There’s a lot of information flying around about the “Alpha Theory”. Sometimes it’s easy to think that the word “Alpha” means to act in a domineering and intimidating way – but really, Alpha Theory is just a way of saying “hierarchy”. We’ve teamed up with Dog Behaviourist Lucy Proctor to give you a simple overview on what it actually means today.
What is an “Alpha”?
An Alpha is essentially viewed as a leader of a pack, the provider, similar to the role we would have as a parent. Dogs need guidance and leadership, just like we do, and most dogs don’t need or want the responsibility of being a leader because it stresses them out. So, by you being a responsible dog parent, you relieve them of all that stress and duty.
Does this mean we have to form a “pack” with our dogs?
Well, forming a pack actually has two meanings. It can mean both a family, and a mentality, so let me explain both. The word “pack”, is just the canine/wolf equivalent of the word “family”. It’s the same as human parents with and one or more children. As soon as a dog is introduced into a family – be it one person with one dog, or a wife, husband, three kids, two dogs and a cat – it’s still a family, but in the dog world, it’s called a pack.
A “pack mentality” is how we refer to the way dogs (or their human counterparts) form a hierarchy together. However, dogs meeting for the first time don’t just form packs there and then; they only form a pack mentality with familiar dogs. For example, when I was a dog walker, I had my core group of dogs who walked together pretty much every day. They became a pack because they all knew each other, saw each other most days and co-operated with each other and, most importantly, they co-operated with me.
So, to clarify: once a person, couple or family introduces a dog to their home, they categorically and automatically become a “pack” in the family sense and should form a pack mentality (hierarchy) in order to create and maintain harmony. Pack mentality is about knowing who is in charge, taking instruction from the leaders and trusting their leaders’ instincts to do the right thing by the pack.
How does that translate to a human family?
Having fit, strong leaders to look after the pack can be the difference between survival and death in the wild, so it is a vital part of a dogs’ life. When we are not consistent leaders, dogs get very confused and frustrated which is when all the undesired behaviours start to show. Urinating in the house, not coming when called, not listening to you, uncontrollable barking, separation anxiety, and more. It’s a huge deal for a dog so we need to get it right for them.
As soon as the new canine addition, be it dog or puppy, walks through the door for the first time (and every time thereafter), you should already be set up so the humans become the leaders, and the dogs become the followers. This is where having a dog listener, or a behaviourist who teaches hierarchy in the kind, gentle and clear methods it is known for, should be having a meeting in your house before your dog arrives home so every member of the family knows what he/she has to do in order to welcome the dog in a language the dog understands.
Dogs communicate silently all the time, through positioning, body language and the energy they radiate. Most of the time humans are completely unaware of what’s going on right under their noses because we have lost touch with those skills that used to keep us alive too, once upon a time.
Tips to create leadership status:
Dogs who physically put themselves first or before you see themselves as the leader, so in order to put your dog in a “following mentality” instead of “leader mentality”, you can use these tips:
1- Stay calm – Dogs read energy like we read a book and they will mirror your moods, so if you want a calm dog, it helps to have a calm household.
2- Never let a dog through a door, gateway or stairs before a human. If your dog is in front, they are in charge.
3- Eat before your dog eats – the leader always eats first. You can try “gesture eating” out of their bowl (pretending to eat their food out of their bowl before placing it on the floor). It’s a powerful way to confirm your leadership status.
4- Ignore your dog when you come in the house, come down in the morning or come out from behind a closed door. Making a big fuss of your dog when he greets you actually induces separation anxiety, so instead, avoid eye contact, don’t speak, and don’t touch. Just go about your business like he isn’t there. When he gives up and goes to his bed, let him lie there and rest for a while, after ten minutes call him to you and give him all the fuss you like.
5- Don’t let your dog in your personal space uninvited. Imagine you have a bubble around you of about one and a half feet (think Dirty Dancing!). You have your space, and they have their space. If your dog comes up to you and invades your “bubble” then gently move them away in silence and keep doing it until they get the message. No shoving or harshness is necessary, just be more persistent than they are.
These tips alone won’t change your dog overnight, but it is a guide to help you start thinking like a dog. The most damaging thing we can do to our beloved best friends is, in fact, to treat them like a human. Dogs are a different species to us, so although the rules may seem harsh to us, it’s actually their language we’re communicating in which gives them security.
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