Creating a hierarchy in the family is one of the most important aspects of housetraining. Healthy relationships with dogs require an understanding of the dog's need for leadership, and the need to shape our own behavior to earn the dog's respect and establish ourselves as leaders without the use of force. This is a humane, non-confrontational approach to being an effective leader for any dog.
In the wild, dogs live in groups, called packs. In a pack one dog is the leader or the alpha dog. The pack leader eats first, mates first and basically runs the show. All the other dogs in the pack have a unique place in the hierarchy. As dominant dogs age or get injured, dogs further down the hierarchy ladder will challenge them for superiority and may eventually move up.
Puppies grow with littermates where they begin to establish their family pack at about four weeks of age. This stars as they play, bite and push at each other. At this stage, the strongest puppies will achieve a higher position in the pack. In this situation, the bitch is the pack leader and she establishes leadership is by teaching puppies to stay away from her food bowl when she is eating — she growls or bites them. She also protects her litter to demonstrate leadership.
Dogs are opportunistic creatures and it is their nature to test their boundaries. That is why you should learn how to teach your dog(s) their place in the family hierarchy. Your family is your dog’s pack and your dog must learn and understand that he/she is at the bottom of the ladder. In households with children, the dog may think that he/she is above the children. In these cases, children should also learn how to behave around the dog and the person who is training the family dog, the “alpha dog”, should establish and reinforce the fact that the dog is at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Regardless of the training methodology, dog's need for leadership and clarity regarding the rules that shape his world remain constant. In each interaction, whether with a person or another dog, the dog needs to be clear about three things:
- Who's in charge?
- What are the rules?
- Where do I fit in?
You should be able to provide clear answers to these questions. Many training issues are just signs of failures in leadership. A dog who believes he/she has the right to set the rules also believes he/she has the right to enforce them-and he/she will do it in a canine way, which often involves threats and teeth. Puppies who do not grow in a well-structured pack, may become dominant and will be difficult to train. The majority of the puppies, who become dominant and aggressive, grew up in a family without a well-established hierarchy.
A hunting pack of African wild dog
(By: Bart Swanson(Bkswanson) (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
When a new dog becomes part of our family we need to establish ourselves as the new pack leader or alpha dog. In the wild, pack leaders are calmed and they are self-confident. A pack leader is fair with the other pack members. He/she is in charge of creating and applying the rules in the pack without loosing the temper or abusing the other pack members. For example, the pack leader or alpha dog is who eats first and the other members will eat what is left; however, when the pack leader is finished and the other members are eating, he/she will not come back to eat.
Alpha Behaviors In Dogs
Leaders eat first. Eat your breakfast or dinner before you feed your dog.
Leaders go first. When going through a door, gate, you should go first.
Leaders control the situation. You should decide what is done, when is done and where it is done; not your dog!
Leaders control territory. Your house is your territory and your dog should understand that you are in charge. Is the dog lying in the middle of the hallway and you have to step around him? Make him/her move. It's YOUR territory.
Leaders are kind. It is important to understand that dogs are not humans. If you lose patience or have had a bad day, don’t be mean with your dog. Remember that they can’t understand out feelings.
Leaders never hit. Violence creates fear and does not lead to respect. Verbal aggression such as yelling can also lead to unwanted results.
Leaders are consistent. Consistency is key in training your dog. You should establish clear rules and apply them consistently. How to keep your alpha stance:
- Use direct eye contact
- Stand tall over your dog
- Speak in a firm voice
Your goal as a pack leader should be to have pack members who trust and respect you and feel relaxed around you — you don’t want pack members who are afraid of you! The only way to achieve this is by making sure that they know the rules and understand clearly what is their place in the pack hierarchy. They should also know that there are certain consequences for ignoring those rules.
About the author
Dr. Stephanie Flansburg-Cruz practices mixed animal veterinary medicine and she has a special interest in shelter medicine and animal welfare. Stephanie enjoys volunteering at local animal shelters, reading, writing and traveling.
Clothier, S. (2002). Take Me To Your Leader: Understanding the Dog's Need for Leadership. Tufts Animal Expo 2002
Frawley, E. The Ground Work to Becoming Your Puppy's Pack Leader. http://leerburg.com/puppygroundwork.htm.
How to be a Good Alpha (Pack Leader) by Heidi Dahlin. http://www.forpaws.org/articles/alpha.htm.