The Alpha Dog

photograph by Chantal Hirsch

     There is considerable confusion when discussing “alpha” behavior.  Commonly, most assume that the alpha dog will be aggressive, intolerant, and very dominant.  Nothing could be further from the truth in terms of pack ordering.  The Malamute is very dependent on pack ordering.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, pack ordering gives your Mal a sense of identity and confidence.  I have also mentioned that as far as your home pack (family), your Malamute can never be allowed to think it is the alpha.  That is your role…period and you achieve this by building a strong bond with your Malamute so that it looks to you for leadership rather than finding it necessary to take over.

     In the company of other dogs, such as at a dog park, people mistakenly claim that the most aggressive dogs (you know, the ones that pick fights, humps everything, bark constantly…) are alphas and can’t help themselves.  This is simply not true.  Those types of dogs are poorly socialized, anxious, and lack confidence (sounds like the Friday night bar scene).  Unfortunately, the alpha phrase is used far too often to describe their inappropriate behavior.

     So what is an “alpha”?  In the pack hierarchy, the alpha dog describes the male and female leaders of the pack.  It does not necessarily mean the oldest dogs nor the strongest.  Alphas are leaders.  They are the CEO’s of the pack.  They delegate jobs to the rest of the pack.

     The true nature of an alpha dog is that it is calm, quiet (generally), and very confident.  It rarely engages in fighting.  Hardly the picture one has about the alpha dog.  Of course, there are differences in alpha behavior between dogs and wolves as dogs have been in close human contact for nearly 30,000 years.  Still, basic behaviors remain.

    There are definitive differences between an alpha dog and a dominating aggressive dog.  In situations such as a dog park, the dominant dog will typically mark everything in sight, try to hump other dogs, snap and bite, fight over possession of sticks, food, water…etc. and often, will focus on a single dog to pick on.  Alphas, on the other hand, go about their business playing, greeting humans, and generally, behaving themselves.  It is rare for an alpha dog to create problems.  If it does happen it is usually because they were challenged by an aggressive dog attempting to dominate it.  Alphas will generally issue a warning or two that the dog is out of line.  If the dog persists, a quick altercation can occur.  Being an alpha dog does not necessarily mean they will win a fight.  Often, alphas get hurt because of the aggressive nature of the attacker.  This varies slightly with Malamutes.  Being a primal breed with less behavior restrictions, alpha Malamutes back up their position with sheer power.  Most dogs in the dog park will show respect simply based on the Malamutes size and confidence although there are studies that show that dogs do not really consider size a factor when antagonizing other dogs.  While that may have some validity, I have seen one of my alpha male Malamutes stop a fight by simply emitting an alpha growl.

     What is an alpha growl?  I searched the internet for a good description and didn’t really find one.  Those who have raised Malamutes are familiar with it.  When faced with escalating aggression, the alpha Malamute will show its teeth, hunch down with its shackles raised and emit a loud, deep gurgling growl (for lack of better terms).  Once you have heard it, you won’t forget it.  My 165 lb. male Malamute stopped a charging 100 lb. Rottweiler by just such a growl.  I was more shocked than the charging dog.  After the Rottweiler retreated, my Mal turned his head back at me, licked his lips, showed his big Mal smile, and we continued our walk as though nothing had happened.  That is how an alpha Malamute acts when challenged.

     It is unfortunate for most Malamute owners that many uneducated dog-owners think it’s okay to let their poorly behaved, Napoleonic, yap dogs try and bully our precious fur angels (sorry about that but I love my big girl).  “Oh he’s just being an alpha,” they claim. “Well no he isn’t and he’s about to get his head snapped off by a very patient real alpha who is way bigger than your emotionally unstable toy poodle” (well that’s what we want to say).  In reality, it’s better to call it a day and avoid the conflict altogether.  Too many Malamute owners dig in, thinking that their big Malamute can easily handle the other dog.  I don’t think anyone wants to see their dog get hurt in a fight and as big as they are, Malamutes get injured in dogfights often.  Your Malamute looks to you for protection.  That’s your responsibility as the alpha of its family pack and if you don’t look out for it, it may have no other option than to fight.  Don’t risk it.  Leave the park.  If the same dog continues to be aggressive to your dog and others, confront the owner and let them know if they do not deal with their dog’s behavior, you will report them to the city parks dept.

     Dogs recognize calm, assertive energy and they respect it.  That is what gives alphas their authority.  In the dogs modern environment where it is placed into a range of environments that have other dogs (dog parks, dog day care, etc.) pack ordering happens immediately (usually through a bit of rough play).  Although your Malamute may not be the alpha at home, situations such as dog park encounters are real pack situations albeit temporary.  I have not found too much on this subject so I will go on my observations.  At group encounters, dogs will organize as a pack, each dog occupying a place in the pack according to its temperament.  An alpha will emerge as will the betas, all the way down to the omegas.  This will occur every time dogs get together.  With domesticated dogs, pack hierarchies seem to be more fluid than those found in wild wolf packs.  Does this mean that if your Malamute occupies the alpha position one day, it will be the alpha next week?  I am not sure.  I think that it’s likely that if most of the dogs at the park have encountered each other before, previous roles may automatically fall into place.  In the case where two or more alphas are present, one will emerge naturally, the others delegated to the beta roles (alphas in waiting).  How much of this is truly important at the dog park or other group encounters is still uncertain, but in the case of your Malamute, social ordering is very important

     So there it is.  There is a world of difference between an “alpha” dog and a dominant, aggressive dog.  They are not the same thing.  This is where educating yourself on how your dog communicates is so very important.  Don’t think that it will sort it out on its own.  Even though Malamutes are big, powerful dogs, anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to raise one will tell you they are big, furry kids and they need you, the pack leader, to have their back.

     Please share your comments, experience, and advice.

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