The alpha myth still runs rampant in the k9 world. So if it comes to you as a surprise that “alpha” is a myth, you’re far from alone! The alpha myth, which says that dogs have similar social structure to wolves and that wolf packs operate with one alpha which must remain dominant over the others, is a lie. If you want to read more about this, then I recommend this article.
So where does that leave us guardians? What is our role? We have the role of leader. We’re essentially the team leader in our team of 2. How is this different than being an alpha? Well, let’s go over what it means to be a good leader.
A good leader provides their team members with opportunities to learn and doesn’t expect them to know what to do without instruction. Our dogs don’t come with the knowledge of how this human world works and what is okay and what’s not. It’s critical that we, as leaders, give them the training and opportunities they need to learn and to learn fairly. Good leaders ensure their team members aren’t overwhelmed and set up to fail. They set them up for success! That’s what we have to do with our dogs. If our dog’s aren’t getting something, or they’re not learning, it’s on us, not them.
A good leader takes responsibility. When you’re in charge, you’re in charge, and that means you are responsible for your team members. This doesn’t mean you need to discipline your team members, but it means that when someone screws up, you’re there to set them up to succeed next time, not to yell at them and set them up to fail again. Good leaders know that they are responsible for setting the environment and providing their team members with what they need to be successful. For dogs, that could mean not exposing them to stressful situations, or even hiring a certified trainer when you’re in over your head.
A good leader is a clear communicator. Good leaders make sure that they figure out the best way to communicate to their individual team members. With dogs, this means ensuring that we are communicating clearly. That means communicating our house rules, our outdoor rules, and letting our dogs know when we’ve got this and they can stand down. It means setting them up for errorless learning as much as possible (errorless learning is really synonymous with clear communication). It also means we don’t change the rules on them partway through and then get angry.
A good leader advocates for their team. Good leaders will advocate on behalf of their team members. For dogs, that can be in the form of asking people not to interact with them when they aren’t comfortable. It could be asking the other dog guardian to leash their dog up so that they feel safe. It could be asking another pet professional not to continue putting your dog in a stressful situation. Your dog doesn’t have a human voice and that means, as the leader, you have to be their voice.
A good leader is not: someone who reaches for punishment, someone who doesn’t care how each team member is doing, someone who insists on punishing or correcting unwanted behaviour, someone who makes a “phsshht!” sound and physically touches a dog, some who needs to be seen as “the boss”, someone who thinks they should be respected more than they respect their team members, someone who sets someone up to fail.
Strive to be the kind of leader that you’ve seen others thrive under. Someone who is fair, compassionate, recognizes when others are struggling and commits to helping them. Someone who doesn’t bring their ego into the room. Someone who knows that no one wins unless everyone wins. Someone who cares.
Never be the alpha, instead, be a good leader.