Ever hear the term “alpha dog training methods” and wonder what it really means?
Today, we’re going to talk about this popular type of training and exactly what it entails.
We’ll discuss the pros and cons, as well as some of the latest research regarding dominance training.
By the end, you’ll know if it’s right for you and your dog!
Let’s get started!
What is Alpha Dog Training?
Alpha dog training methods, also referred to as dominance training, rely on the theory that dogs are pack animals, much like their wolf ancestors.
As pack animals, they need a strong “alpha” leader to establish boundaries and help them understand their place in the pack. Of course, that alpha leader is supposed to be you!
While the methodology differs from trainer to trainer, (we’ll learn more about that in a few minutes) everything you do- or allow your dog to do- is supposed to solidify that position as the head of the pack.
That’s alpha dog training in a nutshell. Kind of vague, right? Let’s dig deeper. Think of this as a complete alpha dog training review, if you will!
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Alpha Dog Training Styles
While the idea behind alpha dog training is fairly standard across trainers, the styles used can differ quite a bit depending on who you talk to.
Although these aren’t “official” styles, if you talk to different trainers you’ll notice certain patterns emerge.
1. Alpha as the King & Supreme Being
This style of alpha training basically says that you- and you alone- are the supreme being in your dog’s universe.
You make all the rules, and they need to follow them…even if those rules go against their natural instincts.
Among other things, this method states that dogs should never be allowed on the furniture or in your bed, and that you should never even get down at their face level.
In other words, never let them see you as anything close to an equal or a partner.
You are the king (or queen). Whether you choose to be a benevolent Mary Queen of Scots ruler or a Henry VIII ruler is up to you.
When you hear the “old guard” of dog trainers talk about alpha training, this is basically the method that they’re referring to.
2. Alpha as Head of Household
Just like it’s possible to lead a nation without being a dictator, it’s possible to be an alpha without crowning yourself “King of the Dogs.”
With this alpha training style, you establish yourself as head of household while fully respecting your dog’s natural instincts as well as his desire to be close to you.
For example, instead of barring your pup from the sofa, you teach him to come up when invited. Same goes for the bed (if you’re okay with sleeping with your dog, of course).
You DO get down on his level to play…but immediately rise if he gets too rambunctious. In other words, you give your dog the same respect that you expect from him.
Look at wolves in the wild. The alpha doesn’t sit on a throne, forever separated from the rest of the pack. He plays with his mates and treats them with kindness and respect.
3. Alpha as a Rewarding Caregiver
With alpha dog training methods coming under fire more and more, many experts are adapting to include reward-based training into their alpha methods.
Essentially, it’s a mashup, if you will, of alpha and positive reinforcement training.
You’re still the leader in your home, but rather than using dominance-based methods, you use the reward method to teach your dog what is expected of them.
You become the person they look to for guidance and support, not someone they obey out of fear.
If you’re going to use alpha training, this is really the only style I personally recommend.
Now that we have a fairly good understanding of the different styles you can use, let’s look at the methods that go into alpha dog training.
Alpha Dog Training Methods
Exact methods vary depending on your alpha style. That said, these methods tend to pop up the most when talking about dominance training.
1. Exude confidence and control
The most important part of alpha dog training has nothing to do with your dog and everything to do with you.
Whether you’re trying to be King of the Dogs or a benevolent caregiver, you must always exude a calm and confident attitude.
Dogs are pretty adept at reading our body language. If you’re all over the place emotionally, they’ll pick up on it and have a hard time seeing you as a strong leader.
2. Remember that your dog is a dog
Dogs are not people. Now, before you get angry and say, “If you don’t think of them as family, you don’t deserve a dog!” let me clarify.
My dogs have always been an integral and well-loved part of our family. I probably love and respect Freya more than I do most people, if I’m being brutally honest.
However, I remind myself that she is, in fact, a dog, and as such she has a different way of looking at the world than I do.
When you start thinking of your dog as a furry human, you start expecting them to think like you do. That’s where you’ll run into problems with pretty much any training method!
It’s not uncommon to hear my mother (who lives with me) tell my dog, “I told you to stop chasing the cat,” or, “If you don’t come inside right now you’ll be confined to the deck the rest of the night.”
In her defense, Freya is incredibly smart and understands a lot more of what we say than we realize. Still, her grasp of the English language is only so refined, and she doesn’t understand half of those phrases!
Dogs look at the world in a vastly different way than we do, and if we don’t respect that we’ll fail as trainers.
3. Use simple commands
Speaking of your dog’s grasp on human language, remember this one rule: always opt for the simplest way of telling your dog what you want.
The examples above use rather long-winded and wordy ways of communicating a super simple command: come.
