In this episode, we pick up where we left off in the last episode and explore the question of whether it’s possible to get your dog to recognize you child as an “alpha” dog.
Mike sheds light on this question with a very simple response and then goes deeper into some of the distinctions around rank management.
Your Dog Is A Smart Social Creature
Morgan: Welcome back to the show. I’ve got a good question for you today Mike, and it follows on from our last episode on hierarchy, when we were talking about competing resources and rank management. Today’s question is: “How can I be sure that my dog knows that my baby is higher than her in the family hierarchy, without making my dog feel neglected?”
Mike: [Laughter] That might be the shortest answer in any of these podcasts: you can’t.
People ask me that all the time: “How can I get my dog to respect my child as alpha?” You just can’t.
If you’ve got a 1-, 2-, 3,- or 4-year-old and you’ve got a 6-year-old German Shepherd, that dog is going to know that it can completely push the kid around. You can’t make a child alpha over a dog.
The whole idea of what it means to be an alpha is a whole other multi-step podcast we could do. Alpha doesn’t mean being a big bully; it doesn’t mean bullying your dog around.
It means expressing leadership – that means structure, guidance and authority. And the thing is that the child cannot provide that.
Who Has The Right To Lead – And What Is Leadership Anyway?
This is why rank management is so important – you have to be the one to provide that. And you, as the leader of your social group, have the right to control social interactions within the group.
That means if your dog respects you as leader, it will look to you for guidance in terms of how to deal with that child. That’s the whole point of the rank management, and obedience exercises, and creating a proper attitude in your dog.
So, there are many ways that you can teach your dog that the child is protected by the power of your authority, you know? But you can’t teach a dog to respect a 5-year-old as an “alpha,” whatever that means to that person.
I don’t like that language any more. Every time the subject of rank comes up, you’re going to hear me say that I don’t like this whole idea of being an alpha dog.
I don’t like the language because it’s been overused in bad ways. It’s not that the concept is meaningless – the concept of leadership is not meaningless. But this concept of alpha has for so long been misunderstood as basically a euphemism for bullying a dog into submission physically.
And that’s just not what it is – it means controlling resources. It means being the one to establish structure, guidance and authority through careful use of social symbolism and control of all kinds of precious resources – from food, to treats, to toys, to your attention.
That’s how you establish leadership in a non-confrontational way. That’s why I put that rank management program as the first part of the book, as the first 40 pages, because it’s foundational.
If you’re going to teach your dog to learn to relate appropriately to your child over the first 5, 6, and 7 years, that dog first needs to learn how to relate to you as an appropriate source of authority, so you can then instruct it as to what the appropriate guidelines are for dealing with this young, relatively helpless individual who dogs will often see more as a litter mate than anything else. But they certainly won’t see the child as a social superior.
With Age Comes Wisdom
Mike: Social superiority has to do with power, right? And everybody knows a 3-, 4-, 5-year-old child has no power and no control over resources, doesn’t set boundaries, doesn’t provide guidance. It’s just a bumbling little kid.
It’s a good playmate, but it’s definitely not a source of any of those other things. So you can’t teach your dog that your kid is “alpha.”
Now, when the kid is like 12, 13, 14 – anything over 10 – then that starts to change.
Morgan: Is that in large part because of the child’s size, or because of the child’s understanding and intelligence?
Mike: All of it, all of it – but mostly size and physical capacity. And children don’t control resources – adults control resources.
The adult is the one that does the feeding, the adult is the one that takes you for a walk, the adult is the one that plays tug-of-war.
As far as games go, obviously children who are a little bit older – you know, 5, 6, 7 – will play fun games with the dog. But still, dogs are acutely aware of social power flows, just like people are.
They’re aware that you’re the one that tells them and the kid what to do, that you’re the one that makes things happen or not happen, and not the child – and they know that right away.
Morgan: So basically you can’t make them an alpha – you can imbue them with some measure of your authority, but only through proximity and close association to you.
That’s how to make your dog understand that your authority extends to the child, as if the child was under your umbrella. Basically, the dog is clever enough to understand that the child is not unto herself an authority.
Mike: Correct. And I always imagine a general sending a private to tell a lieutenant to do this, that, and the other thing.
The lieutenant is higher-ranking than the private, but the private’s bringing a message from the general, right? [Laughter] So he or she is carrying some of that authority – they are imbued with it temporarily.
Morgan: It’s a good metaphor.
Mike: It’s not of their own – it’s just a temporary infusion. An umbrella is also a good way to speak about it – it’s an umbrella.
Are You Being An Alpha – Or Just Being A Jerk?
