by Vicki DeGruy
"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 trash can 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
Dogs are social creatures and believers in 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.
In order to reclaim your family's rightful place as leaders of the pack,
your dog needs some lessons in how to be a 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 puppy, he was given a secure place in
his litter's pack and because of that security, he was free to concentrate on growing,
learning, playing, loving and just being a dog. Your dog doesn't really want the
responsibility of being alpha, having to make the decisions and defend his position at the
top. He wants a leader to follow and worship so he can have the freedom of just being a
How to become leader of your pack:
Your dog watches you constantly and reads your body
language. He knows if you're insecure, uncomfortable in a leadership role or
won't enforce a command. This behavior confuses him, makes -him- insecure and if he's a
natural leader or has a social-climbing personality, it'll encourage him to assume the
alpha position and tell -you- what to do.
"Alpha" is an attitude. It involves quiet confidence, dignity,
intelligence, an air of authority. A dog can sense this attitude almost immediately - it's
how his mother acted towards him. Watch a professional trainer or a good obedience
instructor. They stand tall and use their voices and eyes to project the idea that they're
capable of getting what they want. They're gentle but firm, loving but tough, all at the
same time. Most dogs are immediately submissive towards this type of personality because
they recognize and respect alpha when they see it.
Practice being alpha. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Walk
tall. Practice using a new tone of voice, one that's deep and firm. Don't ask your dog to
do something - tell him. There's a difference. He knows the difference, too! Remember
that, as alpha, you're entitled to make the rules and give the orders. Your dog
understands that instinctively.
With most dogs, just this change in your attitude and an obedience
training course will be enough to turn things around. With a dog that's already taken over
the household and has enforced his position by growling or biting and has been allowed to
get away with it, you'll need to do more than just decide to be alpha. The dog is
going to need an attitude adjustment as well.
Natural leaders and social climbers aren't going to want to give up their alpha
position. Your sudden change in behavior is going to shock and threaten them.
Your dog might act even more aggressively than before. An alpha dog will instinctively
respond to challenges to his authority. It's his nature to want to put down revolutionary
uprisings by the peasants! Don't worry, there's a way around it.
An alpha dog already knows that he can beat you in a physical fight so
returning his aggression with violence of your own won't work. Until you've successfully
established your position as alpha, corrections like hitting, shaking, or using the
"roll over" techniques described in some books will not work and can be
downright dangerous to you. An alpha dog will respond to these methods with violence and
you could be seriously hurt.
What you need to do is use your -brain- ! You're smarter than he is and you can
outthink him. You'll also need to be more stubborn than he is. What I'm about to describe
here is an effective, non-violent method of removing your dog from alpha status and
putting him back at the bottom of the family totem pole where he belongs and where he
needs to be. In order for this method to work, your whole family has to be involved. It
requires an attitude adjustment from everyone and a new way of working with your dog.
This is serious business. A dog that bites or threatens people is a -dangerous- dog, no
matter how much you love him. If treating your dog like a dog and not an equal seems harsh
to you, keep in mind that our society no longer tolerates dangerous dogs. Lawsuits from
dog bites are now settling for millions of dollars - you could lose your home and
everything else you own if your dog injures someone. You or your children could be
permanently disfigured. And your dog could lose his life. That's the bottom line.
Canine Boot Camp for Alpha Attitude Adjustment
From this day forward, you're going to teach your dog that he is a -dog-,
not a miniature human being in a furry suit. His mother taught him how to be a dog once
and how to take orders. Along the way, through lack of training or misunderstood
intentions, he's forgotten. With your help, he's going to remember what he is and how he
fits into the world. Before long, he's even going to like it!
Dogs were bred to look to humans for food, companionship and guidance. An
alpha dog doesn't ask for what he wants, he demands it. He lets you know in no uncertain
terms that he wants his dinner, that he wants to go out, that he wants to play and be
petted and that he wants these things -right now-. You're going to teach him that from now
on, he has to -earn- what he gets. No more free rides. This is going to be a shock to his
system at first but you'll be surprised how quickly he'll catch on and that he'll actually
become eager to please you.
If your dog doesn't already know the simple command SIT, teach it to him.
Reward him with praise and a tidbit. Don't go overboard with the praise. A simple
"Good boy!" in a happy voice is enough. Now, every time your dog wants something
- his dinner, a trip outside, a walk, some attention, anything - tell him (remember don't
ask him, -tell- him) to SIT first. When he does, praise him with a "Good Boy!",
then tell him OKAY and give him whatever it is he wants as a reward. If he refuses to SIT,
walk away and ignore him. No SIT, no reward. If you don't think he understands the
command, work on his training some more. If he just doesn't want to obey, ignore him -
DON'T give him what he wants or reward him in any fashion.
