Guest Post: Alpha vs. Dominance vs. Training Relationship

Alpha vs. Dominance vs. Training Relationship

I was recently asked by a fellow dog trainer if I’ve ever used positive reinforcement training methods on any animals other than dogs.  She was thrilled when I responded that yes, I’ve trained horses this way as well.

Everyone loves horses.  Including Ines.  In fact she rode horses and took jumping lessons when she was a young girl.  I spent many days as a young girl riding horses. If we only lived in the same area we might as well have been best friends.  When I wasn’t riding, I was day dreaming about riding, or drawing horses, or pretending I was riding a horse going over homemade jumps in the backyard.  (Which turned out to be great practice for dog agility, btw…)

Ines had so many questions for me- did I use a clicker, what did I use as motivation, do horses generalize as well as dogs, are they similar to train to dogs?  There were so many questions, and I didn’t really know how to answer them at first.  I had to think and really evaluate exactly what my experiences had been.  I had been around horses for so long; training had become an automatic way to interact with horses.

You see, horses make you a trainer whether you want to be or not.

Horses are different from dogs in some respects, but two differences stand out the most to me.  One is that horses are prey animals.  This opens up a whole new set of rules.  No exciting the horse.  No hurting the horse. And no scaring the horse.  When a horse is scared, nervous/excited, or hurt he will go into flight mode.  The technical term is fight or flight, but I will tell you from many, many years of experiences that few horses will fight.  When a horse is ready to flee for his life you just cannot teach him anything.  Once a horse is in flight mode he has physical responses that he has no control over.   His nostrils flare and his heart accelerates in order to deliver extra oxygen to his muscles.  Adrenaline starts coursing throughout his body.  He stops thinking.  His instincts take over and his only concern now is escaping what he perceives as danger… you.

However, one plus side to dealing with a prey animal is that you don’t have to worry about the horses chasing squirrels or cats.

The second BIG difference is their size.  A small horse weighs around 800 pounds.  An average sized horse weighs 1100 pounds.  My horse weighs 1400 pounds.  Simply put, it’s just not safe to have bad behavior from an animal this large.  Unfortunately for the horse, there are people who use this as permission to use aversive methods.  While it is admittedly hard to physically injure an animal this large, it is incredibly easy to frighten, and even traumatize, them.

And yet there are a lot of similarities.  Both animals work great with a clicker.  Both animals are easily conditioned to the clicker by using treats.  Both animals try to mug you for your treats.  Both animals try to get away with whatever they can…   All of these examples lead to one conclusion…

Horses and Dogs learn the same way.  Through operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning simply means that the animal (the operant) can be conditioned by their environment to either increase or decrease behavior.  Good things, like the sound of a clicker, increase the frequency of the behavior.  This is why we only click when something desirable happens…like obeying a command.  It also means they both learn to avoid ’bad things’ in the future.

But what really stands out to me about training horses and dogs is that the owners in both worlds confuse the same terms of alpha and dominance.  Nor do they understand the impact that the ‘training relationship’ has on the animal. 

Alpha is a term that horse and dog people alike use in excess.  I hear people talk about how they had to show their dog/horse who is alpha.  Or that their dog/horse won’t mess with them because they’re alpha.  I have to admit…I have to consciously keep myself from rolling my eyes when I hear this.

You see, Alpha is a term that is widely misunderstood.  The boring history of the term ’Alpha’ is that a long time ago researchers wanted to understand wolf pack dynamics.  They assembled groups of captured wolves and released them into a ‘pack‘so they could study their behavior.  This was the first mistake.

A pack is always a family unit…much like a human ‘pack’.  You have Mommy, Daddy…and then the babies.  What the first researchers did was turn a wolf pack into a co-ed college dorm.  Needless to say- it was chaos.  Wolves were constantly fighting each other for status (because status meant survival) and the most dominant wolf was called the ‘Alpha‘.

Since then research on actual family packs show that this is not the case in nature.  In nature, being the Alpha simply means they are the parents.  And they do parental things…like supplying food and keeping the family safe.  In fact, in scientific studies the term Alpha has been replaced with “breeding pair”.  By the way, most packs are only the parents and their children three years and younger.  By the time the wolves reach four years old, they’ve dispersed and found a mate and are forming packs of their own.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it? …okay, maybe four years is a little young, but according to four dog years equals 32 years old in human years.

