The Wolf, Alpha, and Owning a Dog

wolf2When pet owners, friends, strangers, and even doctors find out that I am a dog trainer, they begin sharing with me about their dogs. Nine times out of ten I hear these people say that they are not the pack leader even though they’ve tried, or they proudly share what they are doing to maintain the alpha position in their pack.

When I first started working with dogs as a hobby, I had the same thoughts myself about being alpha because of the information that my trainer and other popular TV shows discussed. In order to maintain the alpha position I was encouraged to “alpha role” my dogs (role them on their backs and hold them down), use the prong collar, and never allow them to walk through the door first or walk in front of me when leashed.

This training concept comes from the idea that wolves have a strict dominance structure where the wolves compete for the dominance and then are held in check with the alpha male or female. People have assumed that because dogs evolved from wolves, that their hierarchy structure is the same.

When I started getting into the science of dog training I was relieved to find out that the term “alpha,” coined by Dr. L. David Mech was misunderstood by the public.

In his book, The Wolf, Dr Mech specifically states in reference to the term “alpha,”

Hopefully it will take fewer than 20 years for the media and the public to fully adopt the correct terminology and thus to once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.

We have discovered from research that dogs and wolves do not have the same hierarchy structure.

The problem from a scientific perspective with the “dog in wolf’s clothing” approach is that it assumes that the social system of dogs is the same as wolves’. However, domestication has changed the social system of dogs. A comparison of feral dogs and wolves reveals a number of important differences in their social structure…Leaders in a feral dog packs are not the most physically dominant individual. Instead, dogs with the strongest affiliative bonds or friendships in the group are the most likely to be the leaders.[Hare and Woods, The Genius of Dogs, 236-237]

Holding the concept of being alpha was stressful for me as a pet owner. Am I doing this right? My dogs aren’t even paying attention to me; do they understand I’m alpha? So I was very relieved to find out that I didn’t have to worry about my pack position any more. However, I knew that just letting my dogs run amok wasn’t going to serve me either. In the past 10 years I have discovered that I still needed to be a leader. The leadership style that has worked well for me and my clients hasn’t involve alpha roles or dominating the dogs, but mutual respect and consistency.

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head-
that’s assault, not leadership.”
Dwight D Eisenhower

So what does leadership look like?
Being a leader with your dog doesn’t involve domination, any more than it would with raising children. If you’ve ever worked with children, you will find out quickly that dominating them isn’t a route that will bring about the results you desire and more than likely will have a negative affect.

I have found with my own dogs, fosters, and rescues that a mutual respect has to be developed. This would not be allowed with domination, but only with trust, time, and consistency.

Yes, rules are needed. If we don’t have rules there is chaos. Your dog will be spoiled and not only will you not enjoy being around him, neither will anyone else. We’ve all been around children where the parents never say “no.” Please don’t spoil your dog! It surprises me what little thought has gone into the rules of the household for dogs. For instance, are my dogs allowed on the couch? If so, is there an invitation required? How are my dogs to behave before I leash them for a walk? Are they allowed in all areas of the house?

Following through
One of the sports that I played as a child was softball. We all know that to be a good hitter, it’s important to make contact with the ball and follow through with the swing of the bat. If you don’t follow through you are cheating yourself out of a good hit. When you’ve created a rule with your dog like not getting up on the couch, it’s important for you to follow through consistently with this rule.


A good example of following through is if you tell your dog to “get down” off the couch and he looks at you. Rather than repeating yourself, you walk over to your dog and encourage him to get down by using the movement of your body (like patting the side of your leg).

When you create a rule everyone in the house must be consistent.

Let’s say, for example, your rule is “dogs aren’t allowed on the bed.” The first night your partner allows him to sleep on the bed, then the next night you say, “no,” and a week later you notice your dog napping on the bed, but you ignore the behavior. Being inconsistent will lead to confusion and will not work towards the results that you hope to achieve.

It’s important to consistently follow through with your rule. So in this particular example, you will tell your dog to get down every time he gets on the bed, prepare the environment in a way that will set him up for success, and ensure that everyone in the household understands the rule.

