In Star Trek: The Next Generation popular character Data, an ostensibly emotionless automaton, had an "evil twin" named Lore. While Data was (again, ostensibly) logical and methodical, Lore was jealous, emotional, and self-serving.
I always found the selection of Lore’s name rather clever — especially for The Next Generation — a show that spent a lot of time dancing on the edge of greatness without ever managing to really fall in. (Many of the novels are better.) The difference between the brothers is very much like the difference between data and lore in real life.
Data is raw knowledge. Lore gives us some color and context but may not always be entirely factual.
The field of dog training is, of course, full of both. Data is, as far as we know, the things that are provably true. (Because of the nature of science data can change or be completely disproven, but for the most part when we refer to data we refer to the current state of our knowledge as we know it.) Meanwhile lore is what we refer to as “common sense” or “common knowledge”. It may be true and it may not.
Lore can be useful, because it can give facts context. But unfortunately a lot of dog training lore is not true. For example let’s examine the colloquial definition of "alpha."
“Alpha” is often used to describe a dog that displays aggressive or "pushy" behaviors. The dog that steals toys from others. The dog that guards toys, food, or furniture. The dog that puts on an aggressive display when encountering other dogs. And so forth.
This seems like a good place to dig up an actual definition for the term alpha. Right off the bat, the definition in Wikipedia is already tagged for not having enough citations. A Google search for “define alpha male” yields hits for obviously unscientific Yahoo answers and an article in askmen.com about dating.
So part of me wants to stop right here and simply assert that the term has too broad a definition to be useful at all — it’s all lore and no data. The list of behaviors attributed to so-called alpha dogs is best addressed with the ABCs anyway.
But there is a scientific definition for “alpha”. The term wasn’t created in pop culture, just diluted and overloaded. Let’s use the definition at free dictionary.com, which is very close to the definition used in most of the scientific literature (and easier to link to than papers that requires money to buy.)
(In order to completely understand that definition, we need a definition for dominance: "priority access to desired resources." Start here with a recent blog post by Marc Bekoff for more on dominance.)
This very concise definition for "alpha" establishes a couple of important concepts. Alpha is a position in a relationship. Alpha is a position relative to other members of the same sex in a group.
The proper definition of "alpha" has nothing to do with personality traits. You’re either the alpha in a group or you’re not. You might not be the alpha and want to be, and this might make you display aggressive or pushy behaviors, but if you think about it that’s the opposite of alpha!
When I hear someone describing a dog as alpha here’s what I expect to really see (in no particular order):
- A dog with very poor impulse control and/or excess energy.
- A dog in the throes of adolescence (often the same as the previous.)
- A dog that is prone to resource guarding.
- A dog that is fearful or at least ambivalent around other dogs.
In other words, a dog that resembles most of the dogs I see for training. Nothing special. Just a dog and a human that need helps.
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