I’m not a professional dog trainer, but I’m a constant student of dog behavior. I’ve learned something from each and every trainer I’ve hired and seminar/workshop/camp I attended since 2002. With this blog, I want readers to learn what I have learned as the “average pet owner,” and I want to inspire those who are willing to examine themselves and the relationships they have with the dogs (personal or fosters) in their care. With this blog entry specifically I’m covering the topic of being Alpha.
Everyone thinks they’re an Alpha.
If you’re from this area and involved with the dog community, you’re already aware that I predicted a dog bite last year. I blew my lid because I saw it coming for months and nothing was done. People kept sending me screenshots – some commiserating with the dog, some hoping I would say something (a few people in rescue can actually read a dog, that’s a relief). If you want to know the absolute truth, I knew it was going to happen when the photo of the dog was first sent to me, I saw the stress in his body. When I saw him in public last summer, he looked troubled. As the dog continued living in the home with 8 other untrained dogs, nine months had passed and the growling, challenging, and threats increased. The dog’s thyroid was tested – it was normal. If you go back and look at the series of events, it’s painfully obvious to those who know dog behavior that the dog kept saying he was uncomfortable, and his stress went completely ignored. He’s not a “bad dog” because he warned his owner for months that he was going to bite but didn’t, and that makes him honest, IMO. I mean, how much closer can a dog get to saying, “I don’t like this!” He’s a strong dog with a very high IQ who doesn’t tolerate B.S. The stress, pressure, anxiety, and misunderstanding this dog endured was way above his threshold.
So, this past New Years the stressed dog sent his owner to the hospital. He bit the owner so hard that they had to X-ray their arm to see if any bones were broken. I’m sure it was terrifying, no doubt. He wanted to make sure that the owner was put in their place; it worked, and all of the other dogs watched it happen. “He’s calm now,” was their response. That’s only because he won. Those well-versed in aggression will say that bite was personal to that dog, and once it gets personal then the risk of another bite increases drastically. Even after I informed the owner that this was going to happen months before (so it wouldn’t get to this point), that the owner (and the dog) needed structure/management through the instruction of a trainer who specializes in dogs with aggression (preferably a trainer who would show the owner what kind of an owner they need to be to own this dog, not just focus on obedience). Instead, the owner did nothing to ease his stress and kept on with business as usual. Finally, when the bite did occur, the owner said they had no idea why it happened. I was floored. At one point the owner said they thought he understood that they were the Alpha. I shake my head. The outburst of aggression was blamed on an assumed seizure, a bad batch of preventative, or someone snooping around the property therefore assuming the dog was being protective. (If the dog was being protective, then why did he bite the owner who he was supposed to be protecting?) The owner doesn’t see their role in this bite at all.
The key to this entire situation (and others like it) is “what happened right before the bite?” Any dog professional that receives a bite can explain why it happened. In hindsight, they would examine the trigger stacking (click here for info), or Sam would explain to the owner how things escalated on the Predatorial Arch as presented in this video. Overall, the dog wouldn’t bite an owner it respected. And that comes down to whether the owner is a true dominant (mischaracterized as Alpha).
What is an Alpha or “Dominant”?
This all reminds me of an argument I got into with a high school classmate’s younger brother years ago. I pointed out that there is a lack of “true alphas” (meaning “true dominants”) in our society. He came at me thinking it was absurd that I would encourage the overbearing primate-like behavior that would beat the ever-living crud out of people in their social group to gain the top position. It surprised me to hear that he thought that was the definition. In all my education from working with dogs, that’s not what I was taught at all, which I explained to him and he still refused to believe. I’m surprised to hear there are many people who think this is the definition based on hearsay – it’s not based on reality. Before we go further, here’s a link that you MUST watch:
If you didn’t watch that video, the rest of this blog won’t make sense. Go back and make sure you watch it before reading on.
