The Dominant Confusion  “Alpha” ≠ “Aggressive”

The Dominant Confusion “Alpha” ≠ “Aggressive”

I failed him. I failed my dog.
We were at a family gathering with one other dog present. It had been a few years since we’d seen Cami (the dog), and I didn’t recall how she and Skipper got along, but nothing stood out as being anything of concern.
When Cami saw Skipper, she instantly stiffened, lunged, and fixated on him. If they hadn’t been on leash, it would not have been a good “greeting.” We briefly went through a few basic desensitization and counterconditioning exercises. Cami settled pretty well after a minute or so, but I sensed an undercurrent of angst.
Despite my trepidation, I decided they were ready to be off-leash together. I didn’t care if they weren’t “friends” - I just wanted them both to have the freedom to enjoy the space free of tethers and micromanaging.
The first few moments were “fine” and without interaction, and then Skipper trotted away to explore. This little bit of movement triggered Cami to charge at him and put her chin over his withers. She was stiff, growly, and posturing, intensifying her behavior if he tried to move or protest. He froze [the canine way of requesting space]. She ignored him and instead escalated her behavior.
Cami had to be pulled off Skipper, lunging and growling as she was forcefully pulled away.
“Oh yeah, she likes to be alpha,” Cami’s owner said casually.
We had to keep them apart, and I had some damage control to do. My biggest task was to make sure Skipper was okay, that he felt safe again. There was no physical damage, but what about emotional? Being attacked for no reason can have deleterious long-term effects, especially if the victims are young puppies lacking resilience, confidence, or skill. Luckily, I didn’t see any after-effects with Skipper, not even days later when encountering strange dogs. Phew!

Dory, an adult dog, calmly walked towards the group of puppies at my puppy day school, ignoring their presence. The pups had been busy having fun with each other, finding good playmates, working with my training assistant, chasing each other around.
When they saw Dory, the dynamics changed instantly. They stopped what they were doing, wiggled their bodies low to the ground, ears back, maintaining a respectful distance. Some of them flipped onto their backs as a clear indication of their deference to her. Dory is still at a distance, paying no obvious attention to the squirmy pups around her. Her movements were slow, deliberate, and full of information for the impressionable youth.

Bullying and intimidation vs. “Alpha”
Bullying occurs regularly between dogs but is often interpreted as “alphaness.” “Is your dog a bully?” by is a good read.
Cami’s owners mentioned that she puts her “chin over” other dogs when given the opportunity. A chin over is when a dog positions herself perpendicularly to another dog and places her head over the withers or neck. It’s a controlling, intimidating, and unfriendly move and sometimes turns into mounting.

Conservation of Energy
A good “alpha” (e.g., “leader”) doesn’t waste energy trying to “dominate”. She doesn't employ tactics of intimidation or aggression for no reason. In fact, determining the social hierarchy of dogs is not based on how the “alphas” act; it’s how the others behave. Dory was clearly calling the shots in that setting, and all she had to do was whisper. “Dominance hierarchies limit conflict escalation and maintain social stability. Aggressiveness in key individuals can affect group dynamics…” []
Too often, we equate “alpha” and “dominance” with aggression. This says a lot more about our culture than it does about what we are trying to achieve. Power is relative and wholly dependent upon the situation. Dory would not have gotten the same response from a group of adult dogs, for instance, and I’m sure a full-on dog fight would have ensued had Skipper responded in kind to Cami’s intimidating advances.
Now, it’s time for US to stop trying to be “alpha” and instead become better leaders for our dogs. Just like in their world, leadership isn’t equal to force, intimidation, infliction of pain or fear. We are just being bullies if that’s how we interact with our companion animals, and who likes to spend time with a bully?

Happy Training!

Diana Logan, CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed  
Pet Connection Dog Training, North Yarmouth, Maine | 207-252-9352

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