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What Is the Alpha in a Dog Pack?

All dog owners must be the leader of their dog’s pack. Learn about alpha behavior in dogs, and find out how to become the dog pack alpha and leader.

A Look at Canine Alpha Behaviors and How Humans Can Be Alpha

What does it mean to be alpha? How do dogs exhibit alpha behavior? Why is it important for a dog owner to act like the alpha in a dog’s “pack?” And how does a human assume the role of alpha?

These are all common questions that arise among dog owners, particularly when they are attempting to solve a dog’s behavior problem. A dog who has assumed the role of alpha in the “pack” that is the dog’s human family will be prone to canine behavior problems like aggression and a dog who thinks he’s the alpha among humans will be a difficult dog to live with due to a wide array of behavior problems and training problems.

What is a Dog Pack Alpha? Why is the Alpha Important?

In nature, dogs live within a distinct social hierarchy. The most dominant dog will become the leader of the dog pack – the alpha. There is typically an alpha male and an alpha female in each dog pack who are typically the primary breeding pair in the dog pack.

The alpha dog is not always the physically largest dog in the pack. In the dog world, it’s all about attitude; the alpha dog is the most dominant dog. The alpha is typically among the smartest dogs in the pack, with keen hunting skills and other survival skills.

The alpha dog will growl or snarl when challenged and when other pack members overstep their boundaries, the alpha dog is apt to snap or bite. Remember, dogs do not say “You’re treading on thin ice,” “Back off!” or “You’re really getting me angry” with words – they communicate this with their body language and with their teeth. Unfortunately, many dogs are incorrectly labeled as “bad” or “mean dogs” when this behavior occurs with a human, when, in fact, the behavior is actually related to dominance and the dog’s perceived alpha position.

The alpha dog is important because dogs naturally seek to follow a leader – most dogs are not cut out to be the alpha, and most dogs would rather follow than lead. The alpha dog will maintain a distinct social hierarchy within a dog pack and as the leader, the alpha is essential to the pack’s well-being.

Examples of Alpha Behaviors in Dogs

In the home, a dog who believes that he is the alpha is going to exhibit an array of problematic and unacceptable behaviors, including dominance, aggression, a general stubbornness and poor training skills.

If a dog owner is to regain control in the dog’s “pack” by taking on the role of alpha, the first step involves recognizing and discouraging distinctly alpha behaviors, which include:

  • Aggression Toward Humans When Food is Present
  • Aggression Toward Humans When Disturbed From Rest or Sleep
  • Aggression Toward Humans When a Human Takes a Toy
  • Aggression Toward Humans When the Dog is Disciplined
  • Mounting/Humping a Human’s Leg or Arm
  • Sitting on or Placing a Paw on Top of a Human’s Leg, etc. While the Human is Seated

In nature, the alpha dog also gets to eat first, he gets the best sleeping location, the best mate, the best toys and the alpha dog is the only dog who is allowed to initiate eye contact with the other dogs. The alpha dog will also exhibit aggression whenever he is challenged by another dog.

How to Become the Alpha

Part of good dog ownership involves assuming the role of alpha. A dog who thinks he’s the alpha is going to be prone to exhibiting aggression, dominance and other unacceptable behaviors.

In a home setting, it’s also common to see symptoms of stress and anxiety in a dog who’s assumed the role of alpha. The vast majority of dogs are not cut out to be the alpha, so when they’re thrust into this position, the dog gets anxious and stressed because he genuinely believes that he is in control of and responsible for his “pack.”

If a human is to regain control over a dog by assuming the position of alpha, two things must occur. The dog owner must first identify and discourage distinctly alpha behaviors (i.e. dominance and aggression). Secondly, the dog owner must start acting like the alpha of the pack by using a firm voice, standing tall, and adopting a zero-tolerance stance when the dog exhibits signs of aggression, dominance or other alpha behaviors.

Regaining control over a dog who believes that he is the alpha in the home can be a difficult task that will be made much easier by understanding what types of behaviors are “alpha behaviors” and then discouraging those alpha behaviors. Simultaneously, the dog owner must perform alpha exercises with the dog to reinforce the owner’s role as the pack leader. And thirdly, the dog owner must embody what it means to be alpha – if a dog owner doesn’t believe that he is the pack leader, neither will the dog.

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