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How To Handle The “Alpha” Dog

How To Handle The “Alpha” Dog

In my long involvement with dogs I have had a number of “alpha” dog. I have never had any problems with them at all. If handled correctly and after a certain amount of training they became very well-behaved, reliable, delightful, loyal companions, confident, self-assured and wonderfully protective. In fact I preferred training a hard, somewhat obstinate dog to a submissive animal that presented no challenges.

But the alpha dog is not suitable for every type of owner.

In fact there were a number of occasions when I had a litter of pups for sale and a prospective buyer fancied a particular, bold, outgoing pup. I would sometimes refuse to sell the pup because I felt the buyer was too gentle, too mild-mannered; the type of person who would be easily dominated by the animal.

When selecting a pup from a litter for competitive obedience , it is sometimes better to ignore the most dominant “pack leader” and settle rather for the friendly, outgoing, happy, anxious- to- please type of pup that seems to love everyone.

Obviously this depends on the type of obedience work you have in mind and your own personality and temperament. But, in general, the “alpha” dog does require special handling. Even as a pup the animal has to learn to respect you before he is prepared to give you his unconditional love.

I have made reference to the male rather than the bitch because the alpha animal is more likely to be a male. But this is not always the case. There are occasions – although not often – when the leader of the pack is quite definitely a bitch. If this so, the same conditions with regard to training will apply.

This is not to suggest that the method of training necessitates harsh, severe methods and complete domination on the part of the handler. There are some trainers who firmly believe that it is necessary to break the dog down in order to get dominance and get the dog to obey at all times.

I do not hold this opinion. It is definitely not necessary to be harsh and brutal in your training with any dog. Firm, certainly but not unnecessarily tough to demonstrate your superiority.

What is important however, is consistency in your training and fairness. Consistency may be easier to understand than “fairness”.

My interpretation of fairness is that when you train the alpha dog you must be completely in control of your emotions. This is a general principle when you are training any type of dog. There is absolutely no point in beginning a training session when, for some reason or another, you are irritable, in a bad mood and there is the danger of over-reacting to disobedience on the part of the dog.

This applies to all dogs irrespective of the temperament. But it is of even far greater importance when you train an alpha dog.

Over-reaction on your part and far harsher reprimand than is necessary will be counter-productive. Weeks of hard training will be set back by some unnecessary action on your part as a result of your lack of control.

You must remember that your alpha dog will only respect you if you are prepared to take over and behave as pack leader. If you are not prepared to do so he will soon assume the role for which he believes is rightfully his. And, make no mistake; until you have definitely demonstrated that you have the right to be the pack leader and he is prepared to accept this, he is going to challenge you all the time.

A common situation occurs when the alpha pup is first introduced into the household.

The pup may decide that he is more comfortable on the settee than on the floor. This may be mildly amusing when a young pup is involved. But this type of behavior must be corrected immediately and as firmly as the situation warrants.

The correction and reprimand must be immediate and firm. But not necessarily harsh. In training classes I would always instruct members of the class to be very definite about their tone in giving the command “No!”. The command – and it is a command, not a request or an instruction – must always be given in such a way that there is no confusion in the dog’s mind that it a command that is meant to be obeyed.

The tone and the inflection of the voice must not suggest the sound of “No” – and to the dog it is only a sound – can be interpreted as “If you don’t mind I really would be happier if you wouldn’t do that”.

This may sound amusing and give the impression that I am exaggerating but this is far more common in training classes than you would believe. Some people hate to say “No!” to their children. They often transfer the same attitude to their dogs. Perhaps they believe there is a danger of a lessening in love if they too strict in their demands.

Possibly they consider that the demands are unreasonable.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the training of dogs respect is just as important as the unconditional love that your dog is expected to give you. Probably every more important. And respect also involves complete obedience to your commands.

Children have the great advantage of being able to give you every sort of argument why they should not listen to your “commands” or “requests” to do a certain thing.

The word “why?” is the probably the third word they learn after “Mama” and “Dada”.

It is a world they use continually and to excellent effect. Very often you are either unable to counteract their arguments or you don’t’ have enough stamina!

Dogs fortunately do not have access to the device of the word “Why”. However, they have a number of other weapons in their armory. The submissive dog will lie down and whimper. If it is submissive bitch who just does not want to listen, she will lie on her back, have a pained, hurt expression in eyes as if to say “How can you be so horrible to me when I am so faithful and loving to you?” You immediately melt and give in. “O.K! You don’t really have to listen to me”.

