Forget about Alpha
For years, some dog trainers have suggested that you establish yourself as the alpha, as pack leader, and your dog will listen to you, respect you, and all will be well! These trainers believe that dog behavior is all about alpha, but what does that mean? How does a human occupy any position in another species' hierarchy, much less first place? Do dogs really form packs with humans?
I say forget about human-dog packs and alpha! Humans and dogs don't form interspecies packs. Domesticated dogs evolved because of man and don't need to form packs in order to promote reproduction. Dogs and humans are different species. No matter what you may believe about your dog's obnoxious and rude mounting behaviors, dogs know this! Recognizing one's own species is the single most important skill necessary for reproduction.
If you like to view your human-dog group as a pack, that's ok by me, but I will point out that true pack dynamics are unnecessary and absent from the human-dog family. We don't compete with dogs for food, territory or reproduction rights, so we really don't compete with dogs for an imaginary alpha position in an imaginary dog-human pack!
Rank reduction programs, suggestions to mimic dog-dog behaviors, and leadership programs like "Nothing in Life is Free" (NILIF) or "No Free Lunch" are often explained with terms such as alpha, dominance, submission, deference and leadership. Among other suggestions, these programs instruct people to eat first, go through doorways first, ask the dog to sit before feeding, before throwing the ball, before petting, et cetera. Some go as far as to instruct people to physically roll the dogs on their backs or sides, a procedure commonly referred to as the alpha roll. I believe the latter is poor advice for the general public, dangerous for aggressive cases and has multiple flaws, but nonetheless is a solution that some trainers sincerely recommend.
In many cases, some of these programs are very effective but the good results have nothing to do with establishing yourself as alpha, being dominant, mimicking dog behavior or acting as a dog leader.
Success has everything to do with the intelligent management of rewards and punishers, which are the immediate consequences of behaviors. If you want to learn how to teach or control behaviors you must identify and manage the immediate consequences of behaviors. All voluntary behaviors can be summed up in one scientific truth that has been known for over 100 years. Edward Lee Thorndike, a pioneer in the field of behaviorism in the late 1890s, studied cats and puzzle boxes at Columbia University and stated this Law of Effect.
In so many words, Thorndike's Law of Effect states: Behaviors that have immediate appealing consequences will increase in frequency and behaviors that have immediate unappealing consequences will diminish in frequency.
Thorndike did not, nor has any other behavioral scientist in the past 100+ years, foot-note his Law of Effect with the words "except for dogs - and then you must become the alpha." So I say, forget about alpha, forget about dominance and pack behavior. Focus on the basic, underlying, scientific principles of behavior and you will succeed!
By Alan J. Turner, SATS LL1
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