You love your dog, and most of the time he’s an absolute sweetheart. Now, imagine this – you’re walking down the sidewalk, and a child approaches your dog, and the dog snaps at her. Or you’re just gearing up to sit on the sofa and binge-watch your favorite TV show with your dog, and he gives you a “get of my end of the couch” kind of growl. Or, you scold your dog for some kind of minor infraction, and he bares his teeth at you.
Is he all of a sudden being hateful? No. Is he naturally vicious? No. Is he mentally unstable? No.
Look, I can’t begin to tell you how many dogs end up being put to sleep because of this kind of behavior, and it’s wrong. Most of the time the dog isn’t vicious or mentally defective, and most certainly should not be euthanized. So what is he? He’s an alpha.
An alpha is a leader. He’s the boss in the family. And if you have a very strong-willed dog, and you’re not strong-willed yourself, then you may end up with a dog who decides that it is his job to rule the pack.
That’s exactly what you are to your dog – a member of the pack. And you might not always be at the top of the social structure. Your dog could love you to distraction, but still want to dominate you, and possibly other family members. There is a pecking order, and at the head of that order is the alpha- the boss. He gets everything he (or she) wants – the best food, the most desirable sleeping location, the most pleasing toys, and the most attention.
Maybe you have seen movies in which alpha wolves played a role. You probably picture the alpha as the war-torn animal with the scars and the ripped ears, but the reality is that this is far from the truth. The alpha is actually the brains of the operation – he doesn’t fight. He sends the beta wolf out to fight. In the meantime, the alpha makes the decisions that guarantee the safety of the pack.
Ideally, this is your job.
Do you treat your dog as an equal? Do you let him sleep where he wants, do what he wants, and allow him to get away without obeying? If he’s not a natural alpha, you are making one out of him, and if he is a natural alpha, you are making matters worse. You are allowing him to take over the pack. And don’t think for one minute that this doesn’t include you. I have heard of Chihuahuas who have become so dominant that they ended up terrorizing their owners.
Now, I’m not saying that alphas don’t make good pets – often, they do. They are very confident, strong-willed and protective. They will look after children in the home, and be polite with strangers. Everything will look good, until it doesn’t. At some point, a human will cross the alpha, and then this dog that was always well-behaved will growl or even bite, thanks to no discernable provocation. It’s natural. It’s instinctive. And it’s also dangerous, because at some point, a dog has become the leader as opposed to a human.
Most of the time, a dog is quite happy to defer to a human. A dog wants to know that he has a certain position in the hierarchy, and he will be more than happy to take your orders. But if you’re not offering leadership, he may feel that he has to take it on himself. Mostly, what he wants is to feel safe and know what is expected of him. If, on some level, what you want is for your dog to be the alpha, he will take on that role even if he does so reluctantly.
Ideally, your dog’s position in your pack (or family) hierarchy should be close to the bottom. Definitely not at the top. When he was a baby, his mother placed him at the bottom level, so that he could be free to learn, develop and just generally become a good dog. Now, that is your job, and if you don’t want to do it, if you want to allow him to take over the pack, you are upsetting the natural order of things. Whether you are male or female, you are his Mom now. He naturally wants to follow you, and expects you to make decisions for him. He just wants to be a dog, not the boss. So the worst thing you can do is force him into a leadership role.
Your dog is going to watch you all the time, and look at your body language. He is going to know if you are feeling insecure or uncomfortable, or reluctant to make him obey a command. This is going to confuse him and make him feel insecure. Then, he is going to develop the mindset of “Well, someone has to be the boss, and clearly it’s not going to be this human.” That’s when you run into trouble. Dogs are going to pick up on your attitude, and if you’re not approaching from a position of authority, you’ll be in trouble.
This doesn’t mean that you have to dominate or terrorize your dog. It simply means that you have to show him that you are comfortable being in a position of authority, and that he can trust you to do what is best for him, and that you can tell him what you need to do. It means that you have to be quiet and confident, and display an authoritative (but not autocratic) attitude.
If you’ve ever wondered how to adopt this attitude, go to an obedience class – one where the trainer is respected and enjoys a good reputation. See how he or she responds to the dogs. You will almost certainly see the dogs display an attitude of “Yes, this person has it going, and I’d better listen.”
