The Alpha Factor
Am I a Dog?: The last time I looked, I definitely did not have any anal glands, fur, mobile ears, a tail, four legs. and I can’t smell pee at two miles, I don’t smell like a dog or even look like one. Though I am sure there are people who know me that may question the last two statements. What I am really saying is that my dogs know I am not a dog. It does not matter how many times I eat before them, or how many times I come in and ignore them, I still do not believe I can convince them that I am a dog.
Lets look at it in a couple of different ways: If we managed to convince a dog that we are also a dog, wouldn’t all the dogs that show aggression to other dogs be aggressive to us? We know that is clearly not the case. Do you also believe the trainers in Sea World pretend to be killer whales (Orcas’) so that they can train them, do you believe the Orca sees the trainer as another Orca? Can you imagine for a second that a Killer Whale would allow the trainer to be the lead Orca in their pod? How are the going to convince this animal that they weigh six tons and can swim at 30 miles per hour?
It is my belief that the killer whale actually sees the trainer as a vital resource, a supplier of food (fish) and other resources such as mental stimulation and physical contact. Remember these are a very bright and intelligent mammals. Recent scientific data suggests that the dolphin and killer whale may be more intelligent and adaptable than chimpanzees. But I doubt it could ever see man as another Orca. So why do we believe that a dog sees us as another dog?
In simple terms I cannot be an Alpha of a dog pack. Dogs are conspecific, that means they can only truly pack up with their own kind. Dogs are born live, therefore they will always recognise their mother (through smell and touch), dogs like humans are born blind and deaf and unlike birds they do not bond and lock onto the first thing they see when they are born.
Dogs know when they meet another dog. When they meet humans they see us as a totally different species. We are intrinsically locked into their lives because of the close ties we have created over the last fifteen thousand years (see The Origin Of The Dog) I also believe they see us as a resource. Whether they see us as a resource controller will depend on how well you train and work with your dog.
Even if I dressed up as Scooby-Doo and ran around barking and peeing up the walls, I doubt I could convince even the most naive of pooches that I am also a dog. They would easily see through my cunning disguise and know that I am human and therefore impossible to be an alpha.
Why? Even in our most fevered imaginations, can we believe that gesture eating, ignoring them when coming back home, or going through doorways first, could be the magical formula to convince them that we are an Alpha dog. I strongly believe this is seriously flawed logic, at best it can create negative behaviour and a breakdown in trust and communication.
It is my humble opinion that rank reduction programs where we are told to act like an Alpha does not work in changing behaviour over the long term. In the short term you will see some changes in behavioural patterns, but long term there will be very little if any beneficial change. In reality quite the opposite can happen. By ignoring and isolating your dog for long periods you can cause confusion, distress, anxiety, and distrust, which can affect the bond and special link you have with each other.
Do Wolves Ignore Each Other or Stand In Line?:
Have you ever seen Wolves, Dingoes, Coyotes, or Wild Dogs ignoring their pack members when they return from a hunt or a foray? In reality they have an intricate and stylised greeting ritual, which does not include sending each other to Coventry.
They may shun a badly behaved pack member, but that is only temporarily and never when greeting after an absence. I use this short shunning method later in this article as the “naughty step”
Do you ever see wild dogs or wolves lining up in rank order to eat? Just imagine all the timber wolves in an nice orderly queue with numbers on their backs. The Alpha male bellowing, â€œ come in number nine it’s your turn to eat. Now what would you prefer Antelope or Buffalo?â€
The reality of what happens in wolf or wild canid packs is very different to these scenarios. They all just get stuck in and grab whatever they can. It may involve some snarling and ritualised aggression, which generally comes from the middle to lower end of the pack. there are no queues or orderly lines, or wolves ignoring each other. All this advise is just total nonsense.