Isn’t that incredible?! “But primates are different from wolves, and wolves are the ancestors to our pet dogs.” Okay, let’s look at what happens to an Alpha wolf – based on my classmate’s younger brother’s definition – that field biologists deemed aggressive: Alpha Wolf video that you must watch!
The confusion is the difference between the concept of “dominant” and “domineering.” After watching those two videos, do you see the difference? This is the key component to dog behavior that I learned from Sam Malatesta 14+ years ago. You will not hear this from any other trainer – they all just focus on technique and desensitization. In my opinion, there are 3 components to dog training (I call it the Training Trinity):
- The pure positive approach where the dog is patiently assessed and then worked through the behavior (conditioning/counter-conditioning).
- The balanced/aversive trainers who teach the dog the concept of “yes” as well as “no” so the dog can see clear boundaries.
- Sam’s role of changing the owner/handler into what the dog needs before any training happens. The dog’s needs come before the handler’s self-importance.
Option 1 and 2 are completely useless if you don’t have option 3 in order, believe me (this is what I look for in adopters. I don’t care if they taught a dog to sit, I want to see what kind of person they are.) Seminar to seminar, student by student, Sam has been undoing this misconceived definition since the idea of “being Alpha to your dog” caught on like wildfire in our society from a famous TV show dog behaviorist. In order to lead a dog, or anyone for that matter, one has to be “truly dominant” (not “domineering”).
To oversimplify it in a way that it made sense to me (yes, I realize this is not the textbook definition)…
Alpha = “The top position of the hierarchy.”
True Dominance = “The nature of the person that sits righteously at the top.”
Dog trainers just get this stuff, it’s like they were born with the right temperament to train assertive dogs. For those of us who aren’t trainers, the best way I know how to get people to grasp the feeling of dominance is to ask them to describe a person they’ve met socially or worked with that, when they enter the room, people stop what they’re doing to willingly listen to what they have to say or pay attention. To you the reader – think of someone you’ve worked with, someone you looked up to (mentor) that could always gain attention without saying a word or demanding the spotlight; they just got it based on who they were. If you could run down a list of qualities that you like about this person, what would they be?
I was curious how many people were walking around with the same misconception – do people believe what my classmate’s younger brother’s definition of “alpha” was, or were they aware of Frans de Waal’s thoroughly researched opinion on Chimpanzees? Women usually described an Alpha as someone that was overall “nurturing” or a peacemaker (which I thought was interesting). Men, on the other hand, were very quick to answer this question (and boldly so!) They knew precisely the attributes and instantly started firing them off. Their list of attributes of a true dominant are:
- Mastery (of their field)
- Trains/mentors others
- Willing and able
- Disciplines appropriately and fairly
- Reciprocal respect
- Takes responsibility
- Seeks knowledge (growth)
- Physically fit (takes care of himself/herself)
- Someone who is able to force himself/herself to do what he/she doesn’t want to do.
- Does what is right (according to their belief system) regardless of consequences.
- Accepts consequences of all actions, good/bad/unfair, and keeps moving forward.
- Doesn’t really fear anything (from a societal pressure perspective).
- A man/woman who harnesses the darkness to move towards the light.
NOTE: I did get a few men that got upset over the question (similar to my classmate’s younger brother’s reaction). I was intrigued by that. One guy said the concept of “Alpha”-ism as applied to human behavior, “is a pathological and social fetish.” Wow. I have a feeling he struggles with the ladies. Any woman out there find that kind of response attractive? I certainly don’t. I can tell you now an assertive dog wouldn’t follow a guy like that, and a confident woman would never associate with him, either. But I digress.
Without mentioning my research for this blog, I randomly texted Sam Malatesta asking him to describe his idea of what a “true dominant” human looks like, here are the attributes he texted back (keep in mind he’s always seated in the mindset of a confident dog because he doesn’t own easy dogs):
- In control
- Allows subordinates to serve
- Outs the subordinates in their capacity or ability
- Will act when defied and conversely reward willingly as appropriate
- Has no use for those who are not an asset
- Isn’t afraid to walk alone
- Everything you touch must be better for it
- Those who challenge know there are consequences and will have to prove their worth
- Would never strip someone/something of its ability to think.
