alpha's & leaders

  • Dominance

  • Wolves

  • Leadership

There are numerous definitions and understandings of dominance, and there are those who question whether it exists at all, or applies to dogs. Trying to get the dog training and or scientific communities to agree on a definition, is much like trying to get the United Nations to agree on the definition of “terrorism”.  

Understand that dominance or being dominant is not a myth but it is commonly misapplied. Dominance is not an individual “trait”, but rather a description of a relationship between individuals. In practical terms “dominance” or to be “dominant” is: “the ability to exert the most influence or control over another”. Years ago it was thought that a pack of wolves had a dominance hierarchy with a dominant individual referred to as the “alpha” wolf leading the pack keeping the followers in line. The theory was that wolfs were status-seekers and that they form a dominance hierarchy which is often based on aggression as the determining factor in establishing these hierarchies. We now understand that this theory was incorrect. With the popular “alpha“ understanding many believed that dogs naturally needed a strong “alpha” to keep them from taking over leadership, so force was often used to get the dog to submit. The use of dominance to understand and train dogs goes back decades when it was common for dog training classes to use choke chains on dogs, which now looking back looks more like animal abuse classes. In the misguided “Alpha” / “boss” approach the relationship is based on the dog “submitting”. There are trainers who still teach owners to be the “alpha” and use force to train dogs. Sadly many still use choke chains, prong collars, pinch collars, e-collars, or other unnecessary devices. The “Alpha” training style is often a combination of physical punishment and reward training, and/or praise. Bosses (Alpha’s) are people we would rather not be around, and dogs like humans don’t want someone bossing them around. The end result of an “Alpha” approach often is the dog is motivated out of fear, so the dog’s primary motive is to avoid punishment by submitting.  Should dominance have a role in our relationships with our dogs? Yes, we should be exercising the most influence and control in the relationship. If a person believes that they need to show the dog who is boss, act harshly, or use force for the basis of their training, the answer is NO! You don’t need to establish an authoritarian relationship with your dog(s) to be in control. If we gather a group of animals or unrelated people together for that matter and they have access to limited resources, social dominance hierarchies will form because status will matter when there are conflicts over resources. But if we control the resources in a generous manner and focus on taking care of those in our charge in a fair and equitable way conflict is reduced. Styles of leadership are not limited to just permissive or harsh. Being pleasant with your dog does not make you a pushover; it only makes you enjoyable to be around.

You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower


In early research on wolves the observers repeatedly noted that when they put a captive population of unrelated wolves together this would result in acts of aggression leading to a social dominance hierarchy forming. These observations were of artificial packs and not representative of the way wolves lived in the wild. We know now that in the wild a typical wolf pack is almost always made up of a family unit (breeding pair) much like a human family. This breeding pair does not need to fight for the leadership role, they have it by default. The young wolves commonly leave the pack somewhere between 11-24 months to seek out their own territories and hopefully start their own families.

It would be a mistake to think that all dogs are alike and that they just come in several varieties of sizes, shapes, and colors. A dog’s breed type influences the dog’s appearance, but more importantly their temperament and behavior and humans have used artificial selection to genetically produce dogs that were more trainable and dependent. But asking whether a dog is “dominant” is of limited value since it does not really tell you anything useful about the dog. Dogs are all different. Some dogs have strong willful, assertive, and confident personalities and others can be referred to as laid-back or soft personalities. It’s important to understand that dogs as a whole are not status-seekers. Dogs are not attempting to move up the social ladder at every opportunity to assume the leadership role and take over. Dogs are opportunists! Most will take advantage of a favorable situation to get things to go their way and to get the things they want. To varying degrees most dogs show a desire to compete for resources, food, attention, toys, etc… Much like people they do what is right or favorable in their own eyes.