Make him sit before giving him his dinner, make him sit at the door
before going outside, make him sit in front of you to be petted, make him sit before
giving him his toy. If you normally leave food out for him all the time, stop. Go to a
twice daily feeding and -you- decide what time of day he'll be fed. Make him sit for his
dinner. If he won't obey the command - no dinner. Walk away and ignore him. Bring the food
out later and tell him again to SIT. If he understands the command, don't tell him more
than once. He heard you the first time. Give commands from a standing position and use a
deep, firm tone of voice.
If the dog respects certain members of the family but not others, let the
others be the ones to feed him and bring the good things to his life for now. Show them
how to make him obey the SIT command and how to walk away and ignore him if he won't do as
he's told. It's important that your whole family follows this program. Dogs are like kids
- if they can't have their way with Mom, they'll go ask Dad. In your dog's case, if he
finds a member of the family that he can dominate, he'll continue to do so. You want your
dog to learn that he has to respect and obey everyone. Remember - his place is at the
bottom of the totem pole. Bouncing him from the top spot helps but if he thinks he's
anywhere in the middle, you're still going to have problems.
Think - you know your dog and know what he's likely to do under most
circumstances. Stay a step ahead of him and anticipate his behavior so you can
avoid or correct it. If he gets into the trash and growls when scolded, make the trash can
inaccessible. If he likes to bolt out the door ahead of you, put a leash on him. Make him
sit and wait while you open the door and give him permission - OKAY! - to go out. If your
alpha dog doesn't like to come when he's called (and he probably doesn't!), don't let him
outside off leash. Without a leash, you have no control over him and he knows it.
Petting and attention: Alpha dogs are used to being fussed over. In a real dog
pack, subordinate dogs are forever touching, licking and grooming the alpha dog. It's a
show of respect and submission. For now, until his attitude has shown improvement, cut
down on the amount of cuddling your dog gets. When he wants attention, make him SIT first,
give him a few kind words and pats, then stop. Go back to whatever it was you were doing
and ignore him. If he pesters you, tell him NO! in a firm voice and ignore him some more.
Pet him when -you- want to, not because -he- wants you to. 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 frizbee
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
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 afterwards. 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
Graduating from Boot Camp: What's next?
Just like in the army, boot camp is really just an introduction to a new
career and new way of doing things. A tour through boot camp isn't going to solve your
alpha dog's problems forever. It's a way to get basic respect from a dog who's been
bullying you without having to resort to physical force.
How long should boot camp last? That depends on the dog. Some will show
an improvement right away, others may take much longer. For really tough cookies, natural
leaders that need constant reminders of their place in the pack, Alpha Dog Boot Camp will
become a way of life. Social climbers may need periodic trips through boot camp if you get
lax and accidentally let them climb back up a notch or two in the family pack order.
How do you know if you're making a difference? If boot camp has been
successful, your dog should start looking to you for directions and permission. He'll show
an eagerness to please. Watch how your dog approaches and greets you. Does he come to you
"standing tall", with his head and ears held high and erect? It may look
impressive and proud but it means he's still alpha and you still have problems! A dog who
accepts humans as superiors will approach you with his head slightly lowered and his ears
back or off to the sides. He'll "shrink" his whole body a little in a show of
submission. Watch how he greets all the members of the family. If he displays this
submissive posture to some of them, but not others, those are the ones who still need to
work on their own alpha posture and methods. They should take him back through another
tour of boot camp with support from the rest of the family.
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
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
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 gives them the opportunity 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 our 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
before starting Canine Boot Camp. Your dog should also have an exam by your veterinarian
to make sure there are no physical causes for his behavior.
To find a qualified trainer or behaviorist near you, contact your
veterinarian or the American Kennel Club for a list of obedience training clubs in your
This article was written by Vicki DeGruy, chair of the Chow Chow Club Inc.'s Welfare Committee, with heavy reliance
on the writings of Carol Lea Benjamin. The concepts presented here are not new or
original, simply organized in a program format meant to be easy and safe for dog owners to
put into practice. This article may not be reproduced for other than personal home use
without the expressed permission of the author. For permission to reprint, contact
Knows Best by Carol Lea Benjamin
Problems by Carol Lea Benjamin
Dogs Love To Please by September B. Morn
Psychological Dog Training by Clarence Meisterfield
Dogs, Great Owners by Brian Kilcommons
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