Are Small Dogs Always Alpha?

posted: 05/15/12
Read more Read less
Are small dogs always alpha?
Bloomimage/Corbis |

No doubt small dogs have a reputation for being particularly energetic and yappy. Some people might assume these small toy breeds suffer from a Napoleon complex -- that is, they're uncommonly aggressive despite (or perhaps because of) their short stature. You might be even more inclined to believe this if you've ever seen a small dog take precedence over a much larger dog while living together in a group. Though this is an amusing, seemingly unnatural sight, it's surprisingly common.

Researchers believe that domesticated dogs have retained vestiges of wolf-pack instincts that they inherited from their wild wolf ancestors. In the wild, wolves stick together in groups known as wolf packs, where each member fits into a role as part of a defined hierarchical structure. The leaders, known as the alpha male and alpha female, get special privileges, like breeding rights and first dibs at dinner.

Similarly, when dogs live in groups, they often display deference to an alpha figure. The alpha dog will commonly eat before the others and be the first to lead the others out of a room, for instance. Some alpha dogs are laid back about such rules, while others stick to them more faithfully. If you're a careful observer, you should be able to determine after a short time which is the alpha dog among a group.

What's also interesting is how the hierarchy is determined. Researchers believe dogs do this several ways. For instance, a dog breaking eye contact with another dog's stare shows subservience, while placing a paw on another dog's neck or shoulder shows dominance.

In this way, experts maintain, determining this power hierarchy often has more to do with personality than physical prowess. This is why you'll often see a small dog as the alpha figure, even when it's over a much larger dog. But this isn't always the case, either. In fact, sometimes, one dog will be alpha while the group is indoors, while another takes that role while the group is outdoors.

Positions aren't permanent, either. They change in the hierarchy over time, which could be good news if you need to establish how you rank in this pack.

So, what should you do when your dog thinks its dominant over you?

Showing Your Dog Who's Alpha: Do's and Don'ts

If you have multiple dogs, pay attention to which dog naturally becomes the alpha, and then treat it as such. For instance, it may mean feeding the alpha dog first, giving treats and toys to it first, and even petting it first. Although this may feel like an affront to your inner sense of democratic fairness, experts say it's what dogs expect and need.

Many dog trainers believe that dogs view their human masters as members of the "pack" as well. They say that owners should assert themselves as alpha among the group or risk having a dog that thinks it can boss you around. If you give in to every whimpering request for a treat, let it have priority seating on the couch and bed, or even walk around a dog who is in your way rather than ordering it to step aside, you could be encouraging the dog to believe you are subservient to it.

In order to establish the human master as pack leader, one controversial tactic that some trainers encourage is the "alpha roll." Based on the idea that a dog sometimes rolls on its back to show submission to an alpha dog, some trainers tell owners to forcibly roll a dog on its back. However, most experts now believe this doesn't help train a dog to think of you as alpha. Plus, it could encourage an already aggressive dog to bite you in self-defense.

Rather that evoking violence, it's better to use gentle discipline. Don't heed to a dog's every plea for a treat. Rather, establish treat-giving as your own decision and always make a dog earn it by obeying a command. If the dog is taking your place in bed or your favorite chair in the living room, make it move for you. And if your dog is standing in your way, command it to step aside.

If you treat your alpha dog with respect, but consistently reinforce yourself as dominant, it will encourage peaceful order in your dog-loving home.

More on
Small Dogs