“Our dog growls at us when we scold her for doing something wrong. What’s wrong with her?”
What is wrong with these dogs? Are they aggressive, vicious dogs? No – these dogs are “Alpha” or dominant. Instead of you being the boss in your household, the dog is. He has taken over the leadership of what he considers his ‘pack’.
Dogs are very social animals and in the wild they live in packs. In order to maintain harmony in a pack they have a social hierarchy. The alpha dog is the boss or top dog. He or she will dominate and lead the rest of the pack. In your household a dog will do the same thing and just because you are human doesn’t mean that you are going to be the top dog or Alpha.
Some dogs are quite happy being at the bottom of the pack, taking orders and don’t make waves. Other dogs are more dominant and will constantly challenge the hierarchy. However many dogs just assume the top position because of the mixed signals that they have received from their owners! Being Alpha has nothing to do with size. Chihuahuas and Maltese often assume the top position and in fact the smaller the dog the more people tend to let them get away with problem behaviours and don’t try to discipline or train them. This leads them to think that they are the Top Dog.
Some families can encourage their dog to become the leader without realizing it by giving off submissive signals. These signals include allowing him to eat before you do, allowing your dog to sleep on your bed or couch at the same eye level as you, or by not training your dog and not making him do basic commands such as ‘sit’, ‘stay’ or ‘out’.
Alpha dogs often seem to make good pets because they are confident, seem smarter than average, and can also be affectionate. They can be wonderful with children. Everything seems to be great with the relationship until someone tries to make 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.
If you think your dog is Alpha in your household, he probably is. Even if he respects one or two members of the household and not the others, you still have a problem. His place should be at the bottom of the household not at the top somewhere. If this is the case you need to try and reclaim the top position and your dog needs some lessons on how to be a subordinate.
How to become the leader of the pack
To assume the Alpha position you have to change in attitude- stand straight with your shoulders back, walk tall, use a different tone in voice- one that is deep and firm. Don’t ask your dog to do something, tell him. Be definite with your commands. If you are insecure he will pick it up immediately.
How easy it is going to be to claim the top position will vary from dog to dog. Some dogs don’t really want to be at the top and as soon as some rules are in place will quickly assume the submissive role. Other dogs like the top the position and will fight for it. Your change in behaviour might shock or threaten him and he may act even more aggressive than before.
Don’t worry – there is a way around it. A dog can always beat you in a physical fight. However you are smarter than he is and you can out think him.
If your dog doesn’t know the simple command SIT, teach it to him. Reward him with praise and a tidbit. A simple “Good Boy” in a happy voice is enough. Now every time your dog wants something such as his dinner, a walk, some attention, a trip outside, anything, tell him to SIT first. When he does, praise him with a good boy and then tell him Okay and give him whatever he wants as a reward. If he refuses to sit then walk away and ignore him. No SIT, no reward.
If you normally leave food out for him all the time, stop. Go to twice daily feeding and you decide what time of the day he will be fed. Make him sit for his dinner. If he won’t obey then no dinner. Walk away and ignore him. Bring out the food again after and tell him again to sit. Give him commands from a standing position and use a deep firm voice.
Make him sit before putting the collar and lead on for a walk, make him sit before patting him or throwing the ball. All members of the family need to be involved – if one family member is not following the program he will try and dominate them.
Alpha dogs are used to being fused over and getting lots of attention. From now on when he wants attention, make him sit first, give him a few pats and kind words and then stop. Go back to what you were doing and ignore him. If he pesters you, tell him No in a firm voice and ignore him some more. Always give praise, pats and rewards from a position that is higher than the dog.
These are just a few training tips that should get you on your way with reassuming the top position in the house hold. Some dogs will respond quickly to your commands and will willingly assume the subordinate role. Others will be more difficult. If he is becoming very aggressive or will simply not obey any commands he may need a qualified trainer.
One last tip: it is a lot easier to start these training methods with a young puppy than an adult dog so next time you get a new puppy start teaching them straight away!!
By Doctor Karin O’Connor, from Port Vila Vet Clinic.