind of counterintuitive,” said Kristal Proulx, a dog trainer from Toronto, Ont. with a degree in animal behaviour. “Very little of what we ask of dogs is ‘natural’ animal behaviour.”

It is no secret that the domestic dog originated from the wild wolf, and while the two do share genetic similarities, wolf behaviour and dog behaviour are not interchangeable. The many thousands of years that humans have spent domesticating dogs has uniquely changed their social behaviour.

Ms Proulx said that the biggest misconception behind using wolf pack behaviour and dominance theory in training dogs is that it would require that dogs look to us as just other big, weird dogs. “This simply isn’t true,” she said. “Dogs know that humans are not dogs. They have developed distinct ways of interacting with us and us with them. We ask dogs to perform behaviours a dog would never ask of another dog, like walking in a heel position with prolonged eye contact.”

Not only has dominance theory been proven to be based on false claims, but studies have shown that many of the methods involved in dominance-based training- such as using force to make a dog comply- can actually be harmful.

In 2009, the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior released a study in which they found that many of the methods dominance-based trainers use in order to address problem behaviour in dogs actually lead to more issues. “Many owners who attempted these physically manipulative techniques reported that their dogs responded with aggression… forced release of an item from the dog's mouth, the ‘alpha roll’, hitting or kicking the dog for undesirable behaviour, grabbing jowls, and the ‘dominance down’ elicited an aggressive response in at least a quarter of the dogs on which they were attempted.”

Vicki Dawe is a professional dog trainer with a National Vocational Equivalent in canine behaviour and training from Manchester, UK. For the last decade, Dawe has dedicated to her life to dogs as a member of the Pet Professional Guild and British Flyball Association. Dawe, like many modern dog trainers, doesn’t believe in using physical intimidation to change a dog’s behaviour. She said that such methods put dogs under an immense amount of stress. “These dogs have only one choice, which is to remain still until allowed to get up,” she said in reference to alpha rolling- a method used by dominance-theory proponents- in which the handler physically forces a dog down on its back or side until it submits… or so it would seem.

“These dogs are not offering submission, they are shutting down,” Dawe said. “They enter a state of learned helplessness; they give up. They realize nothing they do will stop the person from holding them down, so they simply stop trying and become almost robotic. The best case scenario is you end up with a dog that learns to avoid human contact because it thinks that it’s a punishment.”


Modern dog trainers largely focus on using positive reinforcement- a method in which a dog is rewarded for desired behaviour. “Using management to help dogs make the right decisions, and rewarding them for those decisions, means they’re more likely to repeat them in the future,” Proulx said. “I don’t believe there’s any place for force or intimidation in dog training.” According to positive reinforcement-based trainers like Dawe and Proulx, rewarding a dog for making the right decision discourages them from making the wrong decision in the future.

Sal Evans, a dog trainer from Regina, Saskatchewan, trains and competes in several dog sports including agility, flyball, and rally obedience. Dogs that compete in these events have to quickly perform complex tasks, and Evans says there’s a reason why positive reinforcement is the most common form of training in these sports. “Handlers learn how to train quicker and the dogs pick up on the training a lot quicker,” they said. “When speed is the name of the game, you can’t have a dog that second-guesses itself. Traditional, or even balanced training, tends to create a dog that is concerned about not making a mistake – which gets it punished – so they check their speed.”

The episode with Simon the Boston Terrier mix shows just what can happen if we continue to ignore what science has shown us. We have learned that dogs are smarter, more capable, and far more cognitively advanced than we thought 70 years ago. Continuing to use such archaic methods on the animals that we so readily welcome into our homes is unfair. Hopefully, we can use this incident as a wake up call and start learning how to better communicate with our four-legged family members.

Note: Cesar Millan and the Cesar’s Way organization were contacted for a comment, but did not respond.

National Geographic have previously given a statement to K9 Magazine about the episode which sparked the investigation following the incident on the show and new debate about Mr Millan and his methods - read it here.


About the Author

Taylor Lima is a freelance journalist and lifelong dog owner with a deep interest in dog training and behaviour. She currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia and enjoys participating in agility, obedience, and trick training classes with her two Chihuahua mixes, Finley and Scarlett.


  1. I’ve never seen Cesar use intimidation, grabbing the jowls and shaking a dog. I have seen him break a dog’s concentration by various means of distraction – none of them cruel or intimidating. He shows that conditioning dogs with exercise and teaching owners confidence are essential tools in changing a dog’s behavior. I also have never seen the use of cruelty on his show.

    • That’s because it’s all edited out! Get hold of the bits that are not seen on TV which are easy to find and you’ll see that he is an animal abuser of note

    • Intimidation can show in many forms, not just physical. As a modern dog trainer and behaviourist with a diploma in canine aggression and a diploma in canine behaviour and psychology, I can confirm that Cesar does in fact, intimidate dogs and pushes them into either biting him, or shutting down completely (as in offering no behaviour at all, which in itself is a behaviour problem I have to deal with on a regular basis, because of ‘alpha’ training methods) through fear. This is not submission from the dog, but intimidation from him.

  2. I think a lot more research is desperately needed in to dog behaviour to determine the most affective method, a “one size fits all” approach simply will not work, with many experiences affecting a puppies development happening early on, most of which are not influenced by human intervention, interactions with pack members stay with them throughout life, also taking into consideration the breed, therefore many years of breed specific needs, ie a retrieval requirement or a herding instinct not forgetting the natural guarding instinct, it is wrong to say that dominance or even reward based training is right for all dogs. It would be more beneficial to determine the individual dogs needs and base a training programme to help develop the natural traits and how to control that dog, not all dogs respond to the softly approach, and agreed many do not work with the forced alpha way. More work is needed me thinks.

  3. I grew up on a farm… I personally appreciate Cesar’s work to MAKE life better for all animals… I think he has brought awareness about treating animals ( dogs) with respect and it has made a big difference in the way people treat dogs.. for the better

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