Trips with Pets | Who’s the alpha male? |

Trips with Pets | Who’s the alpha male?

With the proliferation of dog training TV shows, it seems there is no shortage of advice available to dog owners whose homes and lives are ruled by out-of-control canines.

Many shows follow a rank-based training protocol which is modeled on wolf pack hierarchy. If we want our dogs to behave, the theory goes, we must act like the human equivalent of an alpha wolf and be the boss in our doggy packs.

Unfortunately, being the boss has come to mean the use of Alpha rolls (pinning a dog on its back until he/she submits) and scruff shakes (grabbing the dog by the loose skin on his/her neck and giving the dog a firm shake) and other rough handling techniques to get our dogs to behave. The emphasis here is on punishment.

Many of the early studies of wolf behavior were based on observations of captive wolves whose “packs” often consisted of unrelated adults living together.

In these groups, behaviorists noted violent rivalries between individual members of the pack. In the pack there was a lead wolf (the Alpha) and a lead female. Social order was maintained through domination and control.

Wild wolf packs usually consist of the breeding pair and their cubs. Young males are allowed to stay with the pack until they are old enough to vie for dominance, at which time they are forced to leave the pack and start their own packs, thus eliminating the need to expend valuable calories on simply maintaining breeding status. While the breeding pair do regulate the pack member, violence for its own sake would not only be counter productive, it would be unnecessary.

Wild wolf pack behavior is structured around hunting and procreation. It is a social, cooperative relationship that is all about obtaining enough food and resources to keep the species alive.


Can you control your dog without throwing your weight around? Stripped down to the bare bones, control of the pack is maintained by controlling access to resources. In our lives with our dog many things, including food, can be leverage. A favorite toy, a dog bone or a comfy couch all provide an opportunity to teach your dog to be respectful. Control access to and you’ll never have to alpha roll your dog again.


Does your dog love to go out into the back yard? You can use that drive to your advantage. Ask your pup or dog to sit at the door. When she sits, slowly begin to open the door. If she moves — close the door gently. Repeat this until your dog is remaining in a sit with the door fully open. This might take time — be patient. Once the door is open, use the word you like to signal your dog may now go outside) and allow your dog to move. Use this for exiting the car, going through the dog park gate, etc. Sitting still until you release your dog is a nice way to say “may I, please?”


Does your dog rush you when you get out his food dish? If so, teach him to control himself when food is present. If your dog is rambunctious, you may need to tether him on a leash. Tie the leash to a doorknob or a heavy piece of furniture. Pour the food into your dog’s dish. Ask your dog to sit. When he sits, gradually lower the food dish to the ground. If he gets up, pull the food dish away and stand upright. Once again, ask your dog to sit. When he does, begin to lower the food dish. As long as he is able to maintain a sit, the food dish gets closer. If he gets up, the food dish goes away. Do this until you are able to place the dish on the ground without the dog moving. Use your “go ahead and move signal” (I prefer “okay”) and let him have his meal.


Does your dog almost knock you down in his enthusiasm to get to his ball or toy? Teach him to reign it in by sitting nicely until you grant him permission to have the toy. With the ball in your hand, ask your dog to sit. If he insists on jumping on you, turn away. If he is too enthusiastic, have him tethered with a 6-foot leash. Resist the impulse to repeat sit over and over again. Ask once and then wait. It may take time but your dog will sit. The instant he does, reward him by immediately giving him the ball or toy.


You can work the same magic when you bring out your dog’s leash. Most dogs have learned the leash predicts walks. The sight of a leash tends to elicit all kinds of crazy behavior when it appears. Ask your dog to sit and then pick up the leash. If your dog starts to go crazy, put the leash away. When your dog calms down, ask for a sit and pick up the leash once more. Repeat this until you are able to pick up the leash and have your dog remain in a sit.

Whether you choose to call yourself an alpha or not, instead of trying to control your dog through intimidation, why not try to maintain harmony by controlling access to all resources like a true pack leader?

Elsa Larsen is the dog training and behavior contributor for The owner of My Wonderful Dog, Elsa brings expertise and knowledge to bear in her quest to create is an online resource for pet travel, named best pet travel site by Consumer Reports.

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.