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.
— Judges 17:6  NASB

Conflict and aggression is often confused with dominance. Conflict is not necessarily dominance based. People as well as other creatures have conflicts as a normal part of life. Everyone has disagreements… including your dog. Dominance always needs to be understood in context. A dog that guards a possession like a bone, toy, shoe, tissue, location, food, etc… is often referred to as a dominant dog by many people. What these dogs are doing is guarding an item in their possession, and dog behaviorists generally refer to these dogs as “resource guarders” or “possession guarders.”  People protect the things that are important to themselves also.  People can react when a waiter or waitress attempts to remove their plate before they are finished eating. Sibling can get upset when another attempts to take something from them. In most cases the dog is not dominate in the social context, but could be referred to as dominant in a competitive manner. This dog may only be guarding a possession, and not its position in a relationship or pack. Using the example of the human workplace, the majority of the people will not look to control others, but will to varying degrees look to control resources important to them. These persons can become very assertive when trying to control or guard; vacation dates, days off, shifts or hours, overtime, parking spaces, work areas, assignments, assigned vehicles, etc…

What many people have mistaken for “dominance” was an independent, confident, assertive dog. Lots of dogs don’t hang onto every word their owners utter, nor are they easily impressed. Many dogs mistaken for “dominant” in the household are just lacking self-control, and were never properly taught etiquette and proper decorum for living in a home with others. In most every case the dog was either untrained, confused, fearful, bored & unmotivated, experiencing pain, or just an opportunist which dogs are by nature. It is all too common to hear people say that a dog that walks ahead of its owner, goes through doors first, jumps on people, steals food, etc… is being dominate. The vast majority of times it is nothing more than a lack of good training when a dog pulls ahead without permission, or jumps on people. If a dog will take your food in your presence it is as much an issue about your relationship as it is training.

You need not observe an owner and their dog for too long to spot the dominate one in the relationship. It is clear the amount of control the dog has over the owner. You will commonly hear the owner say something like: “My dog won’t”, “I cannot get my dog to” or some other similar statement vocalizing a lack of control. The dog’s relationship with its owner was not formed with aggression, but rather the owner not being in control. Dominance needs the right environment to develop. The only way to be dominant is to have someone assume a submissive role in the relationship. In many relationships the dominant position defaults to the less submissive. Owners will often say they do not want to be harsh or overbearing with their dogs, or break their dog’s spirit. It’s not that the dog was seeking this position, but rather there were no boundaries in place to prevent the dog from exerting the controlling influence.  If the dog believes the leadership in the home is not up to the challenge the dog will believe the environment allows them the liberty to act as they please.  Dogs do not challenge respected leaders. It is not that you have changed their temperament or personality; but they will modify their behavior to cooperate with a respected leader.

When dealing with the small percentage of dogs to whom power and control are important, you must be worthy of respect in the dog’s eyes. Attempting to use physical force on the dog can be seen as a confrontation and the dog may accept your challenge. In martial arts there is a saying; never box a boxer, wrestle with a wrestler, etc… You will likely loose trying to do things the way they do them. When dealing with any behavior problem the first place to start is to remove the opportunity for the dog to continue to practice the behavior. It all starts with management. You will need to control the environment so as not to create a confrontation

Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs, and

Social dominance is real but has been widely misunderstood and misused by Marc Bekoff Ph.D

Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.
— Simon Sinek


Every dog owner should be the “leader of the pack” (Pack Leader) for their dog. I use the term “pack” in its standard meaning of referring to the social or family unit of a group of canines. A group of fish is called a “school”, a group of birds a “flock”, a group of elephants a herd, a group of cats a “pride”. The labels man places on a group of animals is meaningless to the animals. Regardless of what we call these groups, the point is that they are “social” groups. With dogs, we do not need to act like wolves or dogs, nor do we need to act like anything other than a committed understanding human to lead and relate to our dogs. We should be exercising the most influence and control in the relationship with our dogs but styles of leadership are not limited to just two choices; permissive or harsh.  There are a lot of philosophies when it comes to owning and living with a dog and generally speaking there are several approaches to leadership and there is no shortage of conflicting advice even from trainers.

Status or Affiliation?

What is important to you, status or affiliation?  Generally speaking those approaching leadership with a “status” mentality often come with the mindset of not "wanting the dog to get away with that" so the relationship and focus is based on power and submission.  I place this approach in the alpha or boss category. Bosses (Alpha’s) are people we would rather not be around, and dogs like humans don’t want someone bossing them around. Often the end result of the “Alpha” approach is a dog motivated out of fear, so the dog’s primary motive is to avoid punishment by submitting.  If we take the, I’m bigger than you and I’m taking charge route, we potently leave everyone else vulnerable (people and dogs) who are not as large or as capable thereby contributing to the very problem we were trying to prevent or solve.