The Alpha Roll:
Yet another incorrect recommendation, which came about from the observation of captive Wolf packs. The only reason that a dog will aggressively pin another dog down on its side or over on its back is to kill it. By forcing an animal to submit in this way will make them think you are going to kill it. What really happens is the submissive dog will offer itself to the more dominant animal and roll over allowing itself to be ritualistically held down, not as we are told to do which is to force them into that position
It is not surprising that a lot of people get bitten doing the alpha roll. The dog believes that the human is trying to kill them so they defend themselves. It can also cause problems like resource guarding or possession aggression, especially if you pin them down and then take something away, that you do not want it to have. It will made the dog concerned for its food or other objects and could start to guard against you stealing them.
Rank Reduction: The problem with the people who advocate either the Alpha roll or rank reduction programs for all behavioural problems, is because they do not understand or they choose to ignore the fact that behavioural problems in dogs is caused by numerous reasons, including genetics and poor socialisation. In reality pack dynamics only involves approximately 10% of the cases I treat. The proponents of rank reduction would have us believe that pack dynamics is the answer to each and every behavioural abnormality, If only it were that simple.
The Alpha Myth: Scientists and biologists no longer use the term Alpha they tend to use the word â€œbreeders” to describe the leaders of the pack. These breeders may constitute a number of males and females in each group or pack which can produce offspring.
The breeders are the only ones that breed. And both the male and female breeders cock their legs to mark their territory. The other females do not come into heat and the males do not cock their legs, unless of course they become a breeder at some later stage. This may be a form of hormonal neutering far more effective than anything that humans create.
So where did all this Alpha leader of the pack theory come from? For that answer we have to look back to the study of captive Wolves by the likes of R Schenkel who started writing scientific papers just after the 2nd World war (1) and a marvelous individual called L. David Mech (pronounced Meech) known as Dave to his friends.
I do not know him personally so it would be impolite to refer to him in the familiar, so I will call him Mr Mech. As one of the most senior research biologists in the World, he was able to study Wolves for long periods at a time. Initially like Schenkel this was on Captive Wolves. The results appeared to bear out Schenkel’s findings relating to the pack dynamics and the Alpha position of a single male and female in the Alpha position within the pack, and a whole new way of training was born.
Unfortunately it was created on scientific evidence that was with hindsight, flawed, though we were unaware of that at the time. Mr Mech has since done exhaustive studies on non-captive free roaming Wolves and the results are startlingly different from those gathered using a captive pack. (2) Mech states in his paper dated 2000 called: “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs”
” In captive packs, the unacquainted wolves formed dominance hierarchies featuring alpha, beta, omega animals, etc. With such assemblages, these dominance labels were probably appropriate, for most species thrown together in captivity would usually so arrange themselves.
In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage. Rather, it is usually a family (Murie 1944; Young and Goldman 1944; Mech 1970, 1988; Clark 1971; Haber 1977) including a breeding pair and their offspring of the previous 1-3 years, or sometimes two or three such families (Murie 1944; Haber 1977; Mech et al. 1998).”
We were effectively following information that was gleaned from Wolves forced together in captivity, whose behaviour has now been shown to be very different from the previous studies. That, and the fact that dogs are somewhat removed from their closest ancestors (the wolf), by many thousands of years. and that dogs can only pack up with their own kind “conspecific” leads me to offer an alternative.
Though I clearly cannot be an Alpha ( after all I am not a dog), I can be a controller of resources and a leader of sorts. I can change the behaviour of my dogs from unacceptable to acceptable. I can also initiate programs of change using psychology and sometimes just simple basic obedience training. My actions and how I relate and communicate with my pets is the basis of how I work and why I get the high level of success with my clients and their dogs.
To be a controller you need to convince your dog that mutual respect is required, that includes your own body space. I may not want to be leapt on every time I come in. Greeting is fine, as long as it does not include jumping all over me or my family and friends, which is considered rude and inappropriate in wild dogs and wolves.
I believe we should strive more for democracy than outright autocracy, or the opposite which is totally ignoring the bad behaviour and only praising the good, which appears to be the misguided belief of the so called positive reinforcement trainers. I use operant conditioning methods. And if these trainers understood “operant conditioning” they would know there are four parts to it. Not just positive reinforcement in isolation. Please read my article “Killing with Kindness”
How can any animal, including humans, differentiate between right or wrong. If they are not shown or told?
