alpha's & leaders

There are numerous definitions and understandings of dominance, and there are those who question whether it exists at all, or applies to dogs. Trying to get the dog training and or scientific communities to agree on a definition, is much like trying to get the United Nations to agree on the definition of “terrorism”.  

Understand that dominance or being dominant is not a myth but it is commonly misapplied. Dominance is not an individual “trait”, but rather a description of a relationship between individuals. In practical terms “dominance” or to be “dominant” is: “the ability to exert the most influence or control over another”. Should dominance have a role in our relationships with our dogs? Yes, we should be exercising the most influence and control in the relationship. If a person believes that they need to show the dog who is boss, act harshly, or use force for the basis of their training, the answer is NO! 

The use of dominance to understand and train dogs goes back decades when it was common for dog training classes to use choke chains on dogs, which now looking back looks more like animal abuse classes. In the misguided “Alpha” / “boss” approach the relationship is based on the dog “submitting”. There are trainers who still teach owners to be the “alpha” and use force to train dogs. Sadly many still use choke chains, prong collars, pinch collars, e-collars, or other unnecessary devices. The “Alpha” training style is often a combination of physical punishment and reward training, and/or praise. Bosses (Alpha’s) are people we would rather not be around, and dogs like humans don’t want someone bossing them around. The end result of an “Alpha” approach often is the dog is motivated out of fear, so the dog’s primary motive is to avoid punishment by submitting.  

You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower


In early research on wolves the observers repeatedly noted that when they put a captive population of unrelated wolves together this would result in acts of aggression leading to a social dominance hierarchy forming. These observations were of artificial packs and not representative of the way wolves lived in the wild. The theory was that wolfs were status-seekers and that they form a dominance hierarchy which is often based on aggression as the determining factor in establishing these hierarchies.

Years ago the understanding was that a pack of wolves had a dominance hierarchy with a dominant individual referred to as the “alpha” wolf leading the pack keeping the followers in line. The view was that the most dominant wolf “alpha” would lead and control the pack, and any resources. We know now that in the wild a typical wolf pack is almost always made up of a family unit (breeding pair) much like a human family. This breeding pair does not need to fight for the leadership role, they have it by default. The young wolves commonly leave the pack somewhere between 11-24 months to seek out their own territories and hopefully start their own families. With the popular “alpha“ understanding many believed that dogs naturally needed a strong “alpha” to keep them from taking over leadership, so force was often used to get the dog to submit. You don’t need to establish an authoritarian relationship with your dog to be in control. Styles of leadership are not limited to just permissive or harsh. Being pleasant with your dog does not make you a pushover; it only makes you enjoyable to be around. Leadership starts by being in control, not fighting for control. This does not mean you need to become a dictator. Dictators are feared, not respected. In short you need to be a “leader” not an “alpha”. Leaders have followers, not prisoners. Dogs should bring you enjoyment and companionship, not power. Leadership is obtained by others desiring to follow. When training dogs, it is important that you act like a leader, not an alpha, adversary, or a food dispenser.

It would be a mistake to think that all dogs are alike and that they just come in several varieties of sizes, shapes, and colors. A dog’s breed type influences the dog’s appearance, but more importantly their temperament and behavior and humans have used artificial selection to genetically produce dogs that were more trainable and dependent. But asking whether a dog is “dominant” is of limited value since it does not really tell you anything useful about the dog. Dogs are all different. Some dogs have strong willful, assertive, and confident personalities and others can be referred to as laid-back or soft personalities. It’s important to understand that dogs as a whole are not status-seekers. Dogs are not attempting to move up the social ladder at every opportunity to assume the leadership role and take over. Dogs are opportunists! Most will take advantage of a favorable situation to get things to go their way and to get the things they want. To varying degrees most dogs show a desire to compete for resources, food, attention, toys, etc… Much like people they do what is right or favorable in their own eyes.[1]

Conflict and aggression is often confused with dominance. Conflict is not necessarily dominance based. People as well as other creatures have conflicts as a normal part of life. Everyone has disagreements… including your dog. Dominance always needs to be understood in context. A dog that guards a possession like a bone, toy, shoe, tissue, location, food, etc… is often referred to as a dominant dog by many people. What these dogs are doing is guarding an item in their possession, and dog behaviorists generally refer to these dogs as “resource guarders” or “possession guarders.”  People protect the things that are important to themselves also.  People can react when a waiter or waitress attempts to remove their plate before they are finished eating. Sibling can get upset when another attempts to take something from them. In most cases the dog is not dominate in the social context, but could be referred to as dominant in a competitive manner. This dog may only be guarding a possession, and not its position in a relationship or pack. Using the example of the human workplace, the majority of the people will not look to control others, but will to varying degrees look to control resources important to them. These persons can become very assertive when trying to control or guard; vacation dates, days off, shifts or hours, overtime, parking spaces, work areas, assignments, assigned vehicles, etc…

