Is your dog used to being the center of your attention? Are you worried that with baby on the way, she’s going to feel displaced and act out? Is she a spoiled alpha dog?
In this episode, we pick apart this question and give you practical advice on how to prepare your dog so she’s ready for the coming transition.
An Alpha Dog, A Spoiled Dog, Or A Spoiled Alpha Dog?
Morgan: OK, Mike – the question for this week is: my dog is a spoiled Alpha dog. What should I do?
Mike: So, it’s a bit of a loaded question, and there are two parts to it. So, the first part is that: my dog is an Alpha dog. And the second part is: he’s spoiled – what should I do?
And the question of being an “Alpha dog” – this is a word that’s been thrown around for decades now, describing dogs with any number of behavior issues. And it’s come under a lot of scrutiny, as to what exactly an Alpha dog is.
There’s a difference between an Alpha dog and a spoiled dog – there are lots of spoiled dogs. But if you want to talk about what an Alpha dog is, it’s a little bit controversial these days.
There are people out there who kind of deny that such a thing even exists, and say that social status doesn’t really play a role in dog behavior, and so forth. I disagree with them completely.
That said, this idea that any time your dog is doing some behavioral thing that is annoying to you, or being stubborn or bratty or whatever, that he’s somehow trying to assert social dominance or Alpha status over you – that is a card that’s way over-played.
Mike: And isn’t really helpful, right?
Social Hierarchy For Dogs – Does It Exist?
I mean, dogs are social creatures. They are sensitive to issues of social status and rank. But a truly Alpha dog, for example, doesn’t cause a lot of problems.
They’re self-confident dogs that don’t have a lot to prove. They can be difficult in certain stages of training, but generally they don’t cause a lot of problems.
They’re self-confident, stable dogs that just aren’t the source of a lot of problems.
Anyway, I could go on about that – in a book I’m working on right now, there’s a whole section on social status. This is why it’s so keen to come out of my mouth, because there’s a lot of misrepresentation.
There are people that do say:
“There’s no such thing as social status, and rank, and hierarchy – and all that stuff is all nonsense, it doesn’t mean anything to dogs.”
They are wrong – and if this was a different podcast, I could tell you the many reasons why. But anyway, I don’t like that. The card has been over-played.
Morgan: Yes, we get your position. We get your position [laughter]. It’s clear.
The Justin Bieber Of Dogs
Mike: So, that leaves the other piece of the question: “What if my dog is spoiled?” So, a spoiled dog is a different story.
A spoiled dog is spoiled because we spoiled them.
I always think of the young rock star, like a Justin Bieber type – you’re like 19 years old, you’re worth $100 million, you’re surrounded by people sucking up to you.
Basically anything you want to do goes. And you’re surrounded by people who empower you in all your worst, selfish tendencies. And that distorts the personality.
The same thing is true with dogs. So, if you’re very indulgent, permissive, lax, and you let the dog run all over you, that is a major issue.
And that causes dogs to “act as if they were Alpha”, or as if they were the boss over you. Because this is a message that you’ve sent them, right?
So, a big part of the Doggy 12-Step Program in my book, Good Dog, Happy Baby, is designed to deal with this kind of entitlement attitude of the dog who thinks he can just make demands left and right, run across the furniture, steal stuff off tables, not respond to obedience commands, and so forth.
But a lot of this stuff is a question of training. And these are all the issues, taken in aggregate, that need to be dealt with before we bring a baby into the household with a dog.
Because the spoiled, entitled, bratty dog that suddenly finds itself, and all its wants and all its indulgences, displaced by the arrival of the baby is the one that’s possibly going to have the biggest issues.
So, again, that’s what the whole Doggy 12-Step Program in the book is all about – a rank-management program.
If you want to go back to the language of Alpha dog: it’s how to put yourself in the position of being an Alpha dog through a series of training exercises, as well as symbolic social interactions that signal status to the dog. That’s what a big part of the book – and the whole program – is about.
How To Spoil Your Dog Without Spoiling The Relationship
Morgan: For me, one question that comes up is: has this always been an issue? Or are people spoiling their dogs more these days?
I know you refer, often, to the fact that people are having children later – and you refer to dogs, often, as people’s first babies. You call them their fur-babies.
Morgan: And as a result, do you see an increase in spoiled dogs? Do you think that’s an issue?
