People often ask me about alpha dog training. About how to recognize signs of dog dominance in their Labs. I get concerned emails from owners of three month old puppies that are worried ‘he is beginning to show signs of dominance’. And people want to talk to me about whether ‘pinning a puppy down’ is a good idea. They want to be kind but they are genuinely afraid that their Labrador may grow up to be a threat to them
You may have seen TV programmes where desperate dog owners are taught to ‘take charge’ and become the leader of the pack, or alpha over their dog. Where displays of dominance and power over the dog cause it to submit and become calm, and motionless. You may be confident that it is essential to be a ‘pack leader’ if life with a Labrador is to run smoothly. You may even have learned some strategies to use, that let your dog know ‘his place’. Strategies like always eating before your dog, and going through doorways in front of him.
We’ll have a look at strategies aimed at reducing dog dominance in a moment and find out just how useful they really are. Let’s just clarify what we mean by ‘alpha’
The alpha dog definition
In some groups of social animals, a hierarchy commonly develops in which individuals acquire a ‘rank’ or position within the group. Each member of the group defers to those with a higher rank and has power over those with a lower rank. The individual at the top – the one with the highest rank – is the alpha – or leader. A number of primate species, which of course are closely related to humans, maintain this kind of social order, and for a very long time, we believed that dogs do too.
Alpha dog training
In accordance with the widespread belief in the principles of pack leadership and the alpha dog role, for many years people used training methods specifically designed to combat the desire of their dog to become world leader. Alpha dog training involved strategies believed to be used by wolves and wild dogs to maintain their position as alpha.
They included encouraging dog owners to force their pets to watch the owner eat before allowing the dog is fed. And sitting in the dog’s bed to show him he doesn’t get the best sleeping places. They also included rolling dogs on their backs and pinning them to the ground in a subservient position. A technique that became known as the Alpha Roll. People adopted these techniques because they were widely promoted in popular dog training books of their time. And because many professional dog trainers recommended them.
These dog owners were naturally concerned about maintaining proper control over this large animal that they had bought into their home, and who was living alongside their children. Judging from the questions I am regularly asked, there is still widespread concern about dog dominance today. And make no mistake, it is right and proper for you to be concerned about controlling your dog. So, I wonder, who is the alpha in your house? Is it you? Or the dog? And does it actually matter? Let’s find out!
Wolf pack hierarchy
For a long time, it was believed that dogs are naturally pack animals that organize themselves into a strongly defined hierarchy maintained by aggression or force. We came to this conclusion because we believed that dogs were descended from wolves. And because, as we have seen, we thought that wolves organized themselves in this way.
Some wolf studies had demonstrated this aggressive ‘struggle for dominance’ between wolves. These studies were to shape the world of dog training for several generations. Yet within just a few decades, they had been proven to be utterly wrong in their conclusions This is probably not surprising as the wolves that were studied were mostly captive, rather than wild, and the captive groups included unrelated animals. More recent studies of wild wolves have revealed a very different story.
Wolf pack behavior
Our previous understanding of how wolves behave was seriously flawed. We now know that wolves live in family groups. Often led by the parents. Aggression between members of the family, including displays of ‘dominance’ is very unusual, and life within the ‘pack’ is peaceful. There is no constant jostling for leadership. No take or be taken, no kill or be killed.
Wolves are likely to be aggressive towards unrelated wolves as these may be a threat to the limited resources available to the wolf family at any one time. This natural aggression towards strange wolves is what caused the odd results seen in those original studies of captive unrelated wolves. But wolf leaders in the wild do not ‘Alpha Roll’ other members of their family or ‘pack’. The rolling on the back of one wolf to another is offered voluntarily as a sign of submission or peaceful intent. Not forced upon him by another wolf. Many dogs have inherited this appeasement behavior and will roll on their back if they feel at all threatened.
