The term "alpha male" has been around for decades. It's common for ambitious men to be referred to as alphas--someone who is dominant; the one to whom others play a submissive role. But what does that mean in today's world?
To some, the alpha is a guy who is loud and pushy and so aggressively ego-fueled that he always gets his way. I couldn't help but think, is there a way to be an alpha without being obnoxious--and without treating others as submissive? To answer that question, a friend pointed me to the world of dog training. After all, it is from decades-old studies of wolves and other animals in the wild that the term "alpha male" was coined.
I had a chat with Paul Owens, who is often referred to as the "original" Dog Whisperer. Paul is a gentle man and a Yogi who frequently quotes Gandhi and King in his books, DVDs and classes. Owens explained to me that the idea of the "alpha dog," that one member of a canine pack is dominant in all situations, is no longer accepted by scientists and animal behaviorists.
The newer understanding of wolves is that the pack is really a cooperative family unit with the parents leading the way. As pups develop and grow and the parents produce additional litters, the older pups naturally guide and somewhat dominate the new pups, just like older brothers and sisters in a human family. But there's no battle to gain pack leadership; both parents retain that role.
They say it usually takes about 20 years for new scientific knowledge to take hold in the world, even among scientists themselves. Owens pointed me toward the work of a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Dr. L. David Mech, who first popularized the term "alpha male" when he published studies on the social structures of wolves 40 years ago in his book The Wolf.
It's interesting to note that Mech has been attempting to undo his own contribution to semantics and popular culture for the last ten years. In his article, Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?, Mech explains that the term alpha is rarely used today by wolf biologists. And when they do use the term, it is in only one context--to explain why it is outdated and does not apply to the social behavior of wolves.
Mech says, "Hopefully it will take fewer than 20 years for the media and the public to fully adopt the correct terminology and thus to 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."
Still, society seems entrenched in the old definition of what it means to be an alpha. In the old paradigm of dog training, the supposition is that dogs look up to the alpha in the pack as some sort of tyrannical dictator and, to have an effective human/dog relationship, humans should take on this role.
A quick review of the dog training world shows that the old paradigm of the alpha male is still promoted by the authors of many mainstream dog training books and trainers on television. They teach "aversive" training methods, such as pinning the dog to the ground, jerking the dog on the leash, using shock collars, and physically forcing frightened dogs into situations they are afraid of until they shut down.
Owens says, "Trainers who say, 'You must always win when training your dog,' seem to view the dog/human relationship as a competition rather than a relationship built on trust and cooperation. And when there's a competition, there's also a 'win-lose' mentality."
And Owens is on the front line when it comes to the family dog. He continues to espouse the teachings of King and Gandhi, whom he honors as shining examples of nonviolent alphas. By applying their nonviolent philosophy with a scientific approach to educating dogs, he is trying his best to dispel the idea that "might makes right" or that physical punishment and coercion are needed to properly train even the most fearful or aggressive dog.
So if this outmoded concept isn't true for dogs or wolves, perhaps us humans--particularly the male of the species--can rethink what it means to be an alpha male. I heartily agree with Owens, who concluded with, "Since we seem to be stuck with the word alpha, how about redefining the term so it's no longer about dominance and aggression and more in line with the leadership role that good parents exhibit. It's more about intelligent discipline, following the Golden Rule, and applying it everywhere, with everybody--and that includes our four-legged family member."
I'd like to think that I'm an alpha male with strong leadership qualities--that is, rooted in compassion, kindness and consideration for others. I invite you to join in taking the onus from the word and stepping into a new era with alpha men and women who follow this road.
Paul Owens' latest book is The Dog Whisperer Presents Good Habits for Great Dogs (Adams Media). He has also written The Dog Whisperer and The Puppy Whisperer and is featured on the DVDs, The Dog Whisperer: Beginning & Intermediate Dog Training for Puppies and Dogs and The Dog Whisperer: Vol. 2--Solving Common Behavior Problems for Puppies and Dogs.
Photo credit: Brian Stemmler Photography