When 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?
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