Alpha dog meaning
So if wolves do not fight for ‘rank’ within the pack, what about dogs? Surely in a group of dogs there will be a hierarchy? Well, no. It appears we were wrong again. A hierarchy implies that the higher ranking individuals have special privileges based on their rank. They get ‘first pick’ of food, mates and a whole range of other resources. There is simply no evidence that groups of dogs, either domestic or feral, arrange themselves in any kind of hierarchy of this nature.
Modern studies of feral and village dogs living semi wild on the fringes of human society suggest that dogs place even less value on dominance or leadership than wolves do. There are in fact no ‘alpha’ dogs. Alpha dog meaning highest ranking dog, is simply no longer a valid concept
Dog pack behavior
The behavior we see in dogs that form social groups or gatherings is not pack behavior in the way that we once thought it was. One dog might fight for food, another might fight for a mate, but there is no fixed ‘position’ to be won or gained through fighting, no working up through the ranks, until the dog reaches the position of ultimate power. That creature of legend, the ‘Pack Leader’ or ‘Alpha’ dog is a myth. And one that has done a great deal of harm in the dog training world.
It’s all about resources
Dogs will certainly fight to protect resources if they are scarce or highly valued, but most appear to have no interest in leadership or dominance. So, if your dog growls at you when you try and pull him off your bed, he is growling to protect what he would rather like to claim as his bed, not to try and take over your family.
This may seem like quite a subtle difference, as growling is not acceptable, but understanding what causes the growling makes the world of difference to how we can successfully treat problems like resource guarding.
We now know that treating resource guarding by bullying and intimidating the dog is counter productive. In fact, it simply makes the dog feel more threatened and is likely to end up in a bite. You’ll find more information on tackling resource guarding in dogs, in our article on dealing with dogs that growl.
The dangers of ‘rank reduction’
This recognition of the misleading emphasis we used to place on dominance is an important and significant development in our understanding of canine behavior, but it is one that some sections of the dog training community have been slow to grasp.
There are still dog trainers that believe many or even most dogs will attempt to engage in a dominance struggle with their families. And that the only way to have the control over the dog is to ensure that you dominate him at all times. They use a range of techniques that are collectively known as rank reduction strategies. These are strategies like the ones described above which attempt to impose a hierarchy in dog owning families, to ensure that the dog remains at the bottom of ‘the heap’.
These trainers may tell you that you must not let your dog place his paw on you, as this is a sign of dominance in dogs, and that you should eat a small biscuit in front of your dog before giving him his dinner, because ‘pack leaders’ eat first.
We now know that these techniques are completely pointless. We also know that some rank reduction techniques such as alpha rolls, can be dangerous. This is because they make the dog feel so threatened that he may even fear for his life and be forced to defend himself.
So why do dogs submit when they are pinned down?
Many dogs will submit, become calm and very still when rolled over or intimidated. This behavior is alien to dogs and very threatening. A dog in fear of his life from another dog may try to avert the threat by keeping extremely still. He will do the same when terrified of a human being.
This has nothing whatever to do with dominance. The dog is simply trying to stay alive. In extreme cases he will ‘shut down’ with fear and may appear semi-conscious. What about all those other behaviors that you’ve heard are signs of dominance?
Why does my dog lay on me?
If you lay on the floor, some dogs will climb on you or even lay on you. This is not dog dominance. It’s just what dogs do. Dogs like body contact and often sleep together in a heap. They see no reason to exclude you from this social event. Some young dogs will also try to hump anyone that sits on the floor. This is often play, or may be a hormonal response to your position. If it happens, stand up, and make a mental note not to fool around with big dogs on the floor! (See how to play safely with a large dog.)
Why do dogs sit on your feet?
And what about dogs that sit on your feet? No sooner have you plonked yourself in a chair than the dog is firmly positioned on top of your foot. No doubt you have read that that is a sign of dominance too. Well it isn’t. Dog’s sit on your feet for two reasons
- Because your feet are warmer than the floor.
- Because your feet move when you do – giving your dog a first warning that you are about to leave the room.
If your dog does this, he may be worried you are going to leave without him.