 “Leadership is the art of getting someone
else to do something you want done
because he wants to do it.”
Dwight D Eisenhower

Being the Leader
We can finally stop stressing over whether we are “alpha” in our pack and just enjoy our dog’s friendship through mutual respect and communication. Being a leader with our dog is much different than taking a dominant alpha approach. Growing mutual respect through rules, following through, and being consistent will allow for the great relationship with your dog that you’ve always wanted.

Blog written by Michelle Huntting


Have you ever taken time to look at life from your dog’s perspective? Have you ever thought about how dogs perceive human behaviors?   In addition to being a pet dog trainer, and an instructor at Kenyon Canine Institute, I am also a mother. One of my sons’ favorite movie right now is Tinker Bell. There is a clip from this movie that makes me think about the dog’s point of view when we, as humans, are innocently being kind or helpful. You must see this one minute clip.

What we see as a kind gesture, our dogs may see as a threat or sometimes as scary behaviors. I created a list of things to keep in mind to help keep your own dog comfortable.

Bending over or towards your dog. Whether it is to groom, feed, deliver a treat, or pet your dog, bending towards him is seen as a threat. If you observe human behavior, even though our intentions are good, this is our tendency.

When meeting a new dog, it is better to turn to the side, not maintaining direct eye contact. When I meet a new client’s dog, a lot of times I don’t look at the dog with my direct vision until I have been there for 15 minutes discussing training needs with the client. At that point the dog has been able to sniff me enough so we are a little more acquainted.

Do not make direct eye contact. If you look a dog straight in the eye he will see this as a threat. In a human’s world we are being polite but this is not the case from a dog’s perspective.

Walk in “S” form. If you walk towards a dog in a direct straight line, he will see that as a threat. We love moving straight forward; we move laterally. This is evident by the way we build our sidewalks, our roads, and our grocery aisles. Children and dogs are not lateral movers. Children are all over the place, and if you have ever taken children to the grocery store or your dog on a walk, you have likely noticed this as well.  So when moving towards a dog, you can make “S” type movements just like you would when you are skiing.

If you need to get close to a dog, allow the dog to come to you. Squat down, place the side of your body towards him, and let him sniff you. You can always hold out your hand to the side and keep it steady. Allow time for him to sniff you and do not make any quick movements.

When Meeting a Dog

  • Turn to the side; do not face a dog directly
  • Make “S” movements
  • Do not make direct eye contact
  • Squat to the side
  • Let the dog come to you
  • Allow the dog to sniff you

Hugging a dog. I have never seen another dog walk up and place his paws around another dog as a sign of affection. This is a human thing. We love to hug our dogs. Trust me; I do too. This is such a reinforcing behavior for us; NOT necessarily for our dogs.

How can you tell if your dog is uncomfortable?
He communicates to you by showing what are called displacement behaviors, or otherwise known as calming signals. These include: lip licking, grooming, shaking, scratching, yawning, turning his head to the side, and squinting his eyes. These signals can be used by humans to allow us to key in on when our dogs are uncomfortable. When you see these signs, you can adjust the environment accordingly for your dog. These signals are also used by dogs in social settings allowing other dogs to resolve or prevent any social conflict.


(Human hugging; dog lip licking)


(Camera in dog’s face; turns head to side, squints eyes, yawns)

The above behaviors are normal behaviors for a dog to do in his everyday life, so I always tell students to look at the context in which the behaviors occur. If your dog yawned when someone hugged him or leaned towards him, he is not in a relaxed tired state. He is uncomfortable. If he shakes after a bath that obviously served to get him dry.

Stress is subjective to each dog. What one dog might find as very stressful, another dog might find enjoyable. I suppose that would ring true in the human world as well. My husband finds jumping out of an airplane fun, whereas I am quite sure I would need paramedics waiting for me when I landed.

When I was training a group class in Orlando, I had a little puppy in my class that kept scratching. The owner said to me, Michelle I have tried new shampoo and she doesn’t have fleas I don’t know why she keeps scratching. I kept observing their training sessions and noticed that it was only after the owner said a cue that the dog was scratching. The owner was saying the cues in a firm manner, so I said, why don’t you try cuing in a softer tone of voice. She did, and the dog performed the behavior without scratching.

Dogs are constantly communicating to us; it is just a matter of becoming aware of how they say things; learning their language.


Notice in the above picture that not one of the dogs is looking at another as they are maintaining peace without direct eye contact.

Author: Michelle Huntting

See what Kenyon Canine Institute students have been up to!