Mike: Oh, definitely. Yes, it’s definitely an issue. I have this little saying I made up a few years ago: in the last 50 years or so, dogs have worked their way from the back yard to the bedroom. Right?
It used to be: you have a dog, you have a nice yard, there’s a doghouse out there. Once in a while, you might bring the dog in – but it was a slightly more at-a-distance relationship for urban and suburban dogs.
And that’s completely changed. Now, they really are a lot of people’s surrogate children – or surrogate something or other.
And we love them and indulge them in a million ways.
And one of the things I often talk about is how to spoil your dog without spoiling the relationship. Because, you know, I spoil my dog – I feed him from the table, I let him sleep in the bed with me.
But we have established our social situation.
He knows that – if you want to go back to that language – I am the dominant character around the house. And that’s not because I beat him into submission – it’s because I control all of the resources.
Establishing A Different Kind Of Leadership
I’m the one that sets direction. I’m the one that teaches him impulse control in relation to things that are important to me. And, again, he has learned to look to me for direction in all or most things.
And that’s what being a leader is – it means you’re the one that sets the tone, the direction, and controls all the resources. Not that you’re the one that kicks you in the head when you do something I don’t like, or yanks on your choke-chain, or whatever.
That’s not leadership – that’s just bullying.
Leadership is composed of a whole bunch of different things. And leadership is very important – and if to be an “Alpha dog” means to be a leader in the true sense of the word then, yes, you need to play that role.
And, again, it means you’re the one that sets the rules for the household, the one that teaches what the rules are, that enforces them when necessary, that – again – controls the resources.
That’s the whole point of the learn-to-earn program, that before I do anything for the dog, the dog’s got to do something for me.
So, if he wants me to throw him the ball, take him for a walk, pat him on the head, I’m going to ask him for a sit, or a down, or something. If not every time, often.
Mike: You know: you do for me, I do for you. Right?
Morgan: I like that – learn-to-earn.
Mike: Yes. You do for me, I do for you – that’s how life works. And since I’m the one that controls the resources and runs the show, you do for me first. Right?
Non-Confrontational Ways To Change The Relationship
And that’s completely non-confrontational, most of the time. There are times when some reprimands or some sort of punishment might come into play, but that’s pretty rare.
If you set up a good program, the need for physical force is pretty rare.
I’m not a purely positive trainer, and I don’t object to corrections of multiple kinds, when appropriate – but in a real rank-management program, it’s mostly symbolic for control of resources and other things that are symbolically important, like asking the dog to move out of my way.
Dogs often like to lie across major thoroughfares of traffic in the house, and they want to see how people respond.
Most of us just walk around – so that says something to the dog about social status. “Oh, I get to lie here, they move around.”
Instead, I’ll give the dog a little nudge with my foot, just a little: “Hey, excuse me,” and ask him to move. I move through, controlling space.
These are pretty non-confrontational ways to get the dog to respond to you as a leader. And spoiled dogs need that, badly.
And they need structure put around the things that they get, big time – just like kids. It’s not that different from children, it’s just like with kids.
Spoiled Kids, Spoiled Dogs
Morgan: So, would you say that spoiled dogs are a lot of what you’re dealing with in your work?
Mike: The spoiled factor often contributes to all kinds of other behavioral problems, definitely. And the analogy with children is almost direct.
If you have a 5- or a 6-year-old – and I’m sure you have friends like this, you’re raising a child right now, and you’re probably going to see the struggles of not doing that.
If you have a 5- or 6-year-old who has seven meal choices, and then he decides what he’s going to get, and you make it for him. Well, it’s easy, today, to create entitled, spoiled children, by giving them the sense that they’re always the most important thing, that they’re the ones that make the decisions.
“Mommy, I want this. Mommy, I want that” – and mommy gets it right away, or daddy gets it right away, without putting any conditions on it.
You’re going to end up with a distorted psyche, and an entitled attitude, and low tolerance for frustration if you don’t get what you want – and dogs are exactly the same way. So, the parallel is – like I said – almost direct.
Morgan: That’s fascinating. Yes, I definitely relate to that. I mean, my baby’s a year and 4 months, or 3 months, so she’s a toddler.
She’s just discovering that she has free agency, and a will. And she’s definitely asserting it! So, these are questions that are just starting, for us.
Mike: Yes – so then, what do you do when she’s screaming: “I want this. I want that” – do you just say: “OK, I want her to stop screaming, so I’ll give it to her”? I have friends who raised their kids that way, and the results weren’t great!
