Dog Tales: Leader of the pack: Figuring out the alpha dog
A friend of mine contacted me with questions about introducing a new puppy into her home. She trains and competes with German Shepherd Dogs, a male and a female.
The questions she asked revolved around human manipulation of the dogs' pack dynamics. She likes the personality and loyalty of her female and supports that dog as the alpha. An alpha dog is the top dog in the pack. A domesticated dog includes their human family as part of their pack, and looks to his or her human family members for pack leadership.
When human pack leadership is weak or non-existent, dogs assert themselves into that role. In this case, my friend's male dog has challenged my friend as well as her female dog on multiple occasions. My friend would like her female dog to remain the alpha and would like the new pup to mature into a role submissive to the female but dominant over the male.
Can we humans choose which dog becomes the alpha dog? In my experience, that answer is a "No." I believe we can support a specific dog during a natural transition or power change. A dominant dog may lose his or her alpha position to a younger, rising star due to injury, health issues or simply aging.
While this transition is in progress, we can support the leader elect by granting him or her alpha dog privileges such as being fed first, having the choice of beds, toys, a coveted location next to the boss, etc.
Attempts to help the declining dog maintain his position may appear to work when the human pack leader is present. However if the dogs are left to themselves, they will sort things out.
True alpha dogs are born wired with the drive to rise to the top. Some show their intentions early on. Adolescent dogs that have the confidence to posture and not show submissive behavior when meeting older dogs are testing their alpha future. Other alphas may present early as more moderate puppies, then as they mature, take on the posture and general air of an alpha. Alpha pups and adolescents often are the ones that rush in to any new activity and are willing to take charge.
Most dogs are in the middle of the pack, some waiting for an opportunity to challenge and move up, others just along for the ride.
The challengers in this group are responsible for most of the seemingly unprovoked dog fights.
I have watched our alpha, Dozer the Rottweiler, quell a fight simply by posturing over and rumbling at the fight participants. At other times he finds it necessary to jump in and restore order.
Can humans interfere with the dog pack structure? Absolutely! In 1999, my family acquired two young adult dogs, both new to our pack. Snickers was a spayed female German Shepherd. She was very high energy and somewhat undisciplined when we adopted her. Sammy was an Australian/Border Collie mix (our best guess) when she adopted us -- just moved in and never left.
Sammy and Snickers were very close to the same age and played well together for about a year. Then I noticed Snickers was getting more aggressive in her play and Sammy becoming less tolerant. I witnessed their first full out fight; I intervened and broke it up.
Snickers had some puncture wounds on her front leg that became infected and required antibiotics. I kept the dogs separated until Snickers was fully healed. Living arrangements while I was at work were accomplished by confining one of the girls to the outdoor kennel and allowing the other to run in the fenced yard.
This arrangement allowed the dog in the yard to circle the dog in the kennel and taunt the kenneled dog, a mistake I have not repeated. Each future attempt at introduction resulted in another fight and wounds.
The older they got, the better their fighting skills became and the more they looked for the opportunity to rush through the door to get at one another. Had I allowed the dogs to interact while Snickers was healing, while they were both young and inexperienced fighters, they most likely would have resolved the issue themselves.
Their infrequent fight opportunities were vicious and resulted in substantial vet bills. Yet both dogs got on well with a variety of other dogs, both male and female, I introduced in the years following.
Dogs will recognize and honor an alpha dog.
Dozer the Rottie is two years younger than both Sammy and Snickers. Dozer easily established himself as alpha over both girls with little argument from them.
I watched Snickers rush Dozer one time in the same manner she would rush Sammy to initiate a fight. Dozer turned her away with body stance and vocalization. There were no bites exchanged. I never witnessed her challenge Dozer again.
As the human pack leader, I cannot instill that in the dog I may want to be the alpha. That program was written by Mother Nature. I am much better off working on my personal placement as pack leader and leave the determination of alpha dog to nature.