What is an Alpha Dog?

sled dogs

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.

two black dogs

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.

group of dogs

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.

How To Tell Which Dog Is Alpha

A pack of dogs always has a hierarchy, regardless of if they are wild or domesticated. The alpha dog is the most dominant and is the pack leader. They are positioned in the front of the group, ready to protect and direct the others. The omega is subservient to the alpha, and they generally position themselves in the back but are prepared to alert others of potential threats. Beta is the term for the dogs in between, and they are also followers. A dog’s rank can be determined right away at birth, shown through nursing with their mom. An alpha dog pushes and positions themselves to nurse on their mother first. The submissive pups learn to wait their turn, already showing their obedience. The social structure of a dog pack is natural and formed early on.

An alpha dog displays certain behaviors that you can easily recognize. Most noticeable is the way they interact with other dogs:

  • The alpha won’t approach a new dog or give much attention to dogs nearby. The other dogs come to them.
  • The alpha will mount other dogs, or sometimes even people, to show dominance. They typically like to position themselves higher than everyone else in the room. This behavior also includes when the alpha pins down another dog or places their paw on them. 
  • Alphas will wake a sleeping dog to steal their spot. If they want it, they make sure they get it! The docile dog will follow suit and leave. 
  • These dogs like to be first. They will push their way in front of other dogs. For example, they want to be the first to and out of the door if they are going outside. They also want to be the first to eat. You better bet that the alpha will have his paws on the newest toy first, too.
  • The alpha will hold firm eye contact, while the submissive dogs will look away.
  • The alpha might growl or snarl to assert their dominance in different situations. For example, the alpha might show their teeth to a new dog when they first approach the food bowl.

Can Female Dogs Be Alpha?

A female dog can be the alpha of a pack. Of course, in an all-female group, one will prevail to form the structural rank as usual. Females can also be the alpha over males in a pack. It is more common for a female dog to prove dominance over a neutered male. A fixed dog can no longer reproduce, and the lack of those reproductive hormones can change some behaviors. A male dog without testosterone is calmer, and his dominant personality is less revealing. Removing that urge to mate calls for more of a laid-back and obedient dog, as they aren’t pursuing another or trying to fight off a threat. Therefore, the neutered male dog is more on the same playing field as the female dog regarding temperament and need for superiority. Unlike the male, the female dog’s dominance is unaffected by her reproductive organs. It is important to note that a female dog can still become the alpha over an unneutered male. It typically comes down to the female being of larger size overall.

It is common for dog packs to have an alpha couple in the wild. The couple consists of an alpha male and an alpha female that lead and protect together.

Alpha Dog Characteristics

Alpha dogs have specific characteristics that make them a leader. A striking trait is the confidence they carry. They maintain this confidence by body language, facial expressions, and the occasional snarl. More traits include:

  • Alpha dogs are the jealous type. They want your attention, especially if you are giving it elsewhere. If you are petting another dog, the alpha just might come and interrupt!
  • They are demanding dogs. Alphas are known to nudge you repeatedly until you do what they want. For example, when they are ready to be fed or go outside.
  • The alpha dog needs to win. Have you ever seen two dogs play tug-of-war? Well, the alpha is the dog that won.
  • Alphas are physically big and strong. They generally are the largest dog out of the group.
  • The alpha dog acts as a watchdog. Alpha dogs are protectors at heart, exhibiting guardian behaviors towards humans and other animals.

The intense behaviors of the alpha dog do not go unnoticed. Their personalities truly set them apart from the rest.

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