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ALPHA-betizing your dog

ALPHA-betizing your dog

Terry Ryan

First part

A Foundation Stone: Providing Leadership

They loved Benji and Benji loved them back, but his family was starting to lose patience with him. Like some children, Benji was pushing the limits. He would grab laundry out of the hamper and race around the house inviting chase. He would get between the family members and the open refrigerator door, making it impossible to ignore him, much less reach the bottom shelf.

On walks he’d charge out ahead to give an enthusiastic greeting to dogs and people alike. And it was impossible to read a book without him jumping on the couch and working his way between you and the book. Some of this behavior is cute. It’s endearing to know that your dog likes your attention, but when the family changes their adjectives from cute to pest, delinquent, incorrigible, it’s time to teach Benji some manners.

How to ALPHAbetize Yourself

Developing the proper relationship and lifestyle with your dog is paramount to successful training. By carefully structuring everyday interactions so they become subtle demonstrations of leadership, you can gain Benji's respect and cooperation in a way that is natural and fair to your dog; a way that encourages Benji to willingly take your lead in a lifetime relationship.

Like children, dogs need to be shown the way to get through life successfully. Our leadership takes away the undue stress of trial and error. It's my opinion that if we show our dogs that our decisions and guidance make a positive impact on their lives, they'll willingly allow us this responsibility. They'll be happier and more confident in your leadership when they realize they no longer have the responsibilities of the world solely on their shoulders.

ALPHAbetize Yourself is not a program for a dog who has already taken the lead and is challenging you with aggressive behavior. Such a dog may view the exercises in ALPHAbetize Yourself as insubordination on your part and may "punish" you accordingly. ALPHAbetizing is a way of life, not a rehab program. If you have a dominant or aggressive dog, seek professional help in your area.

Dogs evolved as group-oriented creatures. Peaceful coexistence among group members increases the likelihood that all will survive in good shape for cooperative defense and obtaining food. Fighting within the group might injure individuals and put the whole pack at risk.

United we stand, divided we fall. Animals that live in social groups benefit from a capable leader, called an alpha. We see variations on this social hierarchy theme all over: clubs have presidents, wolf packs have alphas, towns have mayors, schools have principals. If a member of a group perceives a weakness in its leadership, a challenge may be in order. Survival of the fittest. If the current leader meets this challenge and proves worthy of leadership, all is well.

If the leader doesn't pass this test, survival instincts dictate that another group member take over the job.

Benji should view you as top person on the totem pole, the chairman of the board, the chief executive officer. If not, opportunistic Benji might take advantage of a perceived weakness and put himself in charge. You might end up with a pushy, uncooperative dog who lacks respect for you. Commonly known as the alpha syndrome, it’s at the root of many behavior problems.

The following analogy, made by William Campbell, will help make this clear. In this scenario, your dog is the passenger. Compare your dog's existence to a lifelong airplane trip totally dependent on the pilot and crew for necessities, including one vital need: to feel safe.

If the pilot appears incompetent and the crew isn't sure about what's going on, the passenger starts squirming with anxiety as the frustration of being unable to control the situation takes its toll. If the passenger tries to take control himself, he will be subdued physically or scolded roundly, which only heightens his frustration. This situation can be more frustrating if the crew can't speak the passenger's language fluently and communicates the wrong ideas.

Alpha-betizing your dog
Photo: "The Frenchie Forum". FBCA´s bulletin

A word of warning

In your enthusiasm for training, don’t interpret every rambunctious, attention-seeking action as your dog’s ploy for a take over. Many dogs are simply rowdy, fun loving, out of control dogs without a thought of commandeering your place as top dog. These dogs simply need their rowdy behaviors channeled to make life fun for both of you. The principles in the ALPHAbetize Yourself program apply to this goal, as well.

The following subtle but effective points will help you earn, rather than demand, your dog's respect. There are plenty of ideas here. Pick a couple that appeal to you. You might already be practicing some of these concepts. Good! You're ahead! Some may not be appropriate in your case. For instance, your veterinarian may have recommended free feeding for your dog instead of scheduled meals. No problem; just skip over that. Some of the program components may seem too difficult for you right now.

If so, shuffle those points to the bottom of the list and get back to them later. If you are worried about your dog's reaction to any component in the program, just skip that one for now. There are plenty of exercises from which to choose. The idea is to start with the points that you feel will work you know, the "easy" ones. Your pride and satisfaction in success will encourage you to try others.

Keep in mind that this program is to help prevent challenges, not rehabilitate a dog that is already challenging you. With that said, let’s take a look at ALPHAbetizing Yourself.


A Follower Must Pay Attention to the Leader Several times a day, help Benji make eye contact with you by tracing a line with your hand between his face and yours. You can make your hand more interesting by holding a small squeaky toy. As soon as that eye-to-eye lock is made, even for one second, say his name in a normal tone of voice and praise him as if he had just made a monumental step forward in training.

He has! It's the beginning of a communication channel between you and your dog and an important step in future training. The word "Benji" should mean "pay attention, something great is going to happen." Be sure something great does happen. Does he like food, balls, walks? Give him the tidbit, throw the ball, snap on the lead and take him for a walk.