Men from around the world, different walks of life, from different generations, all had a similar opinion. That was wild to uncover!
Looking at that list from a dog training perspective, I definitely have my downfalls as a dog trainer/rehabilitator. Sam constantly has to remind me to be patient. Additionally helpful, Sam has coined the “Scale of Dominance” so we humans can better understand it from a dog’s perspective (vs. the human understanding above). I asked him to write a bit on the topic (below in red) so people could better understand this concept. He starts with having the dog owner ask themselves these three questions:
“Let’s start with three questions I ask all my students…
DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR DOG KNOWS?
DOES YOUR DOG KNOW YOU KNOW?
DO BOTH PARTIES KNOW WHO THEY ARE?
Scale of Dominance : (Stable or Volatile )
The scale of dominance is a template for evaluating your dog and yourself as to whom we are expected to be in our dog’s eyes. In essence, using this scale allows us to evaluate ourselves and stay one or two steps above our dog’s level of dominance. This template breeds stability in the handler-dog relationship. In many situations, we note a dog who acts volatile and unpredictable, therefore compromising stability. Then, equally so, the handler shows the same symptoms. This is quite common. Let’s look at the scale first.
Do you Know What your dog knows: Evaluate yourself in all situations; are you level or unpredictably volatile?
5) Strong, assertive, calm. Dominant enforcer – Instills correction (after earning the right to correct through relationship building and training) in a confidant manner and seldom has to repeat themselves. Commanding presence; “Nothing happens unless I say so.”
4) Firm, assertive, speaks once and the task is completed, i.e. you say “come” and the dog responds immediately, or “leave it” an the dog ignores things without repetition.
3) Level and calm – offers guidance and doesn’t allow failure.
2) Over-corrects if cornered or threatened. Fears losing control – resents dog’s behavior.
1) Fearfully submissive (handlers fear what dog will do next). Afraid to correct behavior, suffers guilt if correction is carried out. Uses appeasement to gain affection and seeks it as well. This is a needy owner.
0) Looks for easy, immediate solutions for self-gratification. Just like an omega wolf, snatches food and then over-seeks affection from its pack members. This person’s life is governed by their dog and its issues as opposed to solving the issues by seeing how they are created and teaching the dog to fit into their life. Dogs don’t recall or stay on the property, that is the first indicator of a 0 that I look for.
5) Focused, self-assured, does not look for trouble. Will address and solve the issue with corrective aggression when pushed or intruded upon. This dog controls its owner and other dogs in its presence. Submissive dogs tend to bow down and submissive owners tend to get corrected (bitten or growled at) by this dog.
4) Bold and confident, in your face without aggression. Holds its ground when threatened. Does not engage into dog fights nor prey on small children. Has good level of drive and focus.
3) Level dog. Not aggressive or overly hyper. Driven – nice balance of prey and defense drive. Does not react at all. Analyzes and comes up with positive end result (this is the dog I strive to have and the ideal dog).
2) Fear aggressive. Shows signs of hesitation and when cornered will bite. Is a back stabber – bites from behind. You could pet this dog and then all of a sudden it bites. This dog engages in fighting. As a puppy it was forced to submit. Trouble with focus. Misconceived by many as being dominant. This dog is usually found in homes with multiple dogs or over-coddling. Has submissive type owners.
1) Fearfully-/overly-submissive. Could bite however could also show affection. Dog suffers from a confused state of needing affection and appeasing. Will tend to bully puppies and pin them. Tends to jump on children or avoid them completely. Shows high anxiety in some situations and calm in another. Barks at nothing. Overreacts and then withdraws. Likes to hide under tables. Also found in homes with multiple, ungoverned dogs and owners who overly seek affection.
