Taking The Lead
by Terry Ryan
Terry Ryan has been an obedience instructor since 1968.  She exhibits in obedience, conformation and tracking, teaches canine behavior at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, and will be teaching a CGC program in Australia and Japan.
No matter the task in dog training, your success can be increased by developing an appropriate relationship between trainer and dog.  Helping your dog understand his or her position in your social hierarchy is an important component to dog training.  If your dog is not given appropriate guidance and doesn't perceive you as an effective leader, the dog may become confused or even try to take over the leadership role.

Consider this metaphor for communication between people and dogs, developed by William Campbell.  Compare your dog's life to a lifelong airplane trip----totally dependent on the pilot and crew for necessities, including the need to feel safe.  If the pilot appears incompetent and the crew isn't sure about what's going on, the passenger starts squirming with anxiety as the frustration of being unable to control the situation takes its toll.  If the passenger tries to take control, they will be subdued physically or scolded, which only heightens the frustration.  This situation can be even more frustrating if the crew can't speak the passenger's language and communicates the wrong ideas.

Communicating our role as competent leaders is paramount to effective obedience training.  How is this best accomplished?  Dogs rely heavily on signals, postures and other body language to get their ideas across to each other.   Keeping this in mind, owners can carefully structure everyday interactions with their dogs to include gestures and displays conveying their position as leader.

APLHAbetize Your Dog
The following program uses leadership messages as a foundation for more specific training.  It will help  promote you to Number One in your dog's eyes, the alpha member of your living group.

Not only effective with the dog who is running for higher office, the ALPHAbetizing concept has given confidence to shy and distrustful dogs by providing a more stable, predictable environment.  The program has proven to be a good head start regime for puppies and has been adapted for use at the South West Guide Dog Foundation.

Be sure your dog is physically fit before you begin the ALPHAbetizing program or any training regime.  There are medical problems that first manifest themselves as behavior or training problems.  Show the program to your veterinarian and get approval before you begin.

ALPHAbetizing should not be used with dominant or aggressive dogs without supervision.  Should you have these problems ask your veterinarian for a referral to an expert in canine behavior management.

To begin, select two or three ideas from the following list.  If some of the program components aren't compatible with your lifestyle, it won't hurt to skip over those.  As the first changes become habits, implement others.

Leaders get the follower's attention.
Encourage eye contact several times a day.  Call Ginger's name and help her look at you by tracing a line with your hand between her face and yours.  You can make your hand more interesting by holding a motivator, something Ginger is excited about, such as a toy or a bit of food.  Even a brief glance should be rewarded with praise and the motivator.  After several days, teach Ginger to play the lottery---sometimes the reward is delivered, sometimes it's not.

Followers depend on the leader.
Food is a primary reinforcer.  Because Spot has to eat to survive, use scheduled meals rather than free choice to demonstrate your dependability and leadership.   If Spot views you as the only source of food, this raises your status.  A full bowl on the floor at all times allows him to be in control.

Leaders eat first. 
If one of your meals coincides with one of Ginger's scheduled meals, make it a point to feed her after you have eaten.  Think about wildlife documentaries.   Which wolf eats first?

Earning praise and treats.  For the time being, don't give Spot attention or treats unless they are earned by obeying a command.  As an example, if Spot comes to you for attention, tell him to sit before petting him.  This should not result in less attention for Spot.  Give him more attention---but on your terms.

Follow the leader.  Don't allow Ginger to charge in and out of territory before you.  At the door of your home or vehicle, or at a fence gate, use a leash or a verbal command to teach her to wait while you go through first, then invite her to follow.

Leaders control territory.  Spot should yield territory to the leader.  If he is lying down in a hallway and you want to pass, gently help him move out of the way with a nudge of your toe instead of stepping over or around him.  A light line attached to Spot's collar is useful to help move him out of the way.   Remove the line if you can't supervise the dog.

Leaders mean what they say.  Give commands only once and help your dog comply promptly.  Don't beg or scream.. Speak in a confident tone.

Leaders are winners.  "Control the games, control the dog," advises J. Rogerson.  Ginger drops her ball at your feet, backs up and barks.  Then you pick up the ball and throw it for her.  Finally, Ginger ends the game by taking the ball behind the couch.  Ginger is giving the commands.   Controlling the game yourself  enhances your leadership.  You should initiate the game, decide when to end the game and put the ball out of Ginger's reach until next time.  Don't play less, play more---but on your terms.


Who gets the best resting place?  Dogs belong with people, but one way to convey leadership is to possess the choice resting places.  Sleeping together in the bed makes you seem like a letter mate, an equal.  Until ALPHAbetizing is complete, your dog may sleep in your bedroom at night, but not on your bed.

Muzzle control is a naturally dominant gesture.  As a part of your regular petting and attention, put your hand over the top of your dog's muzzle and gently hold it there for a few seconds.  If your dog mouths your hand, discontinue this point until later in the program or use a taste deterrent (available at pet shops) on your hand.

A follower allows gentle handling.  Teach your dog to stand still for daily grooming.  Consider using "peanut butter therapy" --- a tiny smear of peanut butter on a washable vertical surface such as the refrigerator door will distract, reward and control the dog's head while you go over ticklish places.

Teach the appropriate behavior.  "Train, don't complain," says J. