Who’s In Charge Here?:
A Lesson In Becoming Alpha
By Vicki Rodenberg De Gruy
“My dog just tried to bite me! All I did was tell him to move over so I could sit on the couch next to him.”
“My dog got into the trash can and when I scolded her, she growled at me. What’s wrong with her? I thought she loved me!”
“Our dog is very affectionate most of the time but when we try to make him do something he doesn’t want to do, he snaps at us.”
What do these three dogs have in common? Are they nasty or downright vicious? No – they’re “alpha.” They’ve taken over the leadership of the families that love them. Instead of taking orders from their people, these dogs are giving orders! Your dog can love you very much and still try to dominate you or other members of your family.
Dogs are social creatures and believers in social order. A dog’s social system is a “pack” with a well-defined pecking order. The leader of the pack is the alpha, supreme boss, Top Dog. He (or she) gets the best of everything – the best food, the best place to sleep, the best toy, etc. The leader also gets to be first in everything – he gets to eat first, to leave first and to get attention first. All the other dogs in the pack respect the alpha dog’s wishes. Any dog that challenges the alpha’s authority gets a swift physical reminder of just where his place in the pack really is.
Your family is your dog’s “pack.” Many dogs fit easily into the lower levels of their human pack’s pecking order and don’t make waves. They do what they’re told and don’t challenge authority. Other dogs don’t fit in quite as well. Some of them are natural born leaders and are always challenging their human alphas. Other dogs are social climbers – they’re always looking for ways to get a little closer to the top of the family ladder. These natural leaders and the social climbers can become problems to an unsuspecting family that’s not aware of the dog’s natural pack instincts.
Some families encourage their dogs to take over the “pack” without realizing it. They treat their dogs as equals, not as subordinates. They give them special privileges like being allowed to sleep on the bed or couch. They don’t train their dogs and let them get away with disobeying commands. In a real dog pack, no one but the alpha dog would get this kind of treatment. Alpha doesn’t have anything to do with size. The tiniest Chihuahua can be a canine bully. In fact, the smaller the dog, the more people tend to baby them and cater to them – making the dog feel even more dominant and in control of his humans.
Alpha dogs often seem to make good pets. They’re confident, smarter than average, and affectionate. They can be wonderful with children and good with strangers. Everything seems to be great with the relationship – until someone crosses him or makes him do something he doesn’t want to do. Then, suddenly, this wonderful dog growls or tries to bite someone and no one understands why.
In a real dog pack, the alpha dog doesn’t have to answer to anyone. No one gives him orders or tells him what to do. The other dogs in the pack respect his position. If another dog is foolish enough to challenge the alpha by trying to take his bone or his favorite sleeping place, the alpha dog will quickly put him in his place with a hard stare or a growl. If this doesn’t work, the alpha dog will enforce his leadership with his teeth. This is all natural, instinctive behavior – in a dog’s world. In a human family, though, this behavior is unacceptable and dangerous.
Dogs need and want leaders. They have an instinctive need to fit into a pack. They want the security of knowing their place and what’s expected of them. Most of them don’t want to be alphas – they want someone else to give the orders and make the decisions. If his humans don’t provide that leadership, the dog will take over the role himself. If you’ve allowed your dog to become alpha, you’re at his mercy and as a leader, he may be either a benevolent king or a tyrant!
If you think your dog is alpha in your household, he probably is. If your dog respects only one or two members of the family but dominates the others, you still have a problem. The dog’s place should be at the – bottom – of your human family’s pack order, not at the top or somewhere in between.
In order to reclaim your family’s rightful place as leaders of the pack, your dog needs some lessons in how to be a subordinate, not an equal. You’re going to show him what it means to be a dog again. Your dog’s mother showed him very early in life that – she – was alpha and that he had to respect her. As a puppy, he was given a secure place in his litter’s pack and because of that security, he was free to concentrate on growing, learning, playing, loving and just being a dog. Your dog doesn’t really want the responsibility of being alpha, having to make the decisions and defend his position at the top. He wants a leader to follow and worship so he can have the freedom of just being a dog again.
How To Become Leader Of Your Pack
Your dog watches you constantly and reads your body language. He knows if you’re insecure, uncomfortable in a leadership role or won’t enforce a command. This behavior confuses him, makes him insecure, and if he’s a natural leader or has a social-climbing personality, it’ll encourage him to assume the alpha position and tell you what to do.
“Alpha” is an attitude. It involves quiet confidence, dignity, intelligence, and an air of authority. A dog can sense this attitude almost immediately – its how his mother acted towards him. Watch a professional trainer or a good obedience instructor. They stand tall and use their voices and eyes to project the idea that they’re capable of getting what they want. They’re gentle but firm, loving but tough, all at the same time. Most dogs are immediately submissive towards this type of personality because they recognize and respect alpha when they see it.
Practice being alpha. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Walk tall. Practice using a new tone of voice, one that’s deep and firm. Don’t ask your dog to do something – tell him. There’s a difference. He knows the difference, too! Remember that, as alpha, you’re entitled to make the rules and give the orders. Your dog understands that instinctively.
With most dogs, just this change in your attitude and an obedience-training course will be enough to turn things around. With a dog that’s already taken over the household and has enforced his position by growling or biting and has been allowed to get away with it, you’ll need to do more than just decide to be alpha. The dog is going to need an attitude adjustment as well.
Natural leaders and social climbers aren’t going to want to give up their alpha position. Your sudden change in behavior is going to shock and threaten them. Your dog might act even more aggressively than before. An alpha dog will instinctively respond to challenges to his authority. It’s his nature to want to put down revolutionary uprisings by the peasants! Don’t worry, there’s a way around it.
An alpha dog already knows that he can beat you in a physical fight so returning his aggression with violence of your own won’t work. Until you’ve successfully established your position as alpha, corrections like hitting, shaking, or using the “rollover” techniques described in some books will not work and can be downright dangerous to you. An alpha dog will respond to these methods with violence and you could be seriously hurt.
What you need to do is use your brain! You’re smarter than he is and you can out think him. You’ll also need to be more stubborn than he is. What I’m about to describe here is an effective, non-violent method of removing your dog from alpha status and putting him back at the bottom of the family totem pole where he belongs and where he needs to be. In order for this method to work, your whole family has to be involved. It requires an attitude adjustment from everyone and a new way of working with your dog.
This is serious business. A dog that bites or threatens people is a dangerous dog, no matter how much you love him. If treating your dog like a dog and not an equal seems harsh to you, keep in mind that our society no longer tolerates dangerous dogs. Lawsuits from dog bites are now settling for millions of dollars – you could lose your home and everything else you own if your dog injures someone. You or your children could be permanently disfigured. And your dog could lose his life. That’s the bottom line.
Canine Boot Camp for Alpha Attitude Adjustment
From this day forward, you’re going to teach your dog that he is a dog, not a miniature human being in a furry suit. His mother taught him how to be a dog once and how to take orders. Along the way, through lack of training or misunderstood intentions, he’s forgotten. With your help, he’s going to remember what he is and how he fits into the world. Before long, he’s even going to like it!
Dogs were bred to look to humans for food, companionship and guidance. An alpha dog doesn’t ask for what he wants, he demands it. He lets you know in no uncertain terms that he wants his dinner, that he wants to go out, that he wants to play and be petted and that he wants these things right now. You’re going to teach him that from now on, he has to earn what he gets. No more free rides. This is going to be a shock to his system at first but you’ll be surprised how quickly he’ll catch on and that he’ll actually become eager to please you.
If your dog doesn’t already know the simple command SIT, teach it to him. Reward him