It reminds me of a funny story that my ex-husband told me from when he worked as a journalist in the Navy. Although he was a photog, he sometimes took calls from people having problems with their TV.
Instead of asking if they turned the TV on, he would ask them, “have you set the O-N/O-F-F selector to the O-N position?” They almost never got the joke.
If human beings can’t follow complex ways of saying simple things, why would we expect our dogs to?
If you want your dog to learn to wait at the door before a walk, teach them the “sit” and “wait” commands, don’t bog it down with something like, “Before we head out the door, we sit and wait nicely!”
4. Be a leader worth following
Remember one thing: you’re only a leader for as long as your followers allow it. If you’re a cruddy leader, your followers won’t respect you. If they don’t respect you, they’ll find a way to get rid of you.
Human history has taught us that! Of course, as I said, dogs aren’t people and they’re actually a lot more forgiving of leadership mishaps than we tend to be, but the concept is the same.
Teach your dog to obey out of respect, not fear. Fear-based training methods aren’t just cruel and abusive, they’re a recipe for disaster.
A terrified and traumatized dog can snap. What’s worse, they’ll likely direct that “snap” at someone meeker than them (and thus, lower in the hierarchy), like a child or a smaller dog.
5. Be patient
Even the smartest dog on the planet needs time to understand what you want from her, so don’t expect your alpha training methods to work overnight.
Be patient and remember the first rule: stay calm and confident.
Now that we know some of the methods used in alpha training, let’s get into the pros and cons. This is where you’ll really decide if it’s right for you.
Pros of Alpha Training
While new research suggest that there aren’t as many pros to alpha training as we once thought, it’s still beneficial in some circumstances.
When dealing with aggressive dogs
Aggressive dogs who might otherwise be killed (I don’t like to use the words “destroyed” or “put down” in this case, as they minimize the act) might benefit from alpha training to help reverse destructive behaviors.
The best example of this would be Cesar Millan’s work with the Michael Vicks fighting dogs.
Those pits, through no fault of their own, were taught to be aggressive and mean. They would have been killed without major training interventions.
Was alpha training the only way to help them? Probably not. Still, it worked. All but one or two of Vicks’ dogs went on to live happy lives with loving families.
When dealing with alpha dog behavior
Perhaps the biggest pro of alpha training is that it’s very effective when you’re dealing with alpha dog behavior. How do you know if that’s your pooch? Let’s look at some signs.
Signs of alpha dog behavior
- Acting aggressively towards kids and other animals in the house (alpha dogs see these “weaker” creatures as beneath them in rank)
- Growling, snarling, or other signs of hostility when you make eye contact with your dog
- Resource guarding (snapping or snarling when another pet or person comes near their food, toys, or even their favorite human)
I’ve seen “herding” mentioned as well, but I don’t think it’s an accurate sign of alpha dog behavior. Some breeds instinctively herd not out of a desire to dominate, but because it’s in their genetic makeup.
For example, my Shepherd used to “herd” my other dogs, my cats, and even my son when she thought they were straying too far, and she was the most obedient dog on the planet.
Cons of Alpha Dog Training
Where you would have been hard-pressed to find “cons” related to this type of training even just a few years ago, now you can’t even look up “alpha dog training” without finding them in the first three results.
It’s based on a debunked theory
The biggest con is that science is proving wrong everything we thought we knew about dogs. See, while they may have descended from wolves, they’re no more wolf than we are gorilla or Neanderthal.
In fact, some studies show that dogs didn’t even descend from wolves at all, but rather branched off from another common ancestor.
If you believe these updated studies (and I don’t see any reason not to), then the whole alpha training strategy falls apart.
Other methods work just as well (or better)
The other glaring issue with alpha training is the fact that, scientifically speaking, it doesn’t really work better than other more positive methods for most dogs.
As dog trainer Victoria Schade explains, using alpha training methods to suppress unwanted behavior doesn’t actually prevent the dog from wanting to perform it. It just teaches them to push down the urge…for now.
However, the first chance they get to express that urge, you better believe they’re going to take it, and you better believe it’s going to come out with a fiery vengeance.
Instead, Schade recommends desensitizing the dog to the stimuli so that their entire outlook on it alters at a fundamental level.
For example, rather than suppressing the urge to chase a squirrel and drag you all over the street while on a walk, they learn to ignore the squirrel entirely.
Want to try other methods? Check out this list of the most popular dog training strategies!
Is alpha training worth trying? Honestly, that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Personally, I prefer other methods, like positive reinforcement training.
That said, I do think there are lessons from alpha training that we can incorporate into our reward-based or science-backed methods, like learning to control our body language and exuding a calm attitude.