Dog behavior problems and aggression
All this does not mean that no dogs are aggressive. Modern trainers are not in denial about the potential for harm by large aggressive dogs. But our new knowledge has changed the way we handle these problems Aggression comes from fear and resource guarding from fear of losing resources. Some breeds of dog and some individual dogs are more prone to guarding and fear aggression than others.
These are topics for another day, but if you have concerns over your own dogs behavior then seek help from your veterinary surgeon or qualified behaviorist. Do not attempt to dominate or outrank your dog. You’ll risk making things much worse.
The changing tide
It is true that dogs are descended from wolves. It was disputed for a while, and dogs were classified as a separate species – Canis familiaris. DNA tests have now put an end to the debate.
Dogs and wolves are in fact a single species – Canis lupus. And dogs have been reclassified to reflect that discovery. They are now Canis lupus familiaris. But while some were right about dogs being essentially wolves, our observations of wolf behavior were deeply flawed. And the dog training methodology based on these observations was flawed too.
For some years now, the evidence has been building up. It has become increasingly clear that dominance, as far as managing dogs is concerned, is dead. Conclusions about dogs based on these observations underpinned much of our traditional dog training practices. The tide of opinion changed slowly at first but has now gathered speed. Virtually all animal behaviorists, and the entire veterinary profession have now abandoned dominance as having any relevance to the vast majority of interactions between dogs and human beings, or any place in the training of our dogs.
You can read the American Veterinary Society’s position statement on dominance theory. This pretty much sums it up. The truth is, most Labradors would probably be as bored by the idea of dominance, as scientists are of hearing about it from die hard traditional dog trainers.
Your dog may covet your armchair, but he does not want to pay the bills, tell you where to sit, or make you wait in turn. He’d rather play ball. And if the article or book you just read tells you to be alpha to your dog, or pack leader, it tells you more about the author and how out of date they are, than it tells you about your dog.
How to be the alpha dog
You can relax. Dog dominance is dead. If you want to think of yourself as alpha, your dog won’t stand in your way. Your Labrador is not the alpha dog. He is not in charge of anything, least of all you. Quite the reverse, he is utterly dependent on you for all of his essential needs. If you like to think of your family as a pack, that’s okay as long as you realise that dog have no interest in outranking other dogs, or members of your family. Dogs only care about resources.
Being the pack leader
If you like to think of yourself as a ‘pack leader’ then again, go ahead. But don’t waste energy trying to outrank your dog. A leader is after all the person in charge of resources, and who decides how those resources are best allocated.
Your dog cannot go out and purchase himself a nice steak, or a new fluffy bed. Only you can do that for him. Most dogs can’t open doors, they rely on you to do that, nor can they drive to the park. Because you control the resources, you hold all the cards and have all the power.
If you want to change any aspect of your dog’s behavior, you can do it through training. You can find lots of resources to help you train your dog on this website. Here’s a great place to begin.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website
Hi, I see what you mean in the case of my labs. (I have two) but my sister and her husband have a blue tick coon hound who revered my brother in law with great love and respect but my sister was obviously beneath her. After struggling with a snarling dog that wouldn’t let her do simple things like sit on the couch next to the dog and her husband and refused to obey her if my brother in law was absent. Another dog owner at the park suggest she spit in the dog’s food before the dog ate it. It worked! A week or so of spitting and my sister was one again allowed to live peacefully in her own house.
I have a black lab name Dakota. She has a loving disposition however if she doesn’t get her way she looks at you and continues to bark until she gets what she wants. Like certain time she eats as one example. I have to put leash on her and give her 5min time out. Is this ok? Joe
As a dog trainer, you need to teach the speak and quiet commands. Then you can control the barking.
Hi! I have a question regarding my dog: we rescued her a puppy and we already have two older female dogs. Lately, (she’s close to a year now) she started to pee indoors. She won’t eliminate outdoors and she’ll wait and hold it however badly she needs to go, till she’s indoors in the same room as the other two dogs. It’s really worrying and our trainer has told us that it’s a dominance play to get the other two dogs and us smelling like her, because she’s threatened by the other two dogs. Please help with advise!
