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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 your family.
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 dog again.
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