My Infant Grandson was “Alpha” and “Dominant” Recently - We Took Care of That Promptly

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

It is my utmost hope that everyone reading this article understands that the title of this article is tongue-in-cheek. Let me explain what inspired me to title an article this way.

I recently spent a number of days with my 10-month-old grandson. Anyone who has spent time around 10-month-olds knows they can certainly be cranky from time to time. They expect their needs to be met 100% of the time - or else! We might even (foolishly) compare this primal need of very young children to dogs being “alpha” or “dominant”.

“Very young children and dogs have a lot in common. Their needs are quite primal…”

“Alpha” and “dominant” are terms applied to dog training and dog behavior that date back almost 50 years to research that was flawed. The basic concept from 1970 was that your family dog was trying to take over your household by wanting to unseat the humans for power and control. Doesn’t this concept seem silly in 2018 when you read it or say it out loud? To read more about the original author of this research and how he recanted his findings, see 3 Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use.

As I was dealing with my grandson’s grumpiness during my recent time with him it made me reflect on how we handle dogs that are incorrectly titled “alpha” or “dominant”. This comparison is legitimate because very young children and dogs have a lot in common. Their needs are quite primal (e.g., food, water, sleep, human interaction) and the cognitive capabilities of 2-year-old children are roughly equivalent to the average adult dog.

Imagine if a very young child (around 2 years old for example) was treated in the same way that some people approach their dogs that are being “alpha” or “dominant” in order to gain “control”. For example:

  • A very young child inappropriately reaching for food would be punished by hitting the child instead of just moving the food away and teaching the child impulse control around food using a caring and proper approach.

  • If a very young child demanded a lot of attention from adults, he or she would be punished with constant removal from the family gathering instead of rewarding the child with positive feedback when appropriate interactions were being attempted by the child.

  • Imagine a very young child that didn’t want to be held being forced to endure this even though he or she was becoming panicky and was too young to understand why someone was doing this to him or her. Instead of forcing the child to comply, a better way would be to slowly introduce the child to the concept of being held while making it a positive experience for the child.

Do you see a common thread? Whether it is young children or dogs, teaching the appropriate behavior with positive rewards is infinitely more effective and less damaging psychologically than using punishment. Punishment can feel good to the punisher sometimes, but research has shown over and over that it provides very short term results with frequent long term, and serious, problems.

I am constantly amazed how many people think it is almost heroic to physically punish a dog…or even a human child for that matter. Hitting dogs and children takes no skill or intelligence and isn’t effective in the long run.

This is not an article about teaching children. It’s an article about the absurdity of hitting and manhandling dogs that are doing nothing more than being dogs. Just like skilled and capable human parents, the best dog owners use intellect, knowledge and positive reinforcement in shaping their dog’s behaviors - thus avoiding longer-term problems. What are some of those longer-term problems?

Fear of the owner
Lack of confidence
Fear of people in general

Neither your dogs, nor your young children, are trying to take over your household. They just need to be taught appropriate behaviors in a way that doesn’t scare or hurt them.

For further reading, see Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children.