Hi Maria, If a previously house trained dog starts peeing indoors the first port of call should be your vet in case she has a UTI. If they give her the all clear, i’d go back to basics with your house training as you would with a young puppy and help her to relearn where it’s appropriate to pee. This isn’t a dominance issue, alpha dog theory has been widely discredited these days. You can read the evidence here. I’d highly recommend finding a trainer who specializes in positive reinforcement training techniques if the issues continue, your vet is likely to be able to recommend someone in your local area. Best of luck! Lucy
Wow thanks for another great article I’m learning so much!!
Dear Pippa, we have a 7 month old black lab. He is very smart and trainable. Even though I have had many dogs, I have never had one who barks as much as this one. He barks to go outside (which I really appreciate if he is by the door), he barks for water (but does not go over to the water bowl so that I know what he wants), but he also barks when he gets excited. My problem is that when he gets excited and barks there is no ignoring him. I hate to have to crate him just to get him to quiet down. He weighs 77 pounds (not an ounce of fat on him) and his bark is soooo loud. I keep working to get him to soften his bark but I haven’t been very successful. I have always been able to get our dogs to quiet their bark or to quit barking. Is there a secret to getting a lab to be a bit less vocal? Thanks for any help you can give me. Cathy
My name is Melissa. We recently purchased a female choc lab. Her barking has been horrid!
I broke down and bought her a bark collar. You set the levels on it, depending on how high and how often she barks. It does not hurt them, and our relationship has changed immensely.
She just turned 6 months old, and my boyfriend, the kids, an I are so in love.
Our current issue is keeping her from jumping up on people, and jumping up to the counter.
Hope this helps!!
Thank you so much for this article. The research you have referenced about wolf behavior is by far one of the most important tools for our dog owning society. The myth that a dog is programmed to take over your family pack needs to be removed from circulation. Common sense needs to be reinserted. Our dogs are not gathering the food and feeding our families, they know that they are not the ones in charge. There is no reason to try and break a dogs confidence, unless you want an animal with a broken spirit. I think that people easily forget that a human is a very violent animal at times. And they expect a dog to be this unrealistic ideology of peacefulness. No animal on Earth is built to be 100% peaceful, because all animals are designed to kill and to fight off being killed. That is always going to be present inside of every life form that walks the Earth.
Thanks again for addressing this topic of dominance vs confidence.
Have raised and trained dogs all my life, am 50 now. Trained one Lab as my gun dog. I always run with a pack of 4-6 different dogs. One for hunting others are for personal defense and guard dogs. I have had multiple Rottweilers, my personal favorite of all breads and GSD’s, Bull Mastiffs and the Pitbull rescues and AMSTAF I have now rescued off my route. Aggressive breeds require love above all else but also a strong dominant hand at times. If not then they start to think you are their pet! That can never be aloud to happen. Also as a pup you need to recognize what are aggressive tendencies and squash them at that point because they can not be allowed to continue. You dont break the dogs confidence but you sure as hell better make sure without question that the dog is fully submissive to you and your family! Had to put down my now wife’s Lab because he attack her and bit her multiple times one night. When we met I told her that dog is vicious and never trust him around anybody especially children. One night he went after my dog, got his ass kicked then turned and bit the hell out of her, just flat out attacked her. Her son took her to ER and I put the dog down, legal in my state. Moral of this story is she had an aggressive puppy and did not recognize it and it grew up into an aggressive dog that attacked its owner. Any dog that will attack its owner will attack anybody or anything! The ER Dr, the Vet and the Dept of Health all agreed that me taking the dog out back and putting it down immediately was the proper course of action for the safety of everyone. Remember this was a Lab! America’s #1 dog, not one of my Pitbulls or Rottweilers. Aggression can be in all dogs of all breeds and you better know how to recognize it and smother it in the cradle! Just a tidbit from almost 50 years of training dogs of all breeds but mostly all of the aggressive breeds.