0) Totally fearful, withdraws. Submissively urinates or defecates. It is usually a target of aggression from other dogs and is pinned/mounted quite often as an adult. Panics when confronted even on leash. Shows no aggression, however could possible harm children due to its low self-esteem. Tends to pick at food or possesses things and runs off.
The 0 to 2 rankings are where our problems lie for both dog and human simply because owners act in the same manner. I wouldn’t trust a 0 through 2 dog with children. If you have a 3 dog, you need to be a 4 human. If you have a 2 dog, you need to be a 3 human. And if you have a 4 dog, you need to be a 5 human. The problem is many people have dogs that are 4s, and most owners – those who stay in the positive reenforcement “infantile” stage (not moving out of the food drive stage) – present themselves as 2s when things are quiet but 0 to 1 when there is controversy/triggers. It takes strength, perseverance, and courage to build a dog and raise them out of the lower rankings to a 3 (the goal) based on who they are (the 3 questions above). Destruction of a dog is created with appeasement, entitlement, and submission of the owner/handler.”
©Malatesta, Sam (2017) One With Dog: Whelping Box Theory. Manuscript in preparation.
Photo of Sam I took of his three German Shepherds during a seminar. There was no “place” command, they settle on their own, never leave his side, and don’t interfere. How do you suppose he got them to that level of existence?
The owner’s dog mentioned at the beginning, as I said earlier, is a strong dog with a very high IQ who doesn’t tolerate B.S., as well he fairly warned them for several months that he wasn’t happy before he bit. On dog scale of dominance, where do you think he ranks? After reading the human scale of dominance, do you think the owner ranks higher or lower than him? If he out-ranks the owner, that’s not a good match and there will be conflict in their relationship. (Where do you think the men rank that got upset over me pitching the true dominance question?)
Most seasoned, professional dog trainers, if they don’t agree with Sam’s Scale of Dominance, will agree with this for dog owners:
A true dominant…
- Reads their dog and themselves honestly.
- Meets the dog’s mental, physical, and emotional needs.
- If they don’t know what they’re doing (and is honest about that), they’ll hire a qualified professional that can help them to understand.
- Is relentless in their pursuit to learn.
- If a trainer is hired, they DO THEIR HOMEWORK. The dog isn’t going to learn to sit or down (mere tricks) then give up its autonomy – that has to be earned. How do you earn that? Develop a relationship. How do you develop a relationship? Do your homework, build muscle memory, learn how the dog thinks, understand what stresses it and work through it. Only then will you be seen as a “dominant” to your dog.
- Your dog’s sanity is important. Helping it overcome stress, fear, etc. is your priority. If you’re going to shrug it off and expect the dog to pull out of it on its own, you need to question whether or not you should be a dog owner. Get a goldfish.
As far as rescues go and the foster dogs in their care, the definition of rescue is similar to the old Boy Scout rule by Robert Baden-Powell, “leave the dog better than you found it.” My dogs aren’t growling or fighting over any kind of resource like a juicy bone, bed space, food, toys, etc. I slowly integrate each dog into my home. After the dog adjusts to a schedule, I work on manners, space respect, leash skills, obedience while their mind and body recovers from their previous life.
If the dogs’ lives are at risk from chaos in a foster home, or if the foster dogs live closed in a room or held prisoner in a cage because of behavior that’s gone unaddressed, self-examination is in order immediately. Dog owners and rescue foster homes who pull the dog out of chaos and on to a better life mentally and physically are the ones who need to be commended. Those who are actively doing so are the ones I send adopters to (I will not send adopters to rescues who have poorly assessed dogs – or worse, poorly managed foster homes creating disastrous results).
When someone says, “I thought my dog knew I was alpha,” and the dog’s behavior says otherwise, not all is lost – you can learn the skillset to make your dog a #3 and you can be a schooled #4. It’s not going to be easy because it’s basically calling on you to change your personality, so be prepared. As Carl Jung says, “That which you most need will be found where you least want to look.” A true dominant would accept the challenge.