Please Don’t “Alpha” Your Dog

Life with your dog shouldn't resemble some sort of dystopian boot camp. Mutual respect based on clear communication and kindness set the stage for cooperation and peace.

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For over a decade, the scientific behavior community has been telling us that trying to be the human “alpha” is a seriously flawed approach to changing your dog’s behavior. Despite this, there is still a plethora of information online and in books that purport to teach you how to be an alpha to your dog. 

Reading through some of that advice in preparation for writing this article, I feel physically chilled. I can’t imagine living in a home where I had to “demand respect” and “assert my dominance in everything I do” around my dog, to “make him get out of my way” if he’s lying in my path, or other equally absurd recommendations. And I don’t think I’m alone; I don’t know many dog owners who want to live in some sort of canine detention center, where the dogs must be reminded at every turn that I’m the boss! 

I’m not going to go on and on; I just want to give some encouragement to anyone who has fallen prey to this sort of indoctrination. If you have been intimidated by an instructor into yanking on your dog’s leash, or told that your “softness” is the reason your dog is misbehaving, know this: These are outdated methods that are no longer recommended by today’s behavior experts. 

WE CAN ALL JUST GET ALONG

Today’s humane, successful, and enjoyable approach utilizes methods that create a relationship with your dog based on mutual trust, love, and respect. Real leadership looks like:

  • Showing and teaching. Use lure-shaping to teach your dog to lie down on cue, rather than pushing on her shoulders or pulling down on her collar. Or “capture” the down by “marking” it with the click of a clicker or a verbal marker, such as the word “Yes!” and giving her a treat whenever she lies down on her own, until she understands this is a great way to win more rewards and starts offering the “down” more frequently. Then just add your cue! (See “The Allure of the Lure,” WDJ July 2018, and “How to Get a Dog to Behave,” August 2014.)
  • Understanding. Recognize that when your dog doesn’t do something you ask her to do, it’s because something is interfering with her ability to do so – she may be stressed, distracted, in pain, or simply hasn’t learned the behavior as well as you thought.
  • Empathizing. Comfort your dog when she is stressed, hurting, or confused instead of insisting that she perform.
  • Forgiving. If your dog did something that upset you, whether she soiled your carpet or snapped at you when you picked up a shoe she had snagged, don’t hold it against her. Our dogs are doing their best to make sense of a human world that often makes no sense to them. They are, however, really good at reading our body language, and if you stay angry about something your dog has done she’ll know you’re upset with her (and be stressed about it), but she won’t know why.

Do your dog a life-enhancing favor and eschew the use of force and intimidation in favor of cooperation and trust. In the end, your role as a benevolent leader rather than an alpha dictator will make life better for both of you.

Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT‑KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor and author of many books on dog-friendly dog training. See “Resources,” page 24, for book and contact information.

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

19 COMMENTS

  1. I’m glad you’ve changed your mind on everyone being able to get along. I wish you would state publicly that you were wrong to call for having the Vick dogs all euthanized. I was very shocked when you did that.

    Many people still think all pit bulls should be euthanized. If you let people you no longer advocated the immediate killing of dogs caught up in dog fighting operations, but rather advocated for decompression time, then evaluation, and then rehab, I think it would help everyone.

  2. I know a Vick dog that Best Friends in UT took in and kept isolated for 5 years! That poor dog was so stressed it was abject cruelty. They finally agreed to release her to a fabulous trainer in SLC who did wonders for the dog and found her a wonderful family where she lived in peace and happiness her remaining years. Trainers don’t know everything – not by a long shot. IMO there are far more bad ones than good ones.

    • I’m so sorry that your experience with trainers has resulted in you finding “more bad ones than good ones.” Reputable professionals in any profession are those who strive to continue their education and seek out the latest information (in the case of dog trainers, that would be science-based information) and apply that to their work with clients. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with Pat Miller, and I’ve found her to be one who constantly strives to improve her knowledge and understanding of canine behavior and learning theory. And her clients continue to benefit from that dedication.