Don't use his name in conjunction with punishment. Don't call his name to take him away from fun. Don’t say “bad Benji!” For right now, we want him to love it when you call his name.

When Benji seems to understand that eye contact is in his best interest, you can build on your attention program. Try tempting him with a toy or tidbit of food. Quickly hide it behind your back. He may try to run around and get it. Keep turning. Don't let him see the prize. At some point Benji will look up at you. Say his name and give him the goodie. The next step is to hold a prize at arm's length. He'll look at it, even try to get it. He can't, until he makes eye contact with you and you say his name.

Earning Praise From the Leader

Dogs love attention and deserve to receive it. But alpha dogs often get carried away with their demands for attention. If you're in the easy chair reading the newspaper and Benji hits the paper with his nose or paw to let you know he's there, ignore him. Benji may follow up with another nudge or even a bark. He's commanding you to pay attention. Don't do it. You'll be obeying Benji's orders.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't give your dog lots of attention. Give him even more than before, but on your terms. Reverse the command-response sequence. Ask him to sit or lie down first. Where’s the line between “I like you, how about a pat?” and “Pet me right here, right now and don’t quit until I say so?” Use your own judgment. Look at the big picture. If your dog is a perfect angel but simply invites lots of petting - well, on the big scale of things, this is not high on the list of problems.

The Leader Controls Matters Concerning Food

Benji depends on you for food. Use this vital link to your best advantage and make it clear that the food is coming from you. Feed some of his food by hand, as described in other ALPHAbetizing exercises. The rest of his daily portion should be fed in scheduled meals rather than free choice. A full bowl on the floor at all times does not convey a distinct a leadership message; when you ceremoniously present your hungry dog with his meal, it does.

Some old practices die hard, such as feeding dogs once a day. It's the general consensus now that most adult dogs benefit from eating twice a day rather than one big meal. Puppies need to eat even more frequently. These meals should follow a regular schedule. The benefits of scheduled meals include:

* You will know exactly when your dog is hungry helpful if you are training with food rewards.

* What goes in on schedule comes out on schedule housetraining is so much easier with scheduled meals.

* You can avoid strenuous exercise right after a meal it's possible for your dog to become seriously ill if he's too active when his stomach is full.

Present the meals within a range of time, say about an hour or so. The worse thing you can do is to get your dog into a habit of eating at exactly at the same time each day. We wouldn't want to throw Benji into a panic on a day that you might be home late from work! Finished or not, pick the bowl up after 15 minutes.

Leaders Eat First

With only a few exceptions, the social structure of a pack dictates that the high-ranking animal eats first, if he or she wants to. If one of your meals coincides with one of Benji's scheduled meals, make it a point to feed him after you have eaten. Prepare his bowl of food, but leave it on the counter while your family sits down to dinner. After a few minutes, you can get up and give Benji his bowl.

The dominant individual in a food hierarchy can get food from another, if so desired. For now, ignore begging behavior or prevent the dog from being nearby while you eat or prepare a meal. Down-Stay is good for this. Benji’s going to get treats, only now it will be on your terms during training exercises, not on his terms.

Leaders Control Interactions With Others

Most dogs come to life when the door bell rings. If Benji is a door-dasher, make sure he minds his manners. He simply can't take charge in this situation. Settle him before you go to the door. If he's not reliable on a Sit-Stay, ask another family member to control him with his leash or keep an extra leash tied to a heavy chair for this purpose. This is only a stop-gap measure. In Part II you’ll learn how to teach Sit and Stay, and how to direct Benji to a particular “station” at times like this.

When it's time for a walk, don't allow Benji to demonstrate to the whole neighborhood who's in charge at your house by pulling ahead to greet other people. This is not necessarily dominance dogs just like to walk faster than people and get where they’re going. Besides, the guy on the sidewalk might be good for a pat. But it’s still a nuisance. In passing or pausing for a chat, make sure Benji stays at your side unless he’s released for a turn to say hello.

Leaders Win Games

Have fun. Play with your dog. The laughter and exercise associated with cooperative play are good stress relievers for both of you. However, to teach Benji that you are the team captain, games should be played on your terms, not his. For example, a typical game of fetch with Benji calling the shots has him dropping a ball at your feet and backing up barking, inviting you to play.

You throw the ball for a while and when Benji's tired, he takes the ball and runs off with it. Who is dictating the terms of this game of fetch? Benji has commanded you to play, decided when the game will be over and, in his opinion, won the game by keeping possession of the ball.

Play with your dog more, not less, but until Benji learns the rules you should be the one to initiate the game and end the game. Games of chase are a great outlet for dogs.

Benji will understand who's in charge if you keep possession of the ball. A ball on a rope will be easier for you to control. They're readily available at pet shops, as are a fun variation, the Foxtail, which has a pretty nylon sleeve. Put the toy in your pocket or in a drawer when the game is over. Sound mean? Benji has plenty of his own toys. Once you have control of the games, it’s not as important to hoard the ball.

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