Affiliation on the other hand is not about winning, but rather about being part of a group, on the same team and not treated like an adversary. Our dogs should be treated like a member of the family. That doesn’t mean we treat them like humans, they are not our peers, but we should be their best friend. After all, we were the one who chose them.


In their simplest forms, being at the “Alpha dog” end of the spectrum and attempting to show the dog who is boss, or going to the other end of the spectrum and avoiding any type of controlling behavior are both misguided and unreasonable. 

In general terms there are several types of leadership styles often exhibited by dog owners. Some common ones are: 


Bosses – Boss  (Dictator)

Focus on “Power” –  Relationship is based on submitting, not cooperating.

There are some who refer to the “pack leader” as the “Alpha dog”. In its simplest form they believe that you must show the dog who is boss. This leadership style was the accepted main form of training decades ago and often employs the old harsh methods of training dogs with choke chains, and other harsh methods. Bosses don’t communicate with their dog, they communicate to them. It is mostly a one-way conversation that is primarily command based. The boss’s training style is a combination of punishment and reward training, and the dog is expected to learn through punishment and praise. Bosses are people we would rather not be around, and dogs like humans don’t want someone bossing them around. The end result is often that the dog is motivated out of fear, so the dog’s primary motive is to avoid punishment. Most of the dog’s life is focused on submitting, not cooperating.  


Managers – Manage 

Focus on “Process” –  Heavily tilted toward gifts, not the giver.

The Manager category covers a wide array of leadership styles and various types of relationships. Managers typically communicate with their dog and their focus is often on rewarding good behavior and avoiding the harsh punishment based systems that many bosses use.

Manager styles can become mechanical in nature and often place their emphasis on processes and procedures. Some have stopped interacting with their dog on an emotional level and the interactions and training has become a mechanical process. Sadly clear expressions of appreciation, praise, and touch for dogs are often left out when treats or a mechanical clicker is used, although it does not need to be that way.  When managers become focused on processes and procedures, clickers and treats can get in the way of a relationship. Observing the dogs will tell you whether their owner is a treat to be with, or if they are a treat dispenser?

PERMISSIVE PARENT / Laissez-faire:

At the other end of the spectrum are some dog owners who have the same philosophy as parents who have negated parenting because they want to be their child’s best friend. These people are often uncomfortable with any term that connotes dominance with regards to a relationship.

Those who take the laissez-faire approach usually do so because they often think discipline is harsh. These folks basically take a hands-off approach to training, but in reality they must be hands-on all the time to control their dog. These folks are easy to spot since they often must always be hyper-vigilant in their physical management of the dog since the dogs’ lack proper training.


Common to each of the above is often the excessive use of tools as a to control behavior. Those with an alpha mentality often rely on more harsh tools such choke chains, and prong or pinch collars, e-collars, and fear. Managers and permissive parents often use somewhat gentler type tools and strategies that are aversive to the dog. e.g. head-halter type device or Gentle Leader, and no-pull harnesses to walk their dog, home confinement, and generally limit any freedom these dogs would have because of the lack of control without them.


Leadership is about relationship as much as it is about position and that relationship should be built on a positive foundation of trust, respect, and desire. It is more than just a relationship; it’s about being rightly related. Leadership is obtained by others desiring to follow.

Being a good leader requires a balanced approach. It is found somewhere between structure and freedom. A leader’s focus is on taking care of those their charge, not being in charge. Dogs should bring you enjoyment and companionship, not power. You don’t get a dog’s respect you think you deserve just because you provide food, shelter, health care, and other creature comforts.  You get the trust and respect you earn, if you act like a leader worthy of trust and respect. Leaders have consistent rules and structure, and reasonably manage the environment for successful outcomes, but more importantly they lead so they can influence and control behavior. Leaders control the things that are important to their dog so as to control or influence his behavior. When living with, working, or training dogs, it is important that we act like a leader, not an adversary, or a food dispenser. Those with the strongest relationship with their dog will have the most influence and control over the dog’s behavior. To have a strong healthy relationship with your dog, the relationship must be built on a foundation of trust, respect, and desire.

  • TRUST - You must be safe to be around, and not abusive. You must communicate clearly without confusion. You need to act trustworthy if you expect to be trusted!

