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The Importance of being Alpha


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You can find the article formatted and in it's entirety here The Importance of being Alpha


One of the most misunderstood concepts in responsible dog ownership is establishing dominance. As a fundamental part of the pack structure, it is one of the most important elements in having a healthy relationship with a dog and effects everyone in the household. It's the importance of being alpha, leader of the pack, ruler in the household. Leadership is not established by a democratic process or a popularity contest. And it's critically important to the well-being of the dog.


In her book, Playtraining Your Dog, Patricia Gail Burnham has the following description for being alpha:





Being a pack leader means more than dominating the other pack members. Pack Leadership is a civil service job. The leader exists not for his own sense of power, but for the benefit of the pack. He sees that the pack survives, that it stays safe and fed and sheltered from the weather. He provides protection and makes the decisions that are responsible for the health, diet, comfort, safety and activities of the pack. When a person assumes pack leadership these are the responsibilities that go with the position.

Much of the media surrounding greyhound adoption focusing on the more negative aspects of the breeding, training and handling of the dogs leads many adopters to conclude that normal transitional behavior is symptomatic of the environment from which the dogs come. In the attempt to make the new dog comfortable in its new home, they very often over compensate and fail to demonstrate clear signals that they are the leader in the house. In trying to show care and compassion, they end up doing a real disservice to their new pet and contributing to the stress of the change. More troublesome, however, is the effect of uncertainty over the family alpha on the longer term behavior of the new dog.

Greyhounds are very aware of pack order whether it is within the family or among other dogs. All breeds of dogs are this way to some extent; it is, however, it is a very strong behavior with greyhounds. A greyhound that is allowed to become the dominant member of the family is a greyhound headed for trouble; the kind of behavior trouble that frequently leads to being returned to the adoption program or surrendered to an animal shelter. On the other hand, a shy or spooky greyhound who does not have the security of knowing who is the leader in the household may become even more confused, apprehensive, withdrawn and timid.


Many of the problems new adopters have with their dogs could really be just plain alpha problems. If the dog sees himself as alpha, then he has the right (in his mind) to intimidate or ignore YOU. In its most extreme form, a dog may growl or snap. It is important to realize what is going on, and to begin to take the alpha position right away. The dog cannot be allowed to get away with this behavior - it is a dangerous situation for all involved. In the case of a shy, insecure dog, a strong reliable leader is probably the most important element in helping the dog gain self-confidence and emerge from fearful behavior.


An owner may observe a dominant dog jockeying for position first hand. It can be quite subtle. There may not be any growling/snapping during a dominance challenge. The contest is usually a more indirect displays of dominance, like taking other dogs' toys, walking around as they please (i.e. stepping on who they choose), taking other dogs' beds, getting a dog to stop growling at them with a mere look or head snap.


There are some simple, benign ways to establish leadership with a dog. They are not difficult or confrontive and can be used in any combination that fits the owner's lifestyle, schedule and needs. The key to success is patience and consistency. Owners also need to know that dogs will continually test the pack order, and will move up the ladder if someone lets him.


Job Michael Evans in People Pooches and Problems describes a number of methods to effectively establish dominance over your dog. Some examples are as simple as:



Never let your dog in or out of any door before you.

Never let your dog do something important (i.e., eating, or getting into or out of a car) without you giving that dog permission.

Give treats only for training purposes or exceptionally good behavior such as a dog following your commands - no free treats.

Try not to lose control and yell at your dog in anger. Use body language and low-growly voices to let your dog know that you don't appreciate his behavior - standing real tall is also good to do.

Don't let your dog sleep in your bed - you are confusing it as to pack order and asking for trouble.

Terry Ryan teaches canine behavior at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University and has written in various forums on the subject of developing an appropriate relationship with dogs. In her recent article in the AKC Gazette, she suggests similar routines including:


Get your dog's attention and encourage eye contact several times a day.

Use feeding time to demonstrate dependability and leadership by feeding on a regular schedule.

Control the territory by insisting that your dog moves out of the way instead of stepping over him.

Practice dominance interaction with your dog regularly including gentle handling, belly rubs, and muzzle control.

Integrating some of these small changes in the way an adopter handles their new dog can help make for a successful transition and long-term relationship.

We want to thank Lynda Adame for providing the reference material on alpha behavior. Lynda lives in San Pedro, California with her adopted greyhound, Tice, and volunteers with Retired Racers, Inc. in Acton.


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