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”. The problem is positive reinforcement dog trainers who use science-based training, including trainers at zoos, parks, and professionals who train animals for movies, cringe at the use of the word “alpha” when it comes to training!

This is such an important topic we discussed it our How To Have A Zen Dog: Being Your Dog’s Alpha podcast. Where we dive deeper into important dog training topics like this one. On YouTube, Being Your Dog’s Alpha – Ep 7


Who is right?

After 18 years in the business of training dogs and their owners, I can confidently say that alpha training is not helpful.

Dog training depends on communicating with your dog in the language they understand and actively creating teaching moments where you can train with repetition. Training should be a fun, even exhilarating experience for your dog that builds their confidence, develops trust, and deepen the bond you have together.

Trying to be you dog’s alpha, acting “dominant”, or startling your dog (using intimidation or force) can make your dog feel scared or anxious. Punishing your dog or giving them corrections (or worse) forcing dogs into submission, is also not a good approach for dog training! This is not just my perspective, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has issued a strongly worded statement against these approaches.


Can you define Alpha?

It is true that amongst themselves, dogs may establish a hierarchy on a dog-to-dog basis determining who’s alpha or beta. But dogs motivations for acting are complex and hard to understand. Does food and toy guarding, acting possessive over food or resources, mean your dog is Alpha?

Depending on the context, during play or around resources like food or the water bowl, dogs are constantly working out their relationships. The reality is as humans, we can never really understand what our dogs are thinking.

We can infer and make guesses based on their actions. However, since dogs communicate with other dogs primarily using body language, it is hard know exactly what your dog is thinking. Dogs communicate with some sounds barking, howling but mostly via body language such as: movement of the head, eye contact (or avoiding), facial expressions, and subtle ear and tail movement, and even smell!

It is too simplistic to stare dogs down, or startle and surprise them with loud noises, yelling, or physical corrections and somehow think we are imitating Alpha dog behavior. In fact, most Alpha dog training methods are punishment-based and depend on startling your dog or triggering the fear or pain response.


Be the Boss, not the Alpha!

Your dog need to learn that you are the one in control, but you can do this peacefully using the right methods, daily practice, and patience.

Dogs shouldn’t demand attention, or use growling, biting, or aggressive behaviors to try to control people. Zen Dogs listen to their owners and know people are the one’s in control, but that can be accomplished without anger, yelling, or punishment.

Instead dominating your dog and trying to be their Alpha, build a relationship with your dog based on trust, consistency, and mutual understanding.


All positive all the time?

There is a risk of going to far with the “pure positive” approach. 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.

However, depending on treats all the time and using them for bribes is not positive reinforcement. We recommend you speed up the training process and teach your dog to enjoy working with you by using them as rewards.

The problem comes up when people are trying to stop unwanted behaviors. Some “positive reinforcement” trainers argue that you never wanting a dog to feel any kind of stress or anxiety during training but constantly distracting and refocusing your dog does not help them understand you want them to stop.

Zen Dog Training incudes refocusing and obedience training with rewards, treats, and praise, combined with solving unwanted behaviors by gently interrupting and negative reinforcement in ways that never scare, startle, or trigger the fight/flight response.

You become the leader of the pack not by asserting dominance, but by realizing how much control you have: you 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 your 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 startling or scaring your dog, triggering the fight/flight mechanism. Choosing to have your dog experience this life/death fear-response can change the personality of your 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 our Zen Dog Training Comics, Videos, and Online Puppy Boot Camp as well as our Video Solution Center ($97) that includes all the training plans we teach our In Home clients.