How Do I Become a Resource Controller?
What we must first ascertain is what is an important resource to your dog. In many cases food is extremely high on the agenda, especially very tasty treats. But not always. A resource can also include toys, games, access, and anything else your dog may consider important. I tend to start with food and use mild cheddar cheese, because it does not to create crumbs, which can distract the dog’s attention at a time when it should be concentrating on you.
I have designed and developed a training device called “The Jingler” which is a brilliant aid to many training requirements, including walking to heel, jumping up, recall, sit stay, mutual respect,and some types of aggression and even car and bike chasing. More importantly it sets your position as a resource controller. Though you will need to purchase “The Jingler” to get the full instructions on exactly how to do this.
I would also recommend purchasing my leads, for two reasons. Firstly, the length, 5 feet 8 inches which is the perfect length for working with and training most dogs. The majority of the leads are too short and uncomfortable. Secondly, if you do not believe it is the most comfortable lead you have ever purchased (it is made of cushion web) then I will refund you in full less postage. Most leads are far too short to work effectively and in many cases actually cause the dog to pull. see Walking to Heel
What my techniques do is to realign your dog to the fact that you control all the vital resources in its life. in my jingler instructions you are actually saying is this is my bone/treat, I am prepared to share it, but only when I give you permissionâ€. You are actually training control of one of the greatest resources of all FOOD. Permissions round everything you wish to control is the key to working and training dogs successfully.
Once you have completed these exercises you will have set into your dogs mind that you are a controller of resources, then all other training will slot into place and become much easier. The dog will come to respect your body space and not abuse or invade it without being invited. You can then start working on the lead work, recall and many others behavior’s you wish to overcome.
Attention on Demand:
The second part of being a controller is to control attention on demand. Many of the behavioural issues I see involving what the owner believes is dominance, which in reality a form of attention seeking behaviour such as barking, biting, nipping, growling, jumping, destruction of objects, (especially in your presence) some toileting problems and object stealing can all be forms of this behaviour.
The Naughty Step: Now we are going to effectively mimic the naughty step type of behaviour training used in rearing children. Except with a dog you have to effectively isolate them immediately the bad behaviour occurs. It is important to understand that social isolation should only ever be used for very short periods. This is nothing to with ignoring your dog when you come into the house, it is about non-reward for bad behaviour and attention seeking.
Keep the dog on a short lead, preferably 3ft long made of nylon, cut it down if necessary. I would only use this size and material for use as a house lead, not to walk to heel. If the dog is misbehaving such as barking. nipping, biting or other behavioural problems, simply pick up the lead with no command or visual acknowledgement and take the dog to another room. (a downstairs toilet is ideal). Place the dog in the room and shut the door trapping the lead in the door, so the dog cannot move too far away or entertain itself.
Leave for a minimum of thirty seconds moving up to two minutes at the very maximum (unless still barking) then go and let him out. If he continues with the same behaviour simply repeat the exercise until the behaviour stops. It will not take too long for the dog to realise that it is getting non-reward for its behaviour and gradually the problems should subside. Always praise for good behaviour but do not ignore bad behaviour, act on it and be consistent and fair in all your training sessions.
Some dogs are more stubborn, stupid, slow, control complex and pushy. Therefore give the dog time to understand that non-reward is happening because of the dogs behaviour. Losing your temper or becoming aggressive will only set the learning curve back and probably either frighten the dog or stimulate it into bad behaviour or aggression in return. Remember training should be little and often. Always end any training session on a positive note, never ever finish on a negative.
© Stan Rawlinson January 2009
(1) R Schenkel
(2) L. David Mech http://www.mnforsustain.org/wolf_mech_dominance_alpha_status.htm
This article was written by ©Stan Rawlinson (The Original Doglistener). A professional full time Dog Behaviourist and Obedience Trainer. You can visit his website at www.doglistener.co.uk for more articles and training information.