And there’s a lot of talk these days, in parenting circles, about these very issues – because we’ve gone in the last 30 or 40 years into a very permissive parenting cycle.
And now, in the last 5 or 6 years, a spate of books has come out with respect to parenting that have, through a lot of research, chronicled the kind of damage that’s done to kids that are now young adults. In terms of narcissism, self-absorption, etcetera, etcetera.
There’s one book called Nurture Shock – there’s another called The Narcissism Epidemic.
So, obviously I don’t want to overstate the case – but this all has parallels with dogs. It’s just a lot easier with dogs not to do that, than with children.
Morgan: Yes – they’re a lot less complex.
Mike: Yes, you know, it’s just much easier to control all the resources and put a few conditions around it. And like I said, it’s just not that complicated. It doesn’t take a ton of time – it’s just a question of changing one’s own habits, and the way one relates to one’s dog.
And I can’t tell you how many people I tell: “Well, look, why don’t we try not having the dog on the furniture for a few weeks? And then teaching the dog a series of ways to ask for permission to get up on the furniture – and then you decide whether it’s OK for the dog to be up on the furniture.”
It’s just not that difficult to do that – it’s just a question of changing a few habits.
Managing Social Hierarchies With A New Baby
Morgan: Yes. That’s really good. Well, that’s awesome. So, I think, Mike, you’ve answered the question from a lot of different angles, here. It’s about time to wrap up – do you have anything more to add to this?
Mike: Well, I think we kind of said it. I just think this is a really important issue, and I would encourage any listeners out there, if they get told by some trainer they’re working with that: “Oh no, social status and rank and hierarchy mean nothing to dogs,” they should know that these people are ill-informed.
Again, I don’t have room here – anywhere near the room – to go into the science behind it, but I just finished a two-year project writing this book, and really digging into the research around all this.
And the people who claim that dogs don’t function according to social hierarchies – the research is completely bogus. And you’ll have to wait for my book to come out, in about a year or so, to see why!
But it’s important to know that dogs are sensitive to issues of social status, to varying degrees, and that card needs to be played – but being an Alpha dog doesn’t mean that you’re the big bully who just yanks the dog around whenever they do something that we don’t like.
So, there’s room in there for a different way to understand what leadership is.
Morgan: And part of the reason you’re making this point is that before your baby arrives, it’s key – it’s essential – to deal with this issue of a spoiled dog. And you really address that in your book, with the Doggy 12-Step Program.
But that’s why you’re really emphasizing this point about hierarchies – it’s one of the key things that you need to establish.
Mike: Absolutely correct. Because the spoiled dog is often the one that has the biggest difficulty adjusting.
You’ve been the center of attention, and the spoiled little baby, for two, three, four years – and now, here comes this other little thing that’s going to suck all of mom and dad’s attention away from you. And that is when the big blow-ups happen.
Morgan: Alright, everybody – so, if you want to learn more about how to deal with a spoiled dog, how to reverse that, then you’ve got a couple of options.
Definitely go to gooddoghappybaby.com – you can read Mike’s blog, he’s got a lot of content on there that is related to this.
If you want to take it a step further, get the book – because he’s outlined this Doggy 12-Step Program, which is explicit. It’s like a manual, really, so it will walk you through everything that you need to do to deal with the issue.
And then Mike’s Good Dog, Happy Baby e-course is another option. And, Mike, would you say that that’s also something that’s going to help people with this?
Mike: Oh, definitely. I have plans to put out many more video modules around the question of preparing a dog for the arrival of a child, but the two modules that I have out – that are about an hour and a half each, and broken into multiple segments – concern the issue of preparing a dog for childlike-handling.
- A) dealing with dogs that are afraid of children in general, and
- B) preparing a dog for the kind of rough handling that kids are going to dish out.
So, these are two main issues that create a lot of problems for dog owners bringing kids into the home.
It’s a different set of issues than the ones we were discussing – but they’re extremely important, so I would encourage people to at least look over and see if this has relevance to your situation.
And I can guarantee you that, almost in every case, at least Module 1 does – which is the ‘Preparing for Childlike Handling’.
Morgan: Great. So, everyone, you can learn more about that at gooddoghappybaby.com.
>> Listen to the previous episode: Your Dog Is High Energy. What Should You Do?