WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?
A LESSON IN BECOMING ALPHA
“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 dirt bin 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 the 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 alpha’s. 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 Hitler. 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 alpha – 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. To reclaim your family’s rightful place as leaders of the pack, your dog needs some lessons in how to be 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 pen you want to, not just because he wants you to. Also, for the time being, don’t get down on the floor or on your knees to pet your dog. That, too, is a show of submission. Give praise, petting, and rewards from a position that’s higher than the dog.
GAMES: If you or anyone in your family wrestles, rough-houses or plays tug of war with your dog, stop! These games encourage dogs to dominate people physically and to use their teeth. In a dog pack or in a litter, these games are more than just playing – they help to establish pack order based on physical strength. Your dog is already probably stronger and quicker than you are. Rough, physical games prove that to him. He doesn’t need to be reminded of it! Find new games for him to play. Hide & seek, fetch or frisbee catching are more appropriate. Make sure you’re the one who starts and ends the game, not the dog. Stop playing before the dog gets bored and is inclined to try to keep the ball or frisbee.
WHERE DOES YOUR DOG SLEEP? Not in your bedroom and especially not on your bed! Your bedroom is a special place – it’s your “den”. An alpha dog thinks he has a right to sleep in your den because he considers himself your equal. In fact, he may have already taken over your bed, refusing to get off when told or growling and snapping when anyone asks him to make room for the humans. Until your dog’s alpha problems are fully under control, the bedroom should be off-limits! The same goes for sleeping on furniture. If you can’t keep him off the couch without a fight, deny him access to the room until his behavior and training has improved.
CRATE-TRAINING: Dog crates have 1,000 uses and working with an alpha dog is one of them. It’s a great place for your dog to sleep at night, to eat in, and just to stay in when he needs to chill out and be reminded that he’s a dog. The crate is your dog’s “den”. Start crate training by feeding him his dinner in his crate. Close the door and let him stay there for an hour afterward. If he throws a tantrum, ignore him. Don’t let your dog out of his crate until he’s quiet and settled. At bedtime, show him an irresistible goodie, tell him to SIT and when he does, throw the goodie into the crate. When he dives in for the treat, tell him what a good boy he is and close the door.
OBEDIENCE TRAINING: Once your dog has begun to accept this new way of life and his new position in the family, you should take him through an obedience course with a qualified trainer. All dogs need to be trained and alpha dogs need training most of all! You don’t have to wait until he’s through with boot camp to start this training but it’s important that he respects at least one member of the family and is willing to take direction from them. Obedience class teaches you to train your dog. It teaches you how to be alpha, how to enforce commands and rules, how to get respect, and to keep it. All family members who are old enough to understand and control the dog should participate in the class. Obedience training is a lifelong process. One obedience course does not a trained dog make! Obedience commands need to be practiced and incorporated into your daily life. In a dog pack, the alpha animal uses occasional reminders to reinforce his authority. Certain commands, like DOWN/STAY, are especially effective, nonviolent reminders of a dog’s place in the family pack order and who’s really in charge here. A well-trained obedient dog is a happy dog and a joy to live with. Dogs want to please and need a job to do. Training allows them to do both. A well-trained dog has more freedom. He can go more places and do more things with you because he knows how to behave. A well-trained dog that’s secure in his place within the family pack is comfortable and confident. He knows what’s expected of him. He knows his limits and who his leaders are. He’s free from the responsibility of running the household and making decisions. He’s free to be your loving companion and not your boss. He’s free to be a dog – what he was born to be and what he always wanted to be in the first place!
WHEN YOU NEED PROFESSIONAL HELP If your dog has already injured you or someone else or if you are afraid of your dog, you should consult with a qualified professional dog trainer or behaviorist. Your dog should also have an exam by your vet to make sure there are no physical causes for his behavior.