That trainer is an alpha – someone with the right level of confidence, along with the intelligence and dignity that commands respect in dogs. That trainer will have good body posture, standing tall and firm. He or she will be gentle but demanding, tough but loving, all simultaneously. Most dogs will immediately submit to this sort of person, simply because they know an alpha when they see one.
Here’s the thing – fake it till you make it. I have a friend who used to have people run roughshod over her. “Gina,” her boss would say, “Can you work late tonight?” And poor Gina, even though she’d worked late every night for the past five weeks, would not say, “No, boss, not tonight, I have plans.” So, who do you suppose always had to burn the midnight oil? Gina.
I just couldn’t stand it anymore, seeing her taken advantage of like that, so I started training her to say “No.” It took a lot of effort, but finally one night, Gina said “No, boss. I can’t work late. I have plans. And no, I can’t change them.”
It’s the same if you’re not a natural alpha, but you want to be one. Look your dog firmly in the eyes, and make your wishes known. If you don’t feel confident, fake it. And keep on faking it. Keep on looking into those big brown eyes until what you want, not what your dog wants, is what happens. Remember, it’s all about attitude, and your dog is going to pick up on attitude. He’s going to know if you’re a natural alpha, and if you are, he’s going to do what you want. If he thinks you’re just messing, faking the alpha thing, he still might think to himself, “Okay, she’s pretty serious about this.” So, don’t ask your dog to do something – tell him. And don’t think for a minute that he doesn’t know the difference, because he does. Stand tall. Use your voice. Make eye contact. And get the response you want from your dog.
Remember, alpha is an attitude. A state of mind. And if you don’t naturally have it, you can fake it until it becomes real.
Now, on to the main purpose of this article. If you have a dog with alpha issues, what I want you to do is put him in boot camp. I’ve talked a lot about training before, primarily in Dog Training Made Easy. But boot camp is a little different. It’s not just about basic obedience; it’s about managing your alpha dog’s attitude. What you’re going to do is show him that you are the human – the alpha – and that he will take his orders from you. He is not a human, and he is not a furry god, and he needs to know how to take orders. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love your dog – it actually means that you do, and you want to help him find his place in the world.
So, no more free rides. He doesn’t get to boss you or your family around anymore. You’re not going to work your ass off to please him – he’s going to learn how to please you. He’s going to learn the basics like “sit” and stay,” and he’s going to understand, boot camp style, that you are not asking him to sit or stay, you are telling him.
Does this sound harsh? Maybe. But I’m not saying it all has to be one-sided. Of course, when he does something good, you will reward him or praise him. However, if he refuses to do what you ask, I fully expect you to walk away from him. Give him a time out. And wait until he is feeling more cooperative. Don’t get down on the floor and pet him, because if you do, he may see you as being submissive.
What I’m trying to get across here is that you always have to be the pack leader. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to work out where you dog should sleep, who should have the control of the ball or the Frisbee, or whatever else is going on. You can’t let a dominant dog think that he is our equal. Sure, maybe he has the right to sleep on the bed with you if that’s what you want, but when push comes to shove, “Off “ has to mean “Off.” Otherwise, you are not the alpha. He is.
Alpha dogs don’t ask for rights. They assume them. So if your dog has taken over your bed because he figures it’s his domain, tell him to get the feck off and go to his own bed. If he growls or snaps, give him a time out in another room. Same thing applies to furniture – if you don’t want the dog on the couch (and personally, I don’t mind this – I want Janice and Leroy to be comfortable, and the second-hand stores are full of furniture), then deny him access to the room altogether. Take a hard line. You can also consider using a crate. Whatever it takes to bring home to your dog the idea that you are the boss and your word is law is what you are going to have to do.
You might think that taking the boot camp approach to your dog is cruel. It’s not. You’re just trying to teach your dog another way of life. Strong alphas often respond to boot camp treatment, and some will improve almost immediately. The really tough cookies might need a bit more time. Some dogs actually need more than one trip through boot camp before they completely get it. But if your dog is reluctant to accept you as the alpha, and take his natural place in the pecking order of the pack, boot camp methods could help.
Of course you should always approach from a position of kindness – no treatment that involves terrorizing or suppressing your dog’s natural urges is ever going to work. So if you have a problem dog, and you think a more severe approach might be needed, you might consider the boot camp approach. Keep in mind, though, that you never want to make your dog feel afraid or unloved. So, boot camp if necessary, but not necessarily boot camp.