We talk a lot about alpha dogs and dominance theory, and how the term is out-dated and the theory is debunked, but I feel that the reason a lot of people struggle with moving past that theory and terminology is because they have this label for a dog’s behavior that seems to fit perfectly for their dog, and they don’t understand how to redefine that behavior and let go.
Anthropomorphization plays a huge role in this, because whether people are fully aware of it or not, the idea of an alpha dog means that you are projecting human thoughts and emotions onto your dog. I could write a paper on how toxic masculinity plays a huge role in the concept of alpha dog theory, but I’ll save that for when I’m actually writing my phD.
People may understand that their dog isn’t dominating them when he runs out the door first, or pees on their favorite shoe, or eats their favorite book, but when you live with a certain kind of dog, you cannot help but project human emotions like “vengeance”, “pay-back”, and “jealousy” onto your dog, and if you can’t call it “alpha”, then what can you call it?
It’s simple. Your dog is a game-maker.
Dog training is often referred to as a game. You come up with the game and teach your dog how to play. Usually, you’re the game-maker. Occasionally, however, you get dogs that are the game-maker. The reward either isn’t enticing enough for them, or they think their version of the game is more fun.
Whatever the reason behind it, the result is that whatever game you propose, they counter with an alternative to your game, or start a whole new one. This is where people get so frustrated and say, “he knows what I want him to do! He’s doing this on purpose!”
Almost, but not quite. For example, let’s say I’m working on recall training with my dog, and we’re out in an open field. She’s free to sniff around, but when I call her, she comes, collects her treat, and then takes off again. She does well and she enjoys this game, because she knows she is free to take off again once she collects her treat.
We’re in the middle of our game, and suddenly a rabbit pops out of the grass and takes off running right in front of her, and she chases after the rabbit. I can scream until my lungs are raw… she will hear me, and ignore me. Of course she’s doing it on purpose, and of course she knows what I really want her to do, but this new game is a lot more fun than the one we’ve been playing so far.
Ideally, your dog will always want to play by your rules, and you can train them to focus on you so that a hoard of rabbits could run past them carrying peanut butter covered steaks and they would still come back to you instead of going after them, but just because your dog isn’t quite there yet and may never get there does not mean that he is trying to be the alpha, or dominate you. It simply means he’s a game-maker, or a rule-changer for that matter.
It is important to avoid anthropomorphizing your dog when interpreting their behavior, because it could lead you to some very false conclusions, which can lead you to taking the wrong steps in dealing with it.
If you’re struggling to find the words to describe your dog because “confident” and “independent” don’t quite fit, try “game-maker” on for size. It might help.