  3. While the old alpha way is a bit antiquated, what is put forth here is not without pit falls for most owners. I teach the down by luring and treating and adding the word down in time. I don’t want the dog randomly offering sits, downs or any other behaviors to get a treat. If the handler has the dog’s attention, the dog won’t be distracted. If the handler doesn’t have the dog’s attention, there is no communication and all the patting and “it’s ok” s in the world aren’t going to fix it. We don’t speak dog therefore we can’t empathize in the dog’s language. It would be totally stupid to hold a grudge for something the dog did. The human needs to pay more attention and prevent the mistakes. I always praise my dogs whenever they do as I request including hoping into my vehicle.

    • With all due respect, what’s wrong with a dog offering behaviors “to get a treat”? If you’re using the “capturing” approach to training, isn’t that part of the process; i.e., the dog gets rewarded for offering the specific behavior that the trainer/handler is looking for, not for every random behavior offered?

      • I would equate offering behaviors seemingly randomly to begging. I want the dog to associate the behavior with my request. Sure it can do whatever behaviors it chooses but I’m not rewarding them if I didn’t ask for them.

        • You are talking past each other.

          “Capturing” and rewarding a behavior is one way to train a dog. Jennifer, you are assuming the dog already knows what the behavior is and has successfully paired it to a specific word or cue.

          • I assumed nothing. I mentioned how I train “down” for example. I am not going to reward random sits and downs with a treat as those become begging behaviors. I handled 6 SAR dogs over the last 38 years. The pattern was clear. The dog finds, recalls and indicates and takes me to the hider, article or sample. There was no reward if the dog didn’t complete the sequence or if there was nothing to be found.

    • I did not interpret Pat as saying any thing about demanding ‘respect’, or letting the dogs make a nuisance of themselves demanding treats.
      There is a difference between being a termagant to inspire fear in a subordinate and being a kind carer.
      Dominance simply means being higher in the social order. Think of it as head of the family.
      Dominance is NOT arbitrarily throwing one’s weight around in the belief that this will keep the underlings in their places.
      A Tyrant is likely to cause much aggression between the members of a social group, and likely to be seriously injured in a take over.

  4. I know my dogs accept me as there pack leaker, but your comment about dogs lying in your path makes me want to ask if that is the same as your dog lying on the floor and you having to walk over him. Should I expect my dog to get up and move? I had never thought of it being a dominant issue.

    • You may want to read up a little about the whole “pack leaker” [sic] thing. They are not a pack and they do not see you as their leader.

      • Except they are in effect captive animals and we humans have the power of life or death over them. I THINK that counts as being dominant over them.

  5. I think the key is leadership. Leadership is not dominance or force. Leadership can be done with gentle words and actions. One good example of what I mean: one day me neighbor was having his roof redone. We share a fence. My big rescue was barking at the roofers and got just a tad aggressive in her barking when they came too close to our fence. Realizing there were things going on that she didn’t understand (who are these people and what are they up to!) I called her from my deck to come inside for a bit and relax. Focused on the roofers she tuned me out. I calmly walked across the yard and approached my dog. I gently spoke to her in a soft voice just two words “Mae, come”. That was all it took for a 95lb American Bulldog rescue to say “oh, okay, sure”. We calmly walked inside together and I had her settle down a bit and when I let her out later she did much better.
    My point being gentle leadership and guidance is different from the dominance school of thought and I truly believe from my own personal experiences that gentle leadership is much more effective to building a positive relationship of trust and good communication with your dog.