Morgan: Yes – interesting. Alright, so people do ask that, a fair amount of the time?
Mike: Yes, I get that question all the time. “How can I make my dog respect my kid as an alpha?”
And as I said, it’s a two-word response: “You can’t.” And then everything else I just said.
Unless the kid is, like I said, 10, 11, 12. Over 10 things starts to change, because they’re becoming young adults, then.
So they’re physically more coordinated, they can understand concepts. A 10-, 11-, 12-year-old kid can, depending on the kid, be a really good dog trainer.
Morgan: Yes, that makes sense.
Mike: Thank you! [Laughter]. So that’s really the main thing on that subject. But there’s a lot to be said about just what it means to be an alpha.
I’m tempted to just go on about it, and I think I said it in the last podcast – but to be an alpha doesn’t mean that you’re yanking and jerking and bullying the dog around physically into abject submission, so that it cringes and trembles at the mere sight of you.
For various reasons, that’s the kind of impression that people often have of what it means to be an alpha – really forcefully rolling your dog over on its side and yelling in its face.
Some people even do things like bite them in the ear, bite them in the neck, to [inaudible] with one another. That’s not being an alpha – that’s inappropriate.
Morgan: Yeah, that’s being a jerk. That’s when your therapy hasn’t really kicked in yet – you have issues you need to deal with [laughter]. If you’re busy biting your dog, then you got power issues.
Mike: Well, there are times when physical corrections play a role. I don’t want to make categorical statements, because sometimes it’s appropriate to physically reprimand your dog, and even to roll him over for something – but not usually.
Often, when people are having social problems with a dog that does feel it’s in more of a leadership position, the person reads somewhere that they need to “alpha-roll” their dog.
Have you ever heard this phrase, “alpha-roll”?
Morgan: I think I’ve heard you use it.
Mike: It’s basically where you throw them over on their back, stand on them, growl at them, do all that stuff.
And in most cases, if you try to do that to a dog that already feels a little bit superior in your household, it can definitely lead to a bite really fast.
And if you do it inappropriately, to a dog where social issues really aren’t the thing and the dog’s already timid, you can just scare the crap out of them – and to no particularly helpful end.
Being a Real, Authentic Leader
I’m saying that because a lot of people understand “alpha” in that very crude and dated way – and that’s not what I’m talking about. That’s why I don’t like that word.
I prefer “leadership” and “dominance.” I do use the “dominance” word, because it’s an important one, but it’s been badly represented over the years in relation to dogs.
Morgan: Yes, it sounds like it. The one time where I’ve encountered really incredibly strict discipline that I was uncomfortable with, related to dogs, was when I was a kid.
I grew up in a hunting family, so we used to hunt pheasant and quail a lot. And one time, we were in South Carolina – so we were in the south.
And as you know, there’s tons more dogs in the south. And we were in a place called Goodhope, ironically, and it was a hunting camp. And the guides were so brutal with the dogs.
Mike: Yes, and it’s very easy for people to point at guys like that to represent what these training techniques are. And I agree with those critiques.
Often – and again, I don’t want to make completely categorical statements – but usually, you get out into the more rural areas, you get to the more old-fashioned trainers, and it’s pretty much yank-and-jerk and heavy-handedness.
You yank on a collar – and especially with a hunting dog, there’s lot of electronic collars. And again, I don’t in principle have a problem with electronic collars – I use them here and there myself, for this and that.
But there’s such a ‘killing a fly with a sledgehammer’ approach, and so little nuance, in that more traditional training related to hunting. There’s some of that in protection training, although it’s more focused and purposeful there.
But yes, when I was doing my apprenticeship years ago we went to some of these training camps for hunting dogs, and it was a pretty awful thing to watch, for the most part.
So, that’s precisely what I’m not talking about when it comes to being alpha.
That’s why it’s so important to parse these distinctions out – and part of my mission in life is to reintroduce the concept of dominance to the dog-owning public, without it being as you’re describing.
Morgan: Right – you’re trying to replace it, or imbue the concept with this sense of leadership. It’s a better term.
Mike: Right, leadership is a much better term. And leadership can involve forcefulness, but that’s not what it’s grounded in.
Morgan: Yes – and leadership in general doesn’t have those overtones of abuse and physical dominance.
Mike: That’s not what real, authentic leadership is about.
Morgan: Yes. Well good, I think it’s clear. Again: “How can I be sure my dog knows that my baby is higher than her in the family hierarchy without making her feel neglected?”
The simple answer is: “You can’t.” But we devoted a whole episode to what you can do, in episode 21, which I highly recommend you check out.
But it was great to actually go in and talk a little bit about the why – why you can’t, and what the distinctions are.