What many people have mistaken for “dominance” was an independent, confident, assertive dog. Lots of dogs don’t hang onto every word their owners utter, nor are they easily impressed. Many dogs mistaken for “dominant” in the household are just lacking self-control, and were never properly taught etiquette and proper decorum for living in a home with others. In most every case the dog was either untrained, confused, fearful, bored & unmotivated, experiencing pain, or just an opportunist which dogs are by nature. It is all too common to hear people say that a dog that walks ahead of its owner, goes through doors first, jumps on people, steals food, etc… is being dominate. The vast majority of times it is nothing more than a lack of good training when a dog pulls ahead without permission, or jumps on people. If a dog will take your food in your presence it is as much an issue about your relationship as it is training.

You need not observe an owner and their dog for too long to spot the dominate one in the relationship. It is clear the amount of control the dog has over the owner. You will commonly hear the owner say something like: “My dog won’t”, “I cannot get my dog to” or some other similar statement vocalizing a lack of control. The dog’s relationship with its owner was not formed with aggression, but rather the owner not being in control. Dominance needs the right environment to develop. The only way to be dominant is to have someone assume a submissive role in the relationship. In many relationships the dominant position defaults to the less submissive. Owners will often say they do not want to be harsh or overbearing with their dogs, or break their dog’s spirit. It’s not that the dog was seeking this position, but rather there were no boundaries in place to prevent the dog from exerting the controlling influence.  If the dog believes the leadership in the home is not up to the challenge the dog will believe the environment allows them the liberty to act as they please.  Dogs do not challenge respected leaders. It is not that you have changed their temperament or personality; but they will modify their behavior to cooperate with a respected leader.

When dealing with the small percentage of dogs to whom power and control are important, you must be worthy of respect in the dog’s eyes. Attempting to use physical force on the dog can be seen as a confrontation and the dog may accept your challenge. In martial arts there is a saying; never box a boxer, wrestle with a wrestler, etc… You will likely loose trying to do things the way they do them. When dealing with any behavior problem the first place to start is to remove the opportunity for the dog to continue to practice the behavior. It all starts with management. You will need to control the environment so as not to create a confrontation

Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.
— Simon Sinek


You don’t get a dog’s respect you think you deserve just because you provide food, shelter, health care, and other creature comforts.  You get the trust and respect you earn, if you act like a leader worthy of trust and respect. The goal is in a short amount of time is to structure the environment so dogs do not believe the environment permits inappropriate behavior. Genetics and previous learning gives opportunities for behavior to develop, but the environment we establish gives the dog the opportunities to develop the behavior. Good leaders and trainers understand the foundation for training should not be confrontation, but rather understanding each dog and building a relationship. Leaders have consistent rules and structure, and reasonably manage the environment for successful outcomes, but more importantly they lead so they can influence and control behavior. Leaders control the things that are important to their dog so as to control or influence his behavior. Those with the strongest relationship with their dog will have the most influence and control over the dog’s behavior. To have a strong healthy relationship with your dog, the relationship must be built on a foundation of trust, respect, and desire.

  • TRUST - You must be safe to be around, and not abusive. You must communicate clearly without confusion. You need to act trustworthy if you expect to be trusted!

  • RESPECT - You are respected as a leader, not as a boss or manager. Dogs should not just respect the position you hold (fear based), but rather respect you as a person. The dog is complaint because they realize that you provide, and have control over all the great things in life – not in a domineering way, but the way a loving parent richly supplies all things to enjoy. You need to be respectful if you expect to be respected!

  • DESIRE - Instilled in your dog a desire for the giver, not just the gift. To accomplish this you must build a positive relationship; you are not a boss or food dispenser. Your dog should desire your companionship and you as a playmate because you are fun. You should be your dog’s best friend. You need to be desirable if you expect to be desired!

You are not your dog’s peer, but you should be their best friend. After all you choose them. Even though they are not human, they are still family, so treat your dog like a family member, not a competitor. How do you know when you are becoming the leader you should be? Your dog will be responsible to you, not for you, or indifferent to you, and the vast majority of the time your dog will be cooperating with you, not just submitting

If you are experiencing problems in your relationship with your dog I highly recommend both of these books by Suzanne Clothier. "Finding A Balance" and "Attentive Cooperation" noted below.

Suzanne Clothier has written several excellent articles on the subject of dominance:

That Darned Dominance Debate

A conversation about that Darned Dominance Debate

Dog is in the Details

[1] Judges 17:6   In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. NASB

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