When your dog misbehaves, it’s hard to not take it personally. You may wonder why your dog does not respect you. Could they be acting out because they think they are dominant? Does your dog not see you as their alpha?
While it is true that dogs need a strong leader, it is not always clear how to make sure your dog sees you as one. What makes a person a leader in their dog’s eyes is not quite what you may have been told in the past.
Why We Used To Think You Needed To Be Your Dog’s Alpha
The concept of being your dog’s alpha through dominance-based training was based on what we humans thought we knew about our canine friends.
From the 1930s-1940s, Swiss animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel recorded his observations about a pack of captive wolves. These wolves, not related by blood, were brought together into a facility by humans. This created an unnatural setting that fostered dominance-based relationships. The wolves fought over resources, such as mates and food, and those that were the most aggressive were most likely to gain access to anything they wanted.
Since then, animal behaviour researchers have had the technology to observe wolves in the wild. They discovered that a wolf pack is simply a family made up of a mating pair and their offspring. Wolf pups naturally follow their parents because they are their providers of food, love, and warmth.
Your dog has come a long way since their wolfy ancestry, but if you provide them with food, love, and warmth, they already see you as their parent and leader. If you would like them to listen more and obey your cues more reliably, there are leadership skills you can work on to make that happen.
Why Dogs Don’t Always Listen
Dogs are always listening to us. If your dog has ever learned words you didn’t teach them, such as “let’s take a bath” or “let’s go to bed” you know that they’re always listening.
Even so, we are always competing with our dog’s environment. Your dog doesn’t ignore you when they bolt off after a squirrel; they are simply driven by deeply ingrained predatory instincts. Your dog doesn’t mean to disrespect you when they steal your sandwich off the coffee table; they simply need help learning to make good choices.
Dogs do not understand why it is safest for them to stay close to us, rather than running into the road. They do not understand that peeing in the house causes damage. When they rush ahead of us, it is because they are excited to get out the door – not because they are dominant.
How To Be Your Dog’s Leader
Confrontational dog training techniques, such as alpha rolls, stare-downs, and shouting, raise a dog’s heart rate and cause them to go into “fight or flight” mode. Dogs trained in this way have been shown to be more likely to lash out aggressively. Alternatively, they may shut down in a state of “learned helplessness” in which they avoid reacting at all for fear of continued punishment. Either state is not suited for learning.
Dogs learn best when they are calm and feel safe. When you understand the reasons and motivations behind your dog’s behaviours, you’ll naturally find it easier to stay calm when things do not go as planned. Then, you can use science-based strategies to change your dog’s behaviour.
It can be difficult for dogs to learn when they do not understand what we want. Dogs are not spiteful, and they do not misbehave on purpose. If your dog doesn’t seem to “get it” you may need to try teaching the skill in a different way.
The most effective way to communicate with your dog is to reinforce good behaviours as much as possible. Give your dog plenty of opportunities to earn rewards and praise. With time, your relationship will be stronger and they’ll develop a powerful love of learning.
Every Leader Needs A Sidekick
It can be tough to know when your communication skills are off, and why your dog might be struggling with certain aspects of training. Get on the fast track to success by working with an experienced trainer who uses science-backed, reward-based techniques.
Healthy Houndz offers private, in-home dog training for Toronto and North York dog parents, as well as remote training via Zoom for dog parents around the world.