A few more thoughts on the concept of being “Alpha” with my dogs. I’m not sure if it came across clearly in my previous posts, so I wanted to make it clear here. I do not support this approach to dog training or to my relationship with my dogs. I believe that trying to be “Alpha” is the source of many behavioural problems crated in dogs, especially aggression issues. Instead, I have been advocating the idea of being your dog’s “leader.” Now I’m even rethinking that…
The idea of the Alpha dog emerged from observation of wolf behaviour, where scientists noticed things like how one wolf appeared to “roll” the other and make it submit. The dog left standing was deemed to be Alpha. This was translated into a belief by some trainers that in order to get a dog to listen to you, you had to roll it and pin it to the ground. This supposedly told the dog that you were in charge. There were many other techniques that this thinking recommended: never letting your dog on furniture, never let it eat before you do, never let it walk through a door before you and so on.
Subsequent studies revealed that the “Alpha” wolf does not in fact roll the other one. Instead, the second wolf rolls itself. I have seen this many times with my own dogs, especially since Ross can be such a bully. He gives what I call his “Darth Ross” glare and the girls immediately drop their ears and tails. And if he walks towards them when he’s in that kind of a mood, they roll over and present their bellies. Ross doesn’t even touch them.
I have had the opportunity to watch a very large dog pack in action over a period of several weeks. The pack consisted of around 18 dogs that received very little in the terms of training and human guidance. There is one very clear leader in that pack. She is very fair and quite benevolent. Only one dog ever gives her any trouble, and that’s the one who is trying to take over her position. All the others seem to agree to her leadership without question. Nevertheless, they rush out the door in front of her, knock into her from time to time, and I’ll bet they sleep on her bed when she’s not in it. In other words, keeping your dog from rushing through a door before you does not turn you into its leader.
I personally let my dogs up on the bed – the only reason they get kicked off when I go to sleep is that they tend to wake me up if they move around. Hannah never moves an inch, so she gets to stay most of the time. I let them walk through doors ahead of me, although I do make sure they never go through an outside door without permission, for safety reasons. They usually eat before I do to minimize the begging and drooling. And yes, they beg because they know I often share my meals with them. A bad habit, for sure, but I do not believe this affects their ability to listen to me when I need them to.
Regarding the concept of being your dogs ‘leader,’ by this I mean letting the dogs know that I will keep life safe and consistent, and that I will be fair when doling out resources. I also see it as meaning that I set the ground rules – which will be fair and necessary – and that I expect them to listen when I ask, but I’ll only ask when it’s important. However, when I think about it, this mindset still smacks of this “alpha” mentality, just toned down. Perhaps I need to rethink how I see things.
I’d like to thank Barry for reminding me of the book Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution by Ray and Lorna Coppinger. Take a minute and read this interview of the authors. I have not yet read the book – I keep trying to get my hands on a copy but the library copy has been stolen. Reading the interview makes me think I wouldn’t mind actually owning it, so perhaps I’ll just order it. But I digress…
In the interview I just referred to, the Coppingers state that “[p]eople who try modifying aggressive dogs don’t try to “dominate” them into submission. Everybody agrees that would be a disaster. Imagine training a wolf by dominating it. Quick way to get killed.” They point out that wolf packs work cooperatively, not through hierarchies of domination. Instead, they explain, “[i]t is through social play behavior that animals learn from one another…It will certainly make more sense to the dog than to be tumbled onto its back and growled at by a human.”
They present a view of dogs as “essentially village scavengers that are easily adapted to people and kind of fun to play with.” As such, they argue, our relationship with our dogs “should be based on positive situations, play, having fun.”
I really like this way of thinking and the general mindset that goes with it. Today I attended an agility seminar with 5 other handlers and our instructor. One of the other handers is someone I’ve known for several years (she’s involved in rescue), and I’ve admired how well and quickly she’s trained up her foster dogs. Today I discovered why: she is so FUN with her dogs. She makes it all about fun. Even when her dogs were not behaving as she wanted and started to blow her off, instead of losing her temper (like others did), she instantly became even more fun. So much fun, in fact, that the dog instantly came back to her and refocused. I really admired how she handled her dogs and worked with them, and spent a good deal of time watching her even when she was not running a course. I started emulating her, getting silly with Hannah where I usually am calm, serious and focused. Hannah really ramped up her game almost instantly and ran beautifully!
All this to say, I really think we need to ditch the idea of being Alpha over our dogs. I also am realizing that I still have a lot to learn about how to build the best relationship I can with my dogs.