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For obedience training to proceed smoothly, your dog must consider you their alpha leader. This means they consider you the boss.
There are a number of exercises you can do to establish and maintain dominance over your dog. Individual dogs vary in submissiveness. If your dog is very submissive, you don’t need to worry about establishing dominance (in fact, you may need to tone down your own dominating behavior to help bolster their confidence). Most dogs are happy to be submissive: Just be sure to show approval at the occasional signs of submission, and assert dominance if they try to test you (most dogs will, in adolescence).
A very few dogs may be dominant and continually challenge you for dominance, in which case you will actively need to assert and establish your position — but, again, that’s exceedingly rare.
More often, people will misinterpret adolescent high energy or bratty behavior as ploys for dominance when they are not. Think of a 2-year-old child testing her parents. She’s finding out what the limits are rather than actually “challenging” her parents for leadership. Puppies and young dogs do exactly the same thing. Correct them firmly, but don’t go into an all out “dominance battle” — it’s inappropriate and your dog will begin to distrust you.
Let’s return to the toddler analogy. The most you might do is a sharp word or a small swat on the rear. You would not pick her up, hold her against the wall and scream at her. Remember that most dogs are still “young” (in human terms, under 20 years old) until they are 2 or 3. In other words, don’t confuse physical maturity with mental maturity.
Never mistake being alpha with punishment. An alpha leader is fair. An alpha leader deserves their position. An alpha leader does not use fear, punishment, or brute force to achieve and maintain their position. An alpha leader, instead, makes it crystal clear what behaviors they approve of and which they do not. An alpha leader expects their subordinates to follow their lead; they do not force them to.
If you get mad at your dog, or angry or furious, you’ve lost the alpha position. Dogs do not understand fury. You have to be calm and focused.
Remember to always show approval at signs of submission. Praise your dog when they drop their eyes first. Praise them when they lick you under the chin. Give them an enthusiastic tummy rub when they roll over on their back.
5 Ways to Be a Gentle Alpha Leader
1. Be consistent and fair in your corrections.
Demonstrate to your dog that they can trust your orders. Do not correct the dog after the fact. Such corrections appear to be arbitrary and unfair to the dog, because it has no associative memory the way people do.
If your dog is still a puppy, socializing is a good way to gain their trust.
If you decide that some action requires correction, always give a correction when you see that action. For example, if you decide that your dog is not allowed on the sofa, then always correct them when you see them on the sofa.
Consistency can be a big challenge with a family. Every family member must agree on the basic ground rules with the dog: when and for what the dog should be corrected, what commands to use, and so on. Families must cooperate extensively to avoid confusing their pet. It is best if only one person actively trains the dog; thereafter if the commands are given the same way, everyone in the family can use them.
2. Correct the dog’s challenges.
Especially during adolescence, your dog may test and/or challenge your position. Do not neglect to correct this behavior.
You don’t need to come down like a ton of bricks — just making it clear that you don’t tolerate the behavior is sufficient. For example, don’t let your dog crowd you through the door, don’t let them jump out of the car until you’ve given permission, don’t let them jump for food in your hand. Don’t let them ignore commands that they know.
3. Learn how to display alpha behavior.
You may not need to use all of these, but you should be familiar with them. Do not use any of these if you are angry or upset. The point is never to hurt the dog, but to show them who is alpha. These methods work best if you are calm, firm, and matter of fact. Again, always use the minimum correction necessary.
More important than knowing how to perform an alpha roll is learning to play the alpha role. That means having the attitude of “I am always right, and I will never let my dog willfully disobey me” without ever becoming angry or giving up. Picture a 2-year old toddler, for example. You’re not in a struggle over who’s “Mom” but over what the child is allowed to do, and there’s a crucial difference between the two.
Using an alpha roll on a dog who is already submissive but disobeys because they don’t know what is expected of them is destructive to the relationship between you and the dog. Likewise, using an alpha role on a dominant dog but not using any other positive reinforcements can alienate them. Most dogs never need to be alpha rolled in their lives.
Furthermore, an alpha roll is one of the strongest weapons in the dominance arsenal. Save it for the very gravest of infractions.
Being dominant is no substitute for learning to read and understand your dog. Proper obedience (which should be a part of any dog’s life, even when “only” a pet) is a two-way street and requires you to be as responsible to your dog as your dog is responsive to you.
There are a number of ways to demonstrate dominance, listed here in escalating order:
- Timeouts: Put the dog on a down stay, or, if they are not yet trained to do so, put them in their crate quietly and without fuss. Fifteen minutes is fine. No yelling is necessary; keep it all very quiet. This is often surprisingly effective because dogs are such social creatures.
- Eye contact: Alphas “stare down” subordinates. If your dog does not back down in a stare contest, start a verbal correction. As soon as they back down, praise them.
- Taps under the chin: Alpha dogs nip subordinates under the chin as corrections. You can use this by tapping (never hitting) your dog under the chin with one or two fingers. Don’t tap on top of the muzzle — not only can you risk injuring your dog’s sense of smell, but you may also make them hand shy.
- Grabbing under the ears: Alpha dogs will chomp under subordinate dogs’ ears and shake. You can mimic this by holding the skin under your dog’s ears firmly and shaking. Again, do not use excessive force. Do this just enough to get the point across. Do not grab the top of the neck and shake. You may injure your dog this way.
- Alpha roll (not recommended): Pin the dog to ground on their side with their feet away from you. Hold the scruff/collar with one hand to pin the head down (gently but firmly) with the other hand on hip/groin area (groin area contact will tend to cause the dog to submit to you.)
4. Insist on decorous behavior.
- Feed your dog after your own dinner. Make them lie down while you are eating rather than beg at your lap.
- Don’t let them crowd through a doorway ahead of you.
- Don’t let them hop out of the car until you say OK.
There are a variety of small things you can do that assert your dominance in a non-traumatic way. If you’re clever about it, you can use them to achieve a well-behaved dog (one who doesn’t shoot out of the front door or scramble out of the car or beg at the table).
In particular, putting a behavior that the dog wants to do on hold until you say OK is a good way to be the alpha and keep the dog well behaved.
5. Make sure your dog obeys everyone in your family.
This is a fairly important point. If your dog seems to have trouble obeying a particular family member, you must make sure they do so, by always backing up the family member when they tell the dog to do something.
If the family member seems to be afraid of the dog, or is very young, then you should supervise all interaction until the problem is resolved.