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Dog Days

Alpha Dog Myths – Whole Dog Journal

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We would like to remind you of all the flaws in the following absurd – but potentially very harmful – alpha/dominance myths about our relationships with our dogs that are still circulating around the dog world:

You must use an “Alpha roll” (or “scruff shake” or “hanging”) to “correct” your dog’s alpha behavior. This is probably one of the most harmful and dangerous myths. When you see a dog go “belly up” to another, that dog is voluntarily offering an appeasement behavior to avoid or defuse conflict. In contrast, when you aggressively force your dog onto her back, all you do is either intimidate your dog into shutting down – or provoke her into fighting back. In either case, it can cause serious, potentially irreparable damage to the relationship between dog and human, and can cause significant injury or even death to the dog. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

You always have to eat before your dog does. This is based on the misconception that the “alpha” always eats first. This is not the case. While a more assertive member may choose priority access to a resource, they don’t always. 

You must go through doorways first. In truth, the canine group leader (if there is one) does not always go first. We may want to train our dogs to wait for us to go through the door for safety reasons and general politeness, but don’t be fooled – it’s not about dominance.

Letting your dog sleep on the furniture will make him dominant. This myth has to do with the absurd idea that the alpha has to be physically positioned higher than other group members at all times and that allowing dogs on the furniture gives them too much “status.” You are perfectly within your rights to not allow your dogs on furniture for other lifestyle reasons, but don’t buy into the “status” garbage.

You shouldn’t play tug with your dog – or, if you do, you shouldn’t let him win. Actually, tug is a great game for teaching your dog to trade politely when she has something in her mouth – but this is about safety not dominance. (See “Rules for Playing Tug,” December 2016.)

You have the right to anything your dog has and you should demonstrate this regularly. Some people really do believe that you should be able to take away your dog’s food, toys, bone, bed, or anything else, without any resistance from her. But resource-guarding is a natural, normal behavior. Organisms who don’t protect their possessions (food, water, home) will die. There is great value in teaching our dogs to share their possessions with us, and to be relaxed when we are in proximity of their valuables, but that doesn’t give us the right to just willy-nilly take anything and everything away from them on a whim. (See “Changing a Resource Guarder,” April 2020.)

Your dog should earn everything he gets from you. According to the “Nothing in life is free” school of thought, everything your dog wants has to be earned, in order to maintain her lower status. While I do encourage a “Say Please” behavior (my dog sits to “ask” for something), it is just about polite manners, not about my maintaining dominance over my dog. And some things in life are free! My dogs don’t always have to do something to earn my pets and kisses.

If you do not establish yourself as the alpha/pack leader your dog will assume the role. Well, since the whole alpha/pack leader thing is wrong, this one makes no sense. Structure, rules, and consistency are important; they help a dog understand his environment. But it’s not about being an alpha; it’s about simple good manners when living with others!

If your dog is lying in your path, you should either move the dog or step over her. The implication here is that if you walk around your dog you are deferring to her and thereby giving her control. This is just absurd! There is nothing wrong with being polite. Heck, I bet even the President of the United States sometimes walks around folks who are in his path, and I sincerely doubt he ever steps over them!

You should never back down or look away from a “staring contest” with your dog. Oh my. This is an excellent way to get bitten in the face! In the canine world, a direct, hard stare is a threat. I see a lot of dogs with aggressive behaviors in my behavior-consultation practice, and if a dog is giving me a hard stare, the very first thing I do is look away to defuse the tension and give her a better option than escalating her aggressive acts. Dogs use many behaviors, including a hard stare, in order to warn others to back away and give them some space. If you ignore their less-aggressive warnings, they may feel forced to intensify their behavior. If you plan on staring back, make sure your medical insurance is current.

You must punish your dog for growling, snarling, or showing any grouchiness toward you, other humans, or other dogs. Again, this totally overlooks the fact that all of these valuable canine communications are your dog’s efforts to tell you she is uncomfortable. They are not her attempt to rule your world. She is trying her hardest to ask you to back away and give her some space, to not to bite you. Punishing her for these signals will likely to push her to more aggressive communication such as biting. Instead, stop doing whatever is causing her discomfort, and either don’t do it anymore or figure out how to help her be comfortable with it.

You should do (X), because this is how mother dogs (or wolves) do it. 1) It’s probably not, and 2) even if it is, we are not mother dogs or wolves and are likely to be very clumsy and ineffective at communicating what other canines are communicating.

Dogs need to learn that they are dogs. Seriously? Do we really think that dogs don’t know that they are dogs and that we are humans?

Don’t let your dog see you clean up his house-training accidents. According to the myth, if the dog were to witness the human cleaning up, the dog would think that that human is the servant. This is a relatively harmless myth, but … seriously? Where do people get this stuff?

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