Alpha is the first letter in the Greek alphabet. When the term alpha dog is used, it refers to the dominant dog, in a pack setting, that is first and most important. The alpha dog is the dog to which other members of the pack are submissive (called the beta dogs), and most pack animals related to dogs like wolves and coyotes have both an alpha male and female.
The alpha dog must rule with an iron fist (or paw) and is accorded first rights in breeding with females and in eating. Both male and female alpha dogs exude confidence, maintaining control through body position, facial expression, and the occasional nip or snarl at beta members of the pack. Understanding the instinctual pack animal organization is essential in helping dogs in homes receive the training they need. Without the presence of other animals, a single dog in a family home is likely to believe he or she is the alpha dog. The dog has to be convinced otherwise by the “people pack” or else the dog is likely to exhibit behavioral problems.
Training dogs focuses on placing an adult in the home in the alpha dog position, and making the dog subservient to the wishes of the human. This can be done, especially when humans are able to calmly, consistently and quietly apply discipline and positive reinforcement as needed. But people must first understand when they get a dog, that they must become an alpha dog or lose control over their animal.
When a dog in the home remains the alpha dog, undesirable behaviors may emerge. The dog will not follow commands, may bite, snarl, dangerously guard its food, and will refuse to be walked by an owner. With the last, an alpha dog usually walks its owner, not coming to heel when requested, but hurrying the owner along at its own pace. Not all characteristics of the alpha dog are bad ones. Alpha dogs are often quite smart animals, and in natural wild dog settings, they would be leaders. In a family setting they must be convinced that they are not dominant.
Humans have the advantage when appropriate training is applied, since one characteristic of the alpha dog is that it is frequently the strongest member of its pack. Unless you happen to be raising a very large dog, you will generally be larger than your dog, and size can be a dominating factor. Young children may have much more difficulty controlling a dog with alpha characteristics because they may be similarly sized to the dog.
In addition to training, many male alpha dogs are greatly assisted by undergoing neutering. This cuts down on testosterone levels and the dog’s natural instinct to breed and “mark” territory. Most neutered dogs are less aggressive and more submissive. For best benefit, the dog should be neutered in its first year of life.
We also use the term alpha dog or alpha male to describe males in our society who seem to have the most confident characteristics, may be wealthy and are definitely considered handsome. Another related expression is “top dog.” There have even been some significant studies of late that suggest that human females, when ovulating, are most likely to be attracted to alpha males, those who are younger, are in good physical shape and would potentially produce the strongest and healthiest children.
Actually sharing a few characteristics of pack behavior with dogs makes humans a natural match to coexist with dogs. The key is establishing a human alpha dog so that you are not your dog’s beta dog, but the prime member of the pack.