Yet the notion that cherished “best friends” should strictly obey our will is something of a paradox. How can we reconcile feelings of respect and even love with expectations of submission and compliance? Is there a valid and compelling justification for establishing dominance over our dogs? Does our claim to that power follow from fixed biological facts? Is it warranted by the nature of dogs and what we are to them through a shared evolutionary history? Is dominance a “tough love,” something dogs actually want and need?
Since its advent in the 1940s, wildlife biologists have significantly revised the original “alpha wolf” theory and related ideas about wolf pack structure, including the claim that pack hierarchy rests on frequent aggressive displays. Likewise, they have dismissed the idea that dogs are merely domesticated wolves, so that to understand the one is to understand the other. This scientific shake-up seems to leave us on somewhat tenuous grounds for dealing with our dogs as if we were their alpha, gaining their obedience through domination. Still, millions of people continue using the “alpha dog” concept to order their relationships with their pets.
“Tough Love” confronts the current disconnect between science and popular practice by putting “alpha dog” in historical perspective. It begins with a look at the early wolf studies and the appropriation of that science by dog trainers and the general public. It ends with an assessment of contemporary dog training and rehabilitation, focusing particularly on disagreement between advocates of physical correction and proponents of exclusive reliance on food rewards and other “positive reinforcement.”