Talking “Alpha Dogs” When You Should Be Talking “Dominant Dogs!”

I’ve been watching our dog training discussion board for the past few weeks and have recently noticed that several people have confused what is an Alpha dog with what is a Dominant dog.

Understanding the difference between an Alpha dog and a Dominant dog will help you to better understand how your dog relates to you, and how he relates to other dogs. And the best way to illustrate this difference is with an example:

Mary called me on the telephone and told me she’d just read the “Monks of New Skete” Dog Training book. With her new-found knowledge, she was sure that her dog was an Alpha dog. But she was also sure that SHE was the dominant one in their relationship. Mary thought she knew. But Mary was actually still confused a bit.

Many people don’t realize that the concept of an Alpha dog can only exist as a relative term. Relative, that is, to the other dogs (or people) in the pack. So, Mary’s dog could only be the Alpha dog if it was the most dominant dog in the pack. But if Mary’s dog saw her as being the pack leader, then Mary’s dog (by definition) could not be an Alpha dog.

“But maybe Mary meant that her dog was the Alpha dog, relative to the other puppies in it’s pack?” you ask. Wrong again, I say. When Mary’s breeder announced that she had “puppies on the ground,” there were eight pups in the litter.

For argument’s sake, we’ll call them puppy #1, puppy #2, puppy #3, etc… with puppy #8 being the most dominant, and puppy #1 being the most submissive. At this point, we call puppy #8 the “Alpha dog.” During the first week that the puppies are for sale, Mary’s breeder sells puppy #7 and puppy #8 to a nice couple from Rhode Island.

Guess what? Now puppy #6 is the Alpha dog!

See, the concept of an Alpha dog is only relevent to other dogs in the pack. And two weeks later, when Mary came to view the litter (which now only had four dogs)… guess what? When Mary asked, “Which one’s the Alpha dog?” … her breeder correctly and honestly told her that puppy #4 is the Alpha dog.

Just because you have adopted the Alpha dog, does not mean you have adopted a dominant dog!

Even if Mary had adopted puppy #8… the original Alpha dog from that litter… she doesn’t necessarily have a dominant dog. Yes, it is true that puppy #8 is MORE dominant than the other puppies in the litter. But this in no way should imply that because puppy #8 is a dominant dog… in absolute terms.

For example, if you throw me in a boxing ring with a half dozen 85 pound Catholic Nuns from Poland… it’s likely that I will be the most dominant guy in the ring. Or in this pack, I’d be the “Alpha dog.” But does that make me a dominant guy, by definition? No. It only makes me dominant RELEVENT to the other people standing in the ring. (In this case, the Nuns.)

As soon as you substitute Mike Tyson and Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwartzenegger with those Polish Nuns… all of the sudden you realize that I am:

1.) No longer the Alpha dog in this pack.

2.) Not, by any means, a dominant guy.

So, in sum, the term “Alpha Dog” is only a term that can be used relevent to other dogs in a specific pack. It is a RELATIVE term. As soon as Mary brings her dog home and establishes herself as dominant, her puppy is no longer an Alpha dog in her household.

Now, the concept of a “Dominant” dog is more of an ABSOLUTE term, which can be applied regardless of where the dog ranks in the pack.

For instance, if we took puppies that were bred from top Schutzhund competitor Gary Hanrahan’s German Shepherd dog, Pirol… all of these puppies are going to be very dominant dogs. Even though only one will be the Alpha dog.