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Being the Alpha
The Truth About Dominance
There is no concept in all of dog land so widely embraced and relished as the concept of dominance.
People chalk up just about every dog behavior, from herding breeds nipping, to leash pulling, humping, and even submissive urination to dominance. The latter particularly cracks me up. The minute any undesirable behavior pops up, “dominance” is often assumed to be the culprit.
People never tire of chirping “Dominance” and “Alpha dog”. The unfortunate thing is there is no concept in all of dog land that is as widely misunderstood as “dominance” and “alpha dogs”. Too bad really, because it is a fascinating concept. I wish more people would study and understand it. But, then again, I’ve always wished for a pony too.
People seem to labor under the misconception that dogs are hardwired to try to become the leader and try to overthrow the current leader at every turn. I swear some of my clients and even fellow trainers think their dogs are lying awake at night, ginning up plans to become the alpha.
I don’t know why people love that concept so much. Maybe it’s because dominance is a power word and it feels good to say it and think it. Maybe it’s because it has a nice ring to it. But I think most likely, it is because it’s an easy answer. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten it’s the wrong answer.
Not every dog behavior can be reduced to dominance. And that’s a lucky thing for trainers, as we wouldn’t have much to do if all dogs wanted were to play a metaphorical game of king of the mountain with their caretakers.
Most of your dog’s behavior is driven by one of two things:
This would include fear responses of fight and flight, hunting (frequently manifesting itself in the form of cat chasing), herding breeds nipping, and puppies mouthing. These behaviors are not driven by a status struggle. They are traits carried over from dogs’ wild ancestors and/or traits humans have selectively bred for in order to enable the dog perform a given task such as herding or hunting.
I don’t mean formal obedience training. I mean conditioning. Your dog has learned which behaviors get him what he wants. Those behaviors tend to be repeated because the dog will no doubt want something again very soon. For instance, if your dog pulls on the leash and you continue to allow the dog to move forward (what they want) they are likely to continue to pull on the leash.
Little of your dog’s behavior is driven by their need to fancy themselves the leader of the pack. Dogs don’t have a lot of time or mental capacity for that sort of self congratulation. However, they can still rule the roost if you give into tantrums and have no expectations for their behavior.
Just because your dog’s day isn’t spent brooding over his status doesn’t mean there is no such thing as dominance. Certainly dominance is real. Be it a gaggle of geese, a heard of elephants or a large corporation, you can bet there is a leader. Every social animal from pigs to humans have hierarchies, or “dominance” so to speak. Dogs are social animals and are no exception to this rule.
The reason for social hierarchies in the wild is clear. Hierarchies keep the peace. Fighting is inefficient and a species will not survive if there is a great deal of combat amongst themselves. I know, I know, don’t get me started on humans and our leaders’ inability to keep the peace. Humans are sort of the exception because we have more medical care going for us than the wild animals do. (Gotta love being able to manipulate tools!)
Besides, leadership even in our less than perfect human society does provide harmony and efficiency that would not otherwise be present. If it didn’t, anarchy would have taken root long ago. The reason most businesses, organizations, and family units have leadership in one form or another is because it is how they function best, or possibly how they function at all.
Since hierarchies evolved to keep the peace in a pack or herd, it is interesting that people believe aggressiveness and violence from dogs is “alpha” behavior. It’s actually the middle ranking dogs that are most likely to exhibit aggression. The top and bottom rankers have little call for it. A true Alpha dog is confident enough in his strength and leadership that he very rarely feels the need to prove it. If you think about it, we humans are no different. Violence and aggression don’t go hand in hand with security and confidence.
For instance, my own dog Cobie used to growl at any dog that came near me if I was petting him when the dog approached. (Sweet little middle ranker that he is). Sometimes dogs backed off, sometimes they growled back.
Then one day I was petting Cobie and a very confident and collected Rottweiler named Lucky approached. Cobie growled at Lucky and Lucky shot Cobie a look that said “Did you just growl at me?” Cobie took a step back and Lucky stepped into him with out a growl or snap. Lucky continued to step into Cobie and Cobie continued to step backwards. You could practically hear Lucky saying “Did you growl at me? Because I thought I heard you growl.”