    On another note, Vick is a terrible person for what he did. Dogfighting is cruel and disgusting. Blame the people never the dogs. And “pit bull” is not a breed. I just want to clarify that because I am a huge lover of the Bully breeds in general. There are four breeds commonly mislabeled as being pit bulls: the American Staffordshire Terrier, The American Bull Terrier and The Staffordshire Bull Terrier. These are loving, funny, athletic, playful dogs who when properly socialized make wonderful family pets. THERE ARE NO BAD DOGS; ONLY BAD DOG OWNERS

  6. I don’t think it’s dominance when I ask my dogs to move when they are lying in my path. First off if I can I will walk around but if there isn’t I do ask them to move by saying “gotta move puppy”. I’m 67 years old my balance isn’t the greatest and I live alone. The last thing I need is to fall over them. Hurting them or me. I mean I’m walking around them all day long unless we’re outside. Telling my dogs to sit, down or stay to me is not dominance as I don’t do it just for fun or to have control over them. It makes me think about parents who try to be friends with their child and not parent the child. A lot of those kids are unruly. My dogs and I are very bonded and I love and adore them to the max. There is no cruelty evolved.

  7. I am Alpha to all my dogs!
    I decide what they eat.
    I decide what medications they need and when.
    I decode where they are permitted to sleep at night.
    I keep them in a secure yard — the house block, or only accompanied in the paddock,|
    If they want to come into the house, or go out, they must ask me first.
    Very much like how I was Alpha to my children,
    Alpha does NOT mean being a tyrant, it means caring for those in your charge.

  8. “The Penguin Dictionary of Biology” 1984

    DOMINANT. (Animal Behaviour). Often ambiguous term referring to an animals which has prior access to place, food, or a mate relative usually to other members of the same species; sometimes for an animal’s superiority due to it being on its own territory. Relationships usually maintained by harmless signals. See Apotreptic behaviour.
    Dominance . . . 3. In ethology, a tendency to exert control of the behaviour other members of a group of conspecifics
    Alpha male . . . In ethology, a term used to designate the male at the top on a dominance hierarchy of a group.
    APOTREPIC BEHAVIOUR. Conduct that tends to cause withdrawal of a conspecific. (Has the same meaning as threat does in ethology.)
    Cf Epitreptic behaviour)

  9. file:///C:/Users/user/Documents/Dominance%20myth%20or%20not/why%20n%20obody%20will%20%20agree%20on%20dominance.pdf

  10. Question for Jane: You said:
    “You may want to read up a little about the whole “pack leader” thing. They are not a pack and they do not see you as their leader.
    If my dog doesn’t see me as his leader, what does he see me as? Not Mommy. Not another dog … Food Bowl? I hope not. My relationship with my dog is exceptional, but it is not an equal one. I set the “house rules.” My job is to teach him what they are and be sure that I consistently enforce/apply them so he understands what’s allowed and I set him up for success. For the most part, dogs don’t want to be calling all the shots — certainly not when they are living in our world, e.g. we’re not happy when they roll in dead, stinky things. While for sure there are some people who probably dream of being say, the President of the U.S., I am not among them. The power is unappealing to me (for many reasons) but mostly because it involves so much responsibility in so many no-win situations.

    The dog may want to lie on the couch, but for sure he doesn’t want to be the one who has to go get said couch. And whether my dog lies on the couch is up to me. My dogs are not allowed up on the furniture and I don’t think their life is diminished at all by that restriction. As long as my dog has (among other things) plenty of balls — and some of my undivided time to play with him — he’s perfectly contented lying on any of his four orthopedic beds. And sometimes, like now, he prefers the floor. When the answer from me is “never,” my dogs have all learned very quickly where they can lie and where they can’t. I don’t think it’s ever taken me more than twice — with each dog (my dogs have all been adult, rescue GSDs) — that “No. Off.” means that behavior is non-negotiable. And we move on to all the things that I happily say YES! to.

    I am quite sure my dog would not be as happy as he is if I weren’t his leader. I take care of him. I protect him and keep him safe. I give him plenty of time for exercise (on all levels) and encourage him to use that giant brain of his (my current dog is the smartest dog I’ve ever known). But I set those parameters. He’s figuring out (with my assistance) how to play soccer. He has amazing ball-handling skills (with his paws). But safe-cracking? Not on his list of things he’s allowed to do. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if he could figure it out.

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