If you’ve paid any attention, over the past decade or so, to dog training theory, you know that tossing labels like “alpha” and “beta” around is a dangerous thing.
We don’t just do it with dogs, of course. We also do it with humans — see for example Dr. Helen’s observations about a recent Science study. She ties the media reports on the study to a trend to paint alpha males as “dysfunctional.” I happen to be in accordance with her on that point. “Alpha traits” are critically important to human society, culture, and survival. We need them. We need to admire people who exhibit them.
But there’s another problem with the media’s regurgitation of this science. The issue at hand is that being an alpha is stressful — meaning, being alpha is associated literally with high levels of stress hormones. The question then becomes: is it healthier to be a beta?
Here’s the thing. If you’ve known more than one or two dogs in your life, you know that their “aptitude” (for lack of a better word) for a given rank in the social hierarchy is to some extent inborn. I’m not saying here that individual dogs are Destined for a particular social rank. But from puppyhood, it’s obvious that some dogs have what it takes to be alpha and some will inevitably default to somewhere lower in the pack.
Yes, social rank is also predicated on behavior as well. Dogs can acquire the skills they need to climb up. They can also sink in rank. (As can baboons, the subject of the Science study.)
The challenge is to tease out the why’s.
I’ve blogged here before about my dogs. My current dog is a Beagle-Lab mix. My last dog was a purebred Corgi. Both dogs exhibit(ed) a ton of “submissive” behavior — things like rolling over on their backs etc. when I approach them. But my Corgi was also a bundle of very unhappy nerves, whereas Tessa is extremely, extremely mellow (and incidentally a lot nicer to be around).
And guess what. They were each “born that way.”
No doubt if you’d drawn blood from the Corgi and tested it, you would have found high levels of cortisol. They wouldn’t be there because she was an alpha. They’d be there because she was born with a tendency to be excitable and anxious. (Incidentally, I suspect this unfortunately sets up a kind of biological feedback loop. Trainers have noted for instance that dogs sometimes appear to excite themselves by their own barking. So excitable=barking=more excited . . .)
This is one of several reasons why we need to throw out the “alpha” and “dominant” and “submissive” labels when we adopt companion dogs — because when we use those labels, we miss looking for what’s really important about dogs’ temperaments.
My hunch is that we have to be careful with these labels when it comes to people, too. My hunch is that if we looked, we’d find “alpha males” with very low levels of stress hormones, and “beta males” who are as crazy unhappy as my poor little Corgi was.
Assigning moral values to such labels only makes it that much harder for us to understand what’s going on with our bodies, let alone what makes for a stable, high-functioning society.