  • RESPECT - You are respected as a leader, not as a boss or manager. Dogs should not just respect the position you hold (fear based), but rather respect you as a person. The dog is complaint because they realize that you provide, and have control over all the great things in life – not in a domineering way, but the way a loving parent richly supplies all things to enjoy. You need to be respectful if you expect to be respected!

  • DESIRE - Instilled in your dog a desire for the giver, not just the gift. To accomplish this you must build a positive relationship; you are not a boss or food dispenser. Your dog should desire your companionship and you as a playmate because you are fun. You should be your dog’s best friend. You need to be desirable if you expect to be desired!

A good leader understands how their dog communicates. You must learn how to interpret the dog’s behavior in the context in which it is presented. Good leaders not only listen, they know how to ask the right questions. Leaders should be curious. It goes hand and hand with understanding. Dogs don’t speak your language, so it is imperative that you be the one who learns how to communicate with your dog. Dogs like people are not all the same, nor do they all respond to the same.

Dogs need a leader for guidance, training, and protection. Like a child they don’t realize all the dangers that they can encounter such as traffic, harmful items, toxic substances, etc.  Dogs like children need a loving, patient, self-controlled, faithful authority figure that can instruct and guide them, every bit as much as they need a best friend. Parenting or leading is not just about training and discipline; it is about building a positive relationship with your dog that will ultimately enrich both your lives.


Whether we are talking about a human family, wolf pack, or dog’s we adopt, it all comes down to parenting. With our dogs we need to be their best friend, but that should never mean that you surrender leadership. It’s important that you know how to teach and encourage your dog. Babying and spoiling your dog can be just as bad as being so harsh you ruin your relationship and lose your dog’s respect. There is a big difference between a dog that is well taken cared of and a dog that is spoiled although it may look the same at a glance. They both can have the same amount of toys, great food, treats, attention, etc… but spoiled dogs have a sense of entitlement.

It would be a mistake to think that all dogs are alike and that they just come in several varieties of sizes, shapes, and colors. A dog’s breed type influences the dog’s appearance, but more importantly their temperament and behavior. Dogs like children are all different. Some dogs have strong willful, assertive, and confident personalities and others are can be referred to as laid-back or soft personalities. 

Meg Meeker has written books for parents and not dog owners but both have tremendous insight that we can benefit from if we apply what is written. Just substitute “daughter”, “children’s”, “kids”, “son”, “boys”, and “boy” for dog or dogs, when either of these books are talking about children and their relationship with their parents. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters   10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, and Boys Should Be Boys  7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons.

Just as with children, dogs need rules. You need to use your authority carefully and wisely while staying calm, firm and consistent. As it is with great parents, “kindness, strength, and perseverance go together.” [1]

You being an authority figure will not be a threat to your relationship with your dog if you are kind, fair, and consistent. People who don’t take a leadership role risk losing their dog’s respect. You can lose your dog’s respect by failing to lead, failing to protect her, or failing to provide for your dog’s needs. [1]

Some dogs more so than others crave your attention and will do many things to get it. “Don’t make her feel she needs to do things to get your attention. Give it to her naturally, just as part of everyday life.” [1]

“Don’t use your authority in ways that are cruel or that sting.” “Don’t try to make her your robot.” [1]

It does not matter if you or your dog is male or female, the wisdom found in Meg Meeker’s books applies equally to our dogs and you are encouraged to live it. If you get your role as a parent right your dog will respect you and you can still be their best friend.

Treat your dog like a family member, not a competitor, adversary, or employee. Leaders do not burden their dogs by having them fulfill their emotional needs, but rather leaders fulfill the needs of their dogs. A dog should be treated as a dog, not a little human. You are not your dog’s peer, but you should be their best friend. Even though they are not human, they are still family.  

How do you know when you are becoming the leader you should be? Your dog will be responsible to you, not for you, or indifferent to you, and the vast majority of the time your dog will be cooperating with you, not just submitting

[1] Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters   10 Secrets Every Father Should Know   By Meg Meeker

Excellent books and articles by Suzanne Clothier.

If you are experiencing problems in your relationship with your dog I highly recommend both of these books by Suzanne Clothier. "Finding A Balance" and "Attentive Cooperation".

Suzanne Clothier has written several excellent articles on the subject of dominance:

That Darned Dominance Debate

A conversation about that Darned Dominance Debate

Dog is in the Details

Leadership Basics

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