The alpha male will react quite differently. He will glare at you, challenge you and possibly even growl. “No ways, nurd! Try and make me!” How do you react to this sort of behavior?

This is behavior you have anticipated, so you know exactly how to react. You are prepared. In the first place, in the early stages of training follow the golden rule of never giving a command unless you are in a position to make sure that it is going to be carried out and have the means at your disposal to correct any refusal on the dog’s part to carry out your command.

Let us presume you have given your alpha the command “Down”. This is a very important command for a number of reasons. When the alpha dog – or any dog for that matter – is in the “down” position it is in a submissive state. You are towering over the dog. You are in command. You are the pack leader. When you give the alpha dog the command “down” make sure you do so with training collar attached to his neck and a good strong leather lead in your hand which you hold in the slack position.

You give the dog the command “down” and if you have no doubt whatsoever in your own mind that the dog definitely understands what you mean you wait exactly two seconds before you react.

(I have taking it for granted that “Down” is an exercise you have taught the dog previously. There is no doubt whatsoever that he understands your command. The reason he has not responded immediately is because he is testing your authority.)

You half-expected your alpha dog to test your authority, so you are prepared. You are also prepared mentally. You are not going to over-react. You are not going to be over-emotional, bitterly hurt and disappointed, or react with anger. Coldly and dispassionately you repeat the command in an unmistakably firm voice and at the same time, jerk the lead as hard as you can.

Because you have been standing in front of the dog when you have given the command “Down” it is very easy for you to jerk the lead. Your repeated command “Down!” given in a very firm voice – but not necessarily a shout – when given together with the jerk of the lead makes the dog it is not only a command but a reprimand.

I would like to make particular reference to the fact that it is not necessary to shout. In fact I feel that a shout diminishes your authority. If you shout and your dog still does not listen what do you do for an encore? So, if necessary, you command can be given almost as a whisper – or a hiss! And if you wish you voice can also carries with it the hint of a threat. But there is no anger. You are in command. You are the pack leader!

The “Down’ exercise is an excellent way to re-enforce your authority. The exercise I mentioned above is done with the dog directly in front of you but it can be just as effective when you standing a distance away from the dog – but once again with a long leash in your hand.

Let us presume you are standing some distance away from your dog – the length of your long leash or, if you prefer, the length of an extra long line of 10 or 12 feet. You give your dog “Down”. He does not respond as quickly as you want him to – as you anticipated. You immediately repeat the command and rush forward to jerk him into the down position.

The alpha dog must be taught to take your commands seriously. He must be taught to respond immediately. If he does, don’t forget to praise enthusiastically. Be generous in your praise. Even look for opportunities to be generous in your praise. Take the opportunity to give him commands that you know he responds to immediately, like the “sit” when he is at your left side. Then praise him loudly and with great enthusiasm, even though what he has done is not really deserving of such lavish praise.

You have to constantly keep reminding the alpha dog you are the pack leader – at times subtly, at times more openly. Small incidents also carry weight.

When you enter your front door it is common for a dog rush forward in front of you. With some dogs this is not a serious misdemeanor. With a alpha dog this must not be allowed. Gently but firmly you the command “Wait!”. The dog must wait until you have entered and then you let him come into the house. You are the master of your own house. You have precedence. Make him constantly aware of this.

As the “pack leader” you can act the part and make training fun. There are times when you should abandon the use of corrective tug measures. Make use of a toy the dog enjoys to play with. Use it to keep him close to you in the heel position. Stop him from jumping up to get at it with mild voice corrections but keep him happy and excited to be part of the game.

When he has mastered the formal aspect of retrieve training sometimes reliev the pressure by turning the retrieve into a pleasant game. Use the retrieve article as a “search” article. Start doing this in your home. Hide the article at first under a chair or cushion and send the dog to find it. Then hide the article in another room of the house and repeat the process.

Do the same when you are outside in a field. If you are concerned that this might spoil your dog’s conventional, formal retrieve with a dumbbell make use of some other article for his “retrieve”.

Training an “alpha” dog can be a highly rewarding, satisfying challenge, but remember that the key to a mutually satisfying relationship is respect. You are the pack leader. It is in some ways similar to a “Boss” “Employee” relationship. You have no objection to being called by your first name. You are warm, generous and friendly. But you are still the “Boss”. Your dog must always be prepared to give you the respect that your position warrants.