I do not have a lab but I do have a fearful dog that I do not know how to help. She is rotti/boxer and some other breeds (based on a DNA test). We adopted her from the local animal shelter at around 12 weeks old. 3 days later we had her at the vet and she growled at them. Also growled at people at the park very early on. It has only continued to get worse over the year that we’ve had her. When I walk her she acts like she is constantly on the lookout for people. Tail always tucked. If she sees anyone, even very far away, she barks like crazy. A very aggressive bark. I worked with a trainer and we got her in a Tractor Supply walking around without barking at anyone after several weeks but I can’t figure out what to do at home or on walks, in the car, at the vet,etc.
On the positive, she is a great family dog. She has never acted aggressively toward us. We can walk her without a leash. She will stay with us. She loves car rides and is a great passenger on our trips to see family out of town. She likes the family and their dogs that we visit and that she has seen multiple times.
We are fully committed to her and we want her to be a well balanced, happy dog. A few days ago, we rescued another dog from the shelter. His demeanor is exactly want we want. We are hoping he will help her see it’s ok by his good attitude. They get a long great. Any advice???
Pippa: that is the best article I have read on that subject. I have owned German Shepherds but after getting a Labrador we always wanted that breed. We have had yellow Labradors, chocolate and now, aged 18 months, a black Labrador who is a delight. Listening to some Labrador owners treatment of these superb dogs makes me cringe. That includes holding down a three month old pup. At least one wanted to be dominant not for the good of the dog but to boost his own feelings of weakness.
My experience, stated very briefly and no doubt inadequately, is:
1. House training is a boring, messy business and the most essential equipment for the owner is patience. Then get the dog out fast when he shows signs of peeing or pooing and on to his pee patch and reward him. I got up for weeks at 6am to try to get him out in time and also frequently.
2. Labrador respond to a reward for doing what you want them to do. The only “punishment” we have ever used is to ignore the dog when he “misbehaves” and occasionally isolating him for five minutes when this seems necessary.
3. We find clicker training helpful. Clickers are cheap and widely available and come with instructions.
4. When training walking on the lead we stop when he pulls and sometimes turn around. A treat held near the walking dog helps.
5. The recall can be trained be calling “Come” followed by the dogs name. He runs back and forward to my wife and myself and we include the grandchildren when they are here.
6. I find the dog is more settled if I largely ignore him rather than stroking and fondling him all the time. Difficult to do as Labradors are lovely dogs to stroke.
7. Lots of exercise.
All of these points can be expanded by effective trainers and my comments are no more than hints based on my experience. Pippa rewards reading with care.
my 2 year old lab X neutered male isn’t dominant but plays very roughly and I don’t blame the other owners who don’t like it. he has been to puppy class and doggie day care where he was allowed to play (outdoors) without any restrictions. we have also done a basic obedience course. he loves other dogs and just wants to play. he has already had me over once and nearly over many times. when he is playing he just doesn’t hear me. because of this I daren’t let him off lead unless it is a fenced enclosure which is sad for him and for me. he also goes over the top with visitors. the metre reading lady asked me if he has ADHD !!!
Pippa – there is a second edition out recently of “The Domestic Dog, Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People”, edited by James Serpell, that has a wealth of evidence based information updated since the first edition was published in 1995. It is well worth the read.
Dear Pippa, we are wondering if you could give us some help with our three year old black lab, Reggie. He is the softest most beautiful dog that we took over from a very nice family who needed to rehome him when he was 8 months. He was a bit of a handful at first but eventually settled down and is now so good on walks and in the house. However, we do have one problem. Every early morning he wakes up (sometimes twice) and barks to be let out to do his business. This can vary from 2, 3, 4 or 5 a.m. He gets two good walks a day off lead in the fields and also plays tug or catching the tennis ball for ,at least, half an hour with one of our other dogs. We feed him at 6.00 p.m. and he always barks for his breakfast at about 6.30 a.m. We can’t get a good nights sleep and feel half dead in the morning! We were just wondering if you have any ideas. Love the labrador site! Best wishes, Judith