Do you have to be the Alpha?

Many people have heard that in order to train a dog, you must become their “alpha,” based on the belief that dogs are descended from wolves and need a strong pack leader (alpha).

Even popular TV shows like The Dog Whisperer have recommended people act like the “alpha”, while many positive reinforcement dog trainers who use science-based training (and trainers at zoos, parks, and professionals who train animals for movies) cringe at the use of the word “alpha” when it comes to training.

Who is right?

After 15 years in the business of training dogs and their owners, I can confidently say that alpha training is not helpful. Any method where people are supposed to be dominant over a dog, train with intimidation or force, give dogs corrections (punishment), or force dogs into submission, is not a good approach for dog training! The American Veterinarian Society of Animal Behavior has issued a strongly worded statement against these approaches.

It is true that amongst themselves, dogs establish a hierarchy on a dog-to-dog basis determining who’s alpha or beta. In other words, depending on contexts, during play or around resources like food or the water bowl, dogs decide some kind of ranking.

However, since dogs can’t talk, and communicate with each other in ways that are hard for humans to understand (primarily with body language, subtle ear, tail, and facial expressions, and by smelling anal glands) people can’t say for certain what is going on in a dog’s head.

Therefore, thinking that people can somehow imitate dog behavior and act as the alpha as a training method is problematic at best.

However, it is important that people have a relationship with their dog where they control outcomes and teach their dog the rules. Trained dogs know that their owners tell them what to do. Dogs shouldn’t demand attention, or use growling, biting, or aggressive behaviors to try to control people.

All positive all the time?

The other extreme is the “pure positive” approach. There are different takes on what “positive reinforcement” means, ranging anywhere from never wanting a dog to feel any kind of stress or anxiety during training, and healthier forms that use treats and praise combined with gentle refocusing, interrupting, and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement training is about encouraging and noticing good behaviors (using a “Yes!” marker or a clicker) and rewards come in the form of treats, praise, and attention. People become the leader of the pack not by asserting dominance, but by realizing how much control they already have: owners decide when and how much dogs get to eat, when and if they get to go outside, how much touch and affection they get, how much time dogs spend in the crate, and even where and when their dog pees/poops!

They key is leverage, not dominance. As addressed in a previous article, while this approach is much better than the punishment or dominance-based training, pure-positive training has limitations, especially with interrupting unwanted behaviors.

Why not correct?

At the heart of most alpha training approaches is giving a dog correction.

The first reason we don’t recommend these methods to our clients is that many people do not feel comfortable punishing their dog by startling or hurting them, especially puppy owners. Also, parents with children may not want to role model acting angry and aggressive as a teaching method.

Another problem with correction-based training is that when people learn it, they tend to rely on corrections as the first resort. It’s like the old saying, “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail”—instead of refocusing, teaching new commands, or trying to identify why a dog is acting out (perhaps due to fear or anxiety) people start correcting every behavior indiscriminately and risk breaking their dog’s spirit or hurting the dog/human relationship.

The biggest reason to not use correction-based training is that in order to be successful the dog must feel something negative, which means triggering the limbic (fight/flight/freeze) mechanism. Choosing to have your dog experience this life/death fear-response can change the personality of a dog. It undermines confidence and can hurt the dog/human relationship.

Finally, because dogs are so bonded and connect with their owners, it’s very difficult for a dog to separate their owner from the punishment. They might learn their human is very upset, but may never connect the correction to their action. In the end, they may never really learn to stop the unwanted behavior, but learn to fear their owner, especially when they are mad and yelling!

Bottom line, in order for correction-based training to work, punishment must be perfectly timed and not associated with their owners. This means it is more difficult to implement and comes with potential side-effects. The more fear, pain, and anger people use during training, the more likely a dog is to become nervous, anxious, and fearful.

The best way to look at it

At Zen Dog Training we recommend that people communicate with their dogs in a language dogs understand (actions and consequences), that people use consistent words and commands, and set clear rules and boundaries. During training sessions, we do not talk about alpha, except to mention that we do not recommend any techniques that scare or startle a dog, or otherwise trigger a limbic system response.

This means we do not recommend choke chains, prong collars, or e-Collars, because even for the mildest of corrections to work (a vibrating collar), it depends on triggering the “fight/flight” or startle response.

Instead, we teach people how to create teachable moments, to use the right tools and equipment to control outcomes, and use positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and even interrupt techniques that do not trigger the fear response. When people understand all the options they have when training their dog, it becomes easier to encourage good behaviors, and also stop unwanted behaviors. (See: Zen Dog Training Methods)

Who’s the Boss?

Ultimately, dogs must understand that people are the ones in control. This is taught with consistency and repetition. Instead of reacting to bad behaviors, people proactively train by putting dogs in situations where people control the outcome. The secret to training can be as simple as remembering to bring treats on walks. With treats, owners have more options to help reduce phobias and reward dogs who listen. Without treats, there are fewer options and it becomes difficult to use positive reinforcement.

Absolutely, dogs need to understand the rules and take guidance from their owners. A nothing in life is free program, where dogs must earn privileges by being patient and obedient during everyday routines is always beneficial (and the cornerstone of a good dog/human relationship).

Final take

In our view, it is OK to define being alpha as having a relationship where a dog knows they can’t growl, lunge, bite or act aggressive to get their way, where dogs are in the habit of listening to their owners, and where owners can swiftly and effectively stop unwanted behaviors as quickly as they can build new ones.

However, if people define alpha as trying to be dominant, where people depend on force, anger, and corrections, this kind of alpha dog training is to be avoided.

While there may be a place for correction-based training done by a professional, the average dog owner tends to hurt the relationship they have with their dog using correction-based training and therefore should NOT do things like: holding their dogs muzzle, rolling them on their backs, or poking, prodding, or hitting them.

Bottom line, there is no place in Zen Dog Training for that kind of alpha training.  Check out Zen Dog Training Comics, Videos, and Online Puppy Boot Camp.