Alpha. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Alpha is the most misused word in dog training and often leads to abuse. Here’s the correct definition of the word.

One of the most misused terms in all of dog training is the term Alpha. I hear this term used over and over again.

Alpha is a scientific term that allows researchers to identify the animal in a social situation who has the most access to the most resources from food to safe sleeping places to reproduction.

Alpha is not about force, aversives, bullying, or dominance.

Here’s a video by Dave Mech (pronounced Meech), the renowned wolf research biologist who coined the wolf “Alpha” reference in his 1970 book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, where he discusses how the term is woefully outdated because of subsequent research that proved their original Alpha concept was an unfortunate result of non-optimal study subjects.

It would be much like observing humans in a prison and extrapolating from that that all humans sleep with shivs under the pillows and use cigarettes as currency:

Being the pack leader is about being a parent and not a bully. It’s not about rolling your dog, kicking your dog, poking your dog with a snake-like sound, using shock, pinch or choke collars on them, or using any other aversive tool.

If someone tells you that to be the Alpha in your pack you need to dominate by force or cause pain to your dog, it’s not a position based in behavioral science but is simply their choice.

If you want to be the leader of your pack then be your dog’s parent.

Teach them, guide them, love them, play with them, redirect unwanted behaviors, and control access to resources.  In short, be everything they’re instinctively expecting out of a parent and nothing they’re not.

Not only is this proven behavioral science, it’s just good plain old common sense.


Leadership, or Who Let the Dogs Out First?

The myths of canine social behavior, the misused and misunderstood concept of dominance, and building a strong relationship with your dog.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ost social organizations have levels of hierarchy to make them run smoothly.

When we emphasize humans as “Leader of the Pack” vis-à-vis their dogs this does not involve force or physical control.

Traditionally, in most canine and human societies the leader is the one who controls all goods and services – food, play, toys, outside, social activities, etc.

And the leader is the one who takes care of the family/pack.

We hear a lot about showing our dog that we are their leader by being dominant.

The behavioral definition of “dominance” refers to hierarchy in a social organization, not an implicit personality trait or forcefulness.

Example: your boss is dominant in the workplace because he/she is in charge of working hours, your tasks, what you get paid, time off, etc.  However, it could be illegal or just unpleasant if your boss used force to support the hierarchy of the workplace.  The good boss that has a good leadership relationship with his/her employees explains the order of the workplace at the beginning then he/she uses incentives, bonuses, and commissions to reward employees for work well done.  Yet, even with this kindness and guidance this good boss remains in the “dominant” leadership position.

To build a good leadership relationship with our dogs:

We need to teach solid boundaries – like our boss expecting us in at nine – if we’re not, we lose pay.

We need trained behaviors we can request from our dogs – like our boss would ask us to perform our job.

We need to respect our dogs – like the good boss respects that you can’t work 24/7.  You need enrichment time.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if your dog walks in front of you or goes out the door first.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if your dog walks in front of you or goes out the door first.

It matters that your dog is not pulling you because you have taught them it pays to walk on a loose leash = Trained behaviors and boundaries.

It matters that you can ask your dog to go ahead of you because maybe it’s easier for you at that moment = Requested trained behaviors.

It matters that maybe this is your dog’s free time to sniff and have some fun = Freedoms you allow because your dog needs enrichment, too.

To be a good leader for your dog, your relationship needs to be built on understanding, guidance, and respect; and you must take responsibility for Learning, Teaching, and Reinforcing.

A little D.A.P.’ll do ‘ya.

Using D.A.P. can really help in addressing common, low-level behavior issues in dogs – especially when used with positive reinforcement.

It comes up frequently during my behavioral consultations and I’ve mentioned it before here on the blog, but I can’t say enough good things about D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone).

I won’t say that it’s the Holy Grail of resolving commonplace behavior problems but it’s no sippy cup, either.

Natural appeasing pheromones are produced by lactating females shortly after birthing a litter and give the young puppies a feeling of well-being and security when they’re near mom.

D.A.P. works by mimicking those natural pheromones and helps to give adult dogs a similar sense of calm and relaxation to what they would have felt as nursing puppies.

Many clinical trials of D.A.P. both in home and shelter situations have shown that it can help as a relaxing treatment when used in conjunction with positive reinforcement desensitizing and counter-conditioning (DS/CC).  My own anecdotal experience in the field has shown the same.

It really can help and – best of all – doesn’t have any of the negative side effects seen in many anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals such as deinhibition and others.

Additionally, D.A.P. can be used in concert with many psycho-pharmaceuticals (but please double-check with your veterinary behaviorist first.)

Keep in mind that D.A.P.’s effects are not dramatic and most folks know it’s working when the collar expires and the anxious behaviors return or the diffuser runs out and they wonder why the dog is pacing again – then they check the diffuser and experience a “D’oh!” moment.  It is designed to simply take the edge off gently and inconspicuously.  This allows us to better do our DS/CC work with your dog.

We can simply stop without the step-downs necessary with many anti-anxiety medications.

If your dog is a re-homed dog new to your home this can help them settle in faster.  If your dog is not fully comfortable with everyone in their home this can help them be a bit more at ease.  And, if it doesn’t work for your dog we can simply stop without the step-downs necessary with many anti-anxiety medications.

For our part, at home we plug in the D.A.P. diffuser.  Porthos is a pretty anxious dog and when he’s stressed it affects his diabetes so it is just a precaution to keep him on an even keel.

D.A.P.’s not meant to address out-of-control anxiety issues and like psycho-pharmaceuticals it needs to be used in conjunction with behavior modification.  So, if you’ve got a dog that exhibits low-level, occasional fears and anxiety related issues you might want to give a D.A.P. diffuser or D.A.P. collar more than just a look while you are contacting a behavioral professional.