Do you really need to "Be your Dogs Alpha"?

"Be your dog's Alpha."


  This phrase gets repeated a lot here in the United States of Loving Dogs. Its shouted by trainers of pet dogs and trainers on television, it's splattered across  Internet sites and printed on a forest full of trees, wood-chippered into training brochures. Almost everywhere a needing-help puppy owner looks this phrase sticks its  head up out of the garbage bin of ideas and yells,

"Be your dog's Alpha!"


This trite phrase is as useless as it is senseless. People spouting this codswallop do not understand how the word "alpha" came into the world of pet dog training. If they did, they'd be properly embarrassed, droop their tails and avert their gaze.

  Years ago, a group of wolf researchers tracked a pack of wolves over the river and through the Canadian wood. They crossed ice, fields and frozen rivers, stepped over moose carcasses,  used trees for  toilets and mittens for handkerchiefs all to observe wolf behavior in the wild. These hardy souls identified the parent wolves as the "alphas." Yes, that's right. The parents and only two wolves in a pack can become parents were given the title of "alpha."

  Parent wolves are playful with their pups, attentive and best of all, patient teachers. Poppa Wolf encourages his little ones to mimic his behaviors. He does not  slam his pups to the ground and pin them down until they squeal in order to teach deer tracking 101. Mother Wolf keeps a watchful eye out for danger and involves herself with teaching by example, not with a barrage of physical assaults.

  These cold-to-the-bone researchers had no idea that American dog owners would one day think of these engaged, attentive and gentle parents as the models for physically abusive, callous and, in some cases, criminal treatment of pet dogs. As they scrabbled for a notebook with fingers frozen and jotted down "alpha" they were describing parents. 

Just parents.


The question "are you your dog's alpha" really asks "Are you a good parent to your dog? Are you protective, engaged, patient and a good teacher?"  That is all this little word ever meant. It's been twisted and tortured into its current shape, which now bears no meaning to the original definition.

Now, "be your dog's alpha" is a battle cry of the eager to assert their "dominance over" pet dogs. These folks misunderstand the meaning of the word and deform it to justify their pathetic need for power over a dog. Exerting power over a Golden Retriever, a Bichon Frise or a Labrador ain't something to be proud of, much less aspire to.

Pet dogs do exhibit lots of behavior problems. To lay the blame for these problems at the feet and paws of the useless "become your dog's alpha" doesn't solve problems and does make matters worse.


You don’t need to "make your dog submissive to you."  I hope you don't. This is another phrase recently added to the Top Ten ideas that do not help and usually hurt dogs. Your dog does need to be compliant, but a dog who chronically has to submit to an owner leads a miserable life. 


Compliance and submission are  different. The first gets you a happy, obedient and loving pet and the latter a pet constantly worrying about his emotional and physical safety.


The concepts of dominance and submission are incredibly complex. They have been watered down to meaningless phrases misunderstood but financially capitalized on. Many kind owners who want to love and nurture a dog are led astray by trainers using these phrases on websites and promotional material. It seems so easy;  just "be your dog's alpha" and problems disappear as if by magic.


But they don’t.


I've met and rehabilitated my share of dominant and thus extremely difficult adult dogs. Establishing control over a  high status dog is a slower process than a 60 minute television show allows. Television thrives on action. Showing the slow process of taking charge over a truly dominant dog is boring. Television needs the drama and action of seeing a dog attack a human, twist like a pretzel on the end of a leash or charge other dogs, which scares the pants off other pets. In real life, with real dog trainers who work to pay for their next set of car tires, a session that includes a bitten human is a failure and an embarrassment.


Living with and maintaining control over a truly dominant adult dog is trying. High- status dogs require meticulous, day to day and hour by hour management. An hour long television program showing the real training of a dominant dog could be used as  a sleeping aid. And the long-term follow up by the trainer with dominant dogs is painstaking and time burning.


Labeling a dog "dominant" is more sales tool than truth in most cases. Owners told their dog is dominant and they must "be the dog's alpha" are sure to sign a contract for lots and lots and lots of training dollars when perhaps an extended single session is necessary.


Owners enthused by their recent actions of 'being the dog's alpha" attribute their progress to this trite idea. Owners, much like dieters, can achieve change when they do anything. Enrolling in any kind of class or private training program likely changes your behavior and thus your dog's. Over the decades I've met and trained thousands of dogs, (none of which were slammed to the ground when they misbehaved). I've observed that an engaged, attentive owner is the best recipe for success.

  Dump the "dominant" and abandon the "alpha." Train your pup to follow simple rules. Use rational consequences for both good and bad behavior. Be the wise and loving Decider that he needs. He isn't a wolf scampering over the tundra and you aren't a researcher licking lichen from tree stumps.

  Think of yourself as The Decider. Leave the alphas, the "pack leaders" and the "dominators" to those who imagine themselves slogging through loose packed snow to cavort with the spirit of the wolf. Your dog isn't a wolf and never will be, so why let confusion get in the way of good Deciding?

Sue Myles