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Do You Have to Be Alpha Dog?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Dog on snow looking up at you

Have you ever been advised to become the alpha dog? Have you been given the tidbit, “You’re dog needs to know you’re the boss!” Have you ever heard that you should physically dominate your dog? Do you think your dog sees you as the alpha because he 'listens' when you shout, push, or intimidate him?

I am not going to come out and say that this is wrong. Depending on the individual, the dog, the goals and expectations, maybe there’s a place for this. But for my style of training, I don’t usually take this route.

Here’s why:

  • You don’t speak dog clearly enough. Dogs’ body language, behaviour, and timing matters. The truth is, no matter how good you are, you’ll never have the nuance that a dog has; you’ll never be fluent in “dog”. That means that you’ll give mixed messages that at best confuses your dog, and at worst, puts you in a dangerous position. (I’m picturing Mr. Bean driving through town, cluelessly giving everyone he sees the middle finger, assuming it was a friendly greeting.)

  • If you act like a dominant dog, you’ll force your dog to treat you like a dominant dog. And that usually means one of two things. One, your dog might see your dominant behaviour and then act submissive. He’ll look down, avoid eye contact, and obey out of a sort of fear. You might feel pretty good about yourself, but you haven’t won your dog’s heart and mind. Or, two, your dog will see your dominant behaviour and then act dominant in return. It happens that dogs who are both dominant will fight, the one dog will always be looking to dominate the other dog, or they’ll just never have harmony. So the result is that you’ll never have peace with the dog; you’ll always be on the look-out for them trying to steal their way up the ranks. And a nasty downside: a dominated dog will often look for other dogs - or children - to dominate.

  • Your dog knows you’re not a dog. He knows you’re a human. And animals have an in-born natural sort of respect for humans. If you start acting like a dominant dog however, you’ll actually be lowering your naturally elevated status in the dog’s eyes.

Nowadays most people baulk at the “dominance approach” and they just don’t feel comfortable with it. Which is cool.

Buuuuut…a word of caution: don’t lean so far away from the dominance approach that you become a pushover for your dog.

So, if it’s not about being dominant and it’s not about being a pushover, how the heck are we supposed to train a dog, and win their love, trust, and respect?

It’s all about leadership. Leadership. Leadership. Your dog needs you to be a leader. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Be a human. It’s ok to treat your dog like a dog. They can sleep on the floor. They can eat dog food from a dish on the ground. They can hang out outside without you giving them attention. You can pet them calmly and respectfully. When you treat your dog like a dog, you take a lot of pressure off them so that they can relax. They also recognize you as a human, and their natural respect for you grows.

  • Remove your dog from the centre stage. No one can endure being centre of attention for so long without it going to their head. Stay open- and warm-hearted while you go about your day, without your dog being the centre of the universe.

  • Make decisions for your dog. If it is time to go into the crate, then put him in the crate. Period. If he wants out of the crate and whines and barks, it’s not his call; it is yours. You decide when he comes out, in the same way as you decide when it’s play time, walk time, cuddle time, etc. (The crate is just an example, but please be mindful that some dogs have been traumatized by the crate and need some specific training to make this possible.)

  • Be the dog’s emotional leader. Help your dog be calm. This means that you select situations where he feels safe and calm, you pet him to promote relaxation, you crate him to help him find calm, you help him learn how to calm himself down and regulate his own emotional energy.

  • Use dog psychology. While we will never fully understand them, try to see the world from your dog’s point of view, rather than putting human characteristics on him. Yes, there are a lot of similarities, but there are important differences.

  • Be as kind as possible, and as firm as necessary.

If you want to know exactly what to put in place to be a leader for you dog, an in-home consult is for you. I’ll teach you how to win the love, trust, and respect from your dog - without being dominant or a pushover!

Here’s to You and Your Dog,


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