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Re-training an alpha dog
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Re-training an alpha dog

Most dogs and families are able, through appropriate training, to strike a happy medium and get along side by side with ease- once the initial roles and pack hierarchy of each member is determined. The appropriate model to follow for any family has the owners and adults at the top of the pile in the ‘alpha’ role, and the dog or dogs forming the role of lower pack members that are obedient to and respectful of their human family, and acknowledge their authority and command.On a day-to-day basis, this subtle process does not involve a power struggle or battle for dominance between the dog and its people. A well-trained dog, even one with a very boss-dog personality around other canines, will automatically work in harmony with its owners, look to its people for guidance and instruction, and not test the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.But what if this is not the case? If you find yourself as the unfortunate owner of a dog that thinks that he is the alpha and you are his subordinate, how can you deal with this, and is there any hope of resolving the situation? Read on to find out more.

What kinds of dogs might naturally assume an alpha role?

The simple answer to this question is ‘any dog that is inappropriately trained, tries and succeeds in getting the upper hand, or whose owners are either consciously or unconsciously wary or nervous around them.’There is no one type or breed of dog that is more likely to think they are the boss than any other- Male and female, small and large are all equally likely to try and fill the big shoes if given the opportunity. In fact, small dogs can be much worse than large dogs! This may however be due to the fact that smaller dogs with their cute appearances are more likely to be given leeway and treated more leniently in terms of training and discipline than their larger counterparts, leading to their sometimes developing the ‘big dog’ attitudes that dog breeds such as terriers are often famed for!

How to identify who holds the alpha position in your home

To some extent, if you find yourself having to ask the question of who holds the alpha role in your home, then the chances are that it is probably your dog. All of the following signs and behaviours are also indicative of a dog striving for or attaining the alpha role, and all dog owners should give them some thought to see if they can identify any early warning signs in their own dogs.

  • Are you ever at all nervous or afraid around your dog, or do you back away from insisting that they do certain things because you know that they will react badly?
  • Does your dog ever snap or growl at you or anyone else?
  • Do you give your dog commands but don’t follow through on them? Ie, telling your dog to get off the bed or sofa but then leaving them in place when they seem reticent to move.
  • Has your dog ever bitten you, or acted defensively in guarding food, toys or property?
  • Is your dog jealous or possessive of you, and does he try to keep other people and animals away from you when outside of the home?
  • Does your dog behave badly on walks and never look to you for guidance?
  • Does your dog consistently disobey your training commands?
  • Does your dog seem to have a dramatic change in personality around some other people, behaving better for them or following commands that they give that they simply will not do for you?

Any or all of the above signs, and various others, can be indicative of a dog out of control. Sometimes, the distinction of the alpha is very subtle, so it is not always self evident when you find yourself in the position of being inadvertently bossed around by your dog, which is why ongoing training is important, as are regular reviews of your dogs behaviour and their interaction with the rest of the family.

Re-establishing your position as alpha

Once you have identified that your dog has taken or is slowly slipping into the alpha role, its time to take control of the situation and re-establish your authority. This involves re-training the dog to some extent, but to a much greater degree, it involves re-training the owner. While it is not impossible to re-train an alpha dog independently, due to the nature of the alpha-pack relationship and the power shift involved in re-arranging the hierarchy, you may well find that you will need to bring in some outside help.

Safety first

If you are at all afraid or nervous of your dog, or they growl, snarl or bite at you when you ask them to do something they don’t like, calling in outside help is important. In these circumstances, you will not be able to re-assert your authority without risking getting hurt by your dog, and a dog that knows you are afraid or nervous of it (even if he has never actually snapped at you or bitten you) simply will not accept a sudden push for dominance from someone that he knows he can intimidate. Dog training professionals and competent and experienced behaviourists, however, are not such easy marks! Calling in a professional is a great idea, because as a newcomer to your dog, they can establish their alpha position from day one- something that is much easier to do than trying to take back the alpha role further down the line. They will then set about assessing and re-training you and your dog together, segueing you into the alpha role that they have taken from your dog until you are able to replicate the control and command that the expert has by then demonstrated as working on your dog.

Some positive steps you can take to prevent power struggles

  • Do not put up with growling, for any reason. Food guarding, snapping for a toy and similar behaviours can all lead to your dog learning that their voice can work to put them in a position of power. Tell your dog sharply ‘no!’ and ignore them until they behave.
  • Ensure that your dog walks to heel, holds back for you to take the lead, and does not push past you.
  • Treat your dog like a dog and not a child- children and dogs have very different needs, and dogs need to be treated like dogs!
  • Don’t let a dog that is pushy or dominant sleep in the bed with you or your children.
  • Don’t play power-struggle games with your dog, such as tug of war or wrestling. Although this play is usually light-hearted and good-natured, nevertheless, it can lead to your dog thinking that you are a fair opponent and trying to take power in other areas.

Remember, it is much easier to establish your position as the alpha and maintain it from the outset than it is to try and re-establish your position further down the line. Regular and ongoing training with your dog, either at home or in professional dog training classes, is a vital part of keeping your dog under control and maintaining your position as the master.

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