Not a week goes by when someone – often several – clients come in ¬¬my office saying their dog is an “alpha” dog … over them, over other dogs in the household, over other dogs in the park, over other people, etc. People complain that their dogs are bullies, especially where other dogs are concerned. They may body slam, muzzle punch and mount other dogs. They may lock, load and charge other dogs. Or they may allow a brief introduction, only to whip around and snap at another dog. And the poor guardian doesn’t have a clue how to take his “alpha” dog down to “omega” status. Just last week, a very nice gentleman was sitting with his dog, when his dog put his feet on the man’s lap. He said “I really shouldn’t let him do that, should I? He’s just showing me that he’s alpha.” In actual fact, that dog was showing affection and insecurity.
I see a phenomenal amount of insecurity on the part of the owners and of the dogs. No one seems to know what an appropriate relationship is any more. Either the people are too soft and indulgent or their too harsh, or – and this is worse than either of the first two – they alternate between them.
When an owner is insecure, you can explain how they can choose a path (preferably a sensible, humane path) and be consistent in following it. It’s much more difficult for a dog, who is acting this way because he doesn’t know he has other choices. Our program for helping insecure people is called PEP (People Empowerment Program).
To explain insecurity in dogs, it may be best to look a secure animal, and see how he or she might act. Friendly, secure dogs generally aren’t overly pushy when they meet new dogs (or new people). They often stand still, and let the other dog investigate them first. Their body language is loose and relatively neutral. Unfriendly secure dogs let other dogs or people) know not to intrude on their personal space. They are very clear, and the oncoming dog knows to avoid. (Please understand I’m not advocating for unfriendly dogs, just admiring their clarity). Secure dogs are not necessarily dominant or submissive, they just know who they are.
Contrast that with insecure dogs. Insecure dogs are often friendly towards those they have known for a long time - sometimes years. They are sometimes overly enthusiastic towards these known friends, and might show anxiety when they leave. On the other hand, they are worried and suspicious of new people or dogs, and might show conflict behaviors like approaching and then retreating, allowing another dog to go by and then snapping at the disappearing rear end, or panicking during an introduction. They might be leash aggressive, barrier aggressive or aggressive in the car – all places of relative safety, where they can show the other dog what they’re made of.
Insecure dogs need their owners to show them that they are being taken care of; that they do not have to make any decisions involving new people or dogs. Obedience training can be very important, but not as important as the attitude emanating from the owner, who should act as if he or she is running the entire world in a quiet, competent fashion. Many of my clients chatter in a high pitched voice when they see another dog coming at their insecure dog. Unless they do that when other dogs are not in the vicinity, I don’t recommend it. It’s a signal to their dog that they are worried about whatever is coming at them. So much better to act as if the world is a benign place, and they are just moving through it.
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Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- 2021 Dog Behavior Conference Announced
- Why I’m Not a Purely Positive Dog Trainer
- Becoming a Dog Trainer
- Social Bullying
- Does Your Dog Respect You?