What happened there was very typical. Cobie, the middle ranking little puke was growling and Lucky, the more confident, alpha personality had no need for aggression. Lucky could have kicked Cobie’s furry little butt if he’d wanted. But, Lucky did not need to snap, growl or even touch Cobie to make it very clear he wasn’t amused. Lucky’s actions were a classic Alpha display and Cobie’s petty growling was a classic middle ranker display. And the underlying issue was: “Who gets Anne’s attention?” not “gee, lets have a contest to see where we rank on the social ladder.” Cobie has never growled at a dog who approached me since the Lucky incident.
What really blows my mind though is when people feel the need to create confrontations with their dog in order to establish dominance. What they are in fact establishing (if anything) is that they see themselves below the dog. Otherwise, why is there a need for a challenge? Criminey, we are supposed to be the smarter species!
First of all, it is doubtful the dog will perceive these challenges as status seeking. More probably they will see it as predatory/threatening behavior. Sure, they may struggle with you and even bite you but it is probably in an effort to protect themselves, not because they are rising to your rank challenge. Even if they did pick up on the fact that you were creating a status struggle, the fact that you need to, only points out that you see yourself below the dog.
Even if the dog were to perceive you as climbing above them through a series of battles they won’t see you as an Alpha. Just another pack member with whom they jockey for rank. It’s a good way to encourage them to challenge you back make your life with the dog a continual battle.
Rather than start out as a bottom feeder, just assume the position of a confident leader that doesn’t need anybody’s permission. I mean really, you know how to use tools. Your species has invented coffee, wine, e-mail, and The Amazing Race. Besides, just the fact that you bring home the kibble is enough to qualify you to be your dog’s leader.
So the question is, how do we become this cool, unquestioned leader if creating confrontation won’t work?
There is no getting around it, being a true leader it is going to take work. Maybe you already are the leader, but maybe you’re not. To determine if you are the leader, ask yourself: “Who is influencing whose behavior?” Do you eat quickly when in your dog’s presence? Do you prepare your dog’s meals as fast as you can because they are jumping and barking? Do you throw the ball so your dog will quit barking at you? Do you sit on the floor so there is enough room for your dog on the couch? If so, your dog is influencing you. In other words, your dog is dominating the relationship.
So to become the leader, turn the tables. After all, resourceful human that you are, you control all things your dog wants: attention, couch/bed space, food, walks, toys and bones. So, make him get them on your terms. If you are the leader your dog should be doing what YOU want to get what HE wants. Don’t throw the ball until your dog sits. Eat at your leisure and only toss your dog table scraps if you feel like it and the dog is lying down or offering some other nice behavior. Easier said then done, you might be thinking (and you make a fair point), but you and your dog will both be happier for it.
If your dog has been getting what they want through obnoxious behavior such as barking, jumping, being hyper, and putting their head on the dinner table, you may have to wait them out at first. Remember, you have given them what they want for this behavior in the past, it makes sense that they will try harder with the same behavior before trying some other, more polite behavior.
If your dog tries (and be assured he will) barking louder, being wilder or jumping higher, stand firm. You are the new sheriff in town and under your leadership (dominance if you prefer) being patient and polite gets puppy what he wants. No amount of barking, kicking, or screaming is going to work. You may have to wait Fido out, or give him a time out, to help them see this behavior is no longer going to push you around.
It’s true, it would be a lot easier to just roll your dog over and declare yourself the leader. It would be nice if it were that easy. But unfortunately leadership takes real skill and dedication. It takes attitude, it takes work and resolve, and it takes patience and compassion. But what you get in return is a happy, well behaved dog, a special bond, and a peaceful household. I think most of us are up to the challenge.
Anne Hendrickson owns Downtown Dogs, Dog Daycare and Boarding. She lives in Minneapolis with her three canine companions Riley, Ralphie, and Cobie. She can be reached at anne@DowntownDogsMinneapolis.com.
For more information on Downtown Dogs Minneapolis call (612) 374-DOGS or E-mail: anne@DowntownDogsMinneapolis.com