But what you really need to know is that no matter what breed, no matter what age- dogs DO NOT form packs with humans.  They don’t even form packs with each other, if they are not related.

That means all the scruff shakes, pin downs, alpha rolls, choke outs, growling and yes, even biting – won’t mean a thing to your dog.  Other than you’re a little unstable.

And think about it – do you really want to act more like a dog?  Or do you want your dog to act a little more human? 

I mentioned another term that people misinterpret in both the horse and the dog world.  Dominance.  I see people all the time, both with dogs and horses, picking fights that don’t need to be fought.  All in the name of dominance.  I’m going to clue you into a really important point about dominance…

Dominance is completely dependent upon the other party being more willing to submit than you are.

Therefore- dominance is completely relational.  You can be dominant over your dog, but your dog may be dominant over your son or daughter…or spouse.  You can be dominant over the entire household, but the rest of the members of the house, including the spouse, kids and animals are fighting for their place in the social structure.  And this fight is ongoing.  One of the parties can suddenly decide they aren’t willing to submit anymore and then the chaos starts all over again.

So how do you deal with this?  How can dominance work for you?  First of all, you need to take a realistic appraisal of the dominance chain of command.  I always like to picture a ladder, with the most dominant on top.  This (hopefully a) person is just not willing to have it any way but their’s.  You’ll know your dog is ‘top dog’ if he:

  • Ÿ  Sits on the couch and won’t move when you ask
  • Ÿ  Takes his space on your bed, and you position yourself around him
  • Ÿ  Takes food right off your plate and right in front of you too!

After you have an idea of who is at the top you need to a) make sure it’s a human (if it’s not contact a professional trainer immediately!) b) make sure this human is responsible for all those underneath them on the ladder c) use their position to move other (human) family members up the ladder.  This involves establishing a training relationship.

I’ll be honest…in my house the social ladder isn’t perfect.  I’m at the top, the dog is next, and then my poor husband is below the dog.  How does this happen?  Well…it‘s a combination of our natural personalities and the training relationships that have (or haven‘t been built).  My hubby is more or less a peace keeper – with both dogs and humans.  Our dog is his buddy so he’s happy.  You’ll never see my husband ‘training’ the dog, though occasionally he’ll ask him to sit before he feeds him a yummy treat.  But I often find myself having to control or command the dog for my husband.  Since our particular dog is ’obliviously happy’ it hasn’t seemed to present any safety concerns, but there are times I would like my husband to directly handle the dog.

Dominance doesn’t have to be a messy, aggressive situation.  It’s just a willingness to submit by one party.  Dominance is NOT aggression.

If a dog is naturally passive you may find him sink to the lower end of the social ladder, if he’s naturally more dominant he will continue to test each person in the house to raise himself higher and higher on the ladder.  Think of it as a ‘type A’ / ‘type B’ personality.

I have met many owners who are not well suited for the dog’s personality.  Left to their own devices pairings like my husband and the semi-dominant dog would shortly grow into a turbulent power struggle.  What hope do dog owners have?  Well the good thing is that even if you aren’t dominant by nature, you can learn to ask (and expect) certain behaviors from your dog that will help keep the balance in order.

The other key point to remember is that you need to follow through with your requests.  If you want your dog to get down from the couch- he must get down!  I one time had a very dominant dog (not aggressive, just unwilling to submit) who decided on one particular day that he wasn’t getting off the couch.  Instead of engage in a one on one argument, I went behind the couch and tipped it forward until he had to get down.  And believe me, he hung in there!  What you may be surprised to know is that once his feet hit the ground I immediately marked and praised him…

Remember…any owner IS a trainer.  And your dog is either constantly getting better, or getting worse. 

That’s right.  This is where the ‘training relationship’ comes in.  By simply training your dog with positive reinforcement you can establish yourself as the more dominant personality.  Every time you ask your dog to use ‘impulse control’ in your training, you are asking him to submit.  Whenever you are the sole provider of all things yummy and wonderful, you are showing that you are the leader…even if you’re not a real pack.  He must submit to you to get what he wants.  In other words you are the key to his environmental quality.

About the Author

Dee Slawson is a professional dog trainer residing in the Washington D.C. area.  Dee specializes in teaching owners how to understand and communicate with their dogs effectively.  She reminds people that training is not about dogs learning a new trick – it’s about changing their life. 

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