This is a training method made popular in recent years by Cesar Millan and although he has done some positive things to spread awareness of dog behavior and understanding that regardless of breed all dogs should be viewed the same, he has also encouraged training under methods which are now known to be based on incorrect science. This method is that of the “Pack Leader” or “Dominance” training.
There are a few reasons why this method is incorrect, but first let’s understand the method itself. The idea of you being the “Pack Leader” in your dogs eyes, and the idea of a pack leader in general originally comes from a study in the 1940s. In this study, researchers were looking at a group of wolves in order to better understand wold behavior. The researchers viewed a rigid hierarchy which was kept in place by the leader using aggression to force others into submission. This lead wolf was referred to as the “Alpha” and he and his mate gained priority access to resources including the best parts of food, best shelter, and even the ability to mate.
At the time this study was released the behavioral insights that were gained through the study were believed to be word for word transferable to dog behavior. This meant that trainers of the time and into today have used this study to prove that by using the natural behavior of wolves that we could train our dogs to view us as the pack leader, or Alpha dog.
Any action from your dog to try to assert him or herself would be viewed as them trying to become the dominant dog. This also came from that original study in the 1940s because the Alpha dog of those studies was constantly defending its position as the Alpha and there were points in time where one wolf would lose and another would gain that position. When a dog asserted themselves it was viewed that they were challenging your position as the head of the house. There was believed to be a constant struggle because your dog wanted to be the leader of the pack and there was an innate desire for the dog to seek status over one another.
The problem, we now know, is that these wolves were not a native or natural pack. These animals were captive wolves from separate packs who were forced into living together. Their fighting was not solely an active assertion of dominance, but rather it was more so a fight for continued survival. If the wolf won the fight, they got everything the researchers saw as being the benefit of “Alpha” status.
True packs we know now are ones built up of parents and offspring, include the hierarchy that a normal family would. Parents are at the head and they do not have to force the others into submission, the offspring freely offering submission. The young wolves stay with the pack for about 2 to 3 years and after that point they leave to form their own packs. With this understanding we now know that so long as a wolf lives long enough, they will at some point in their life be in the “Alpha” position, not because they won that position but because they survived long enough to mate.
Even though we now know all of this, there are still trainers such as Millan who use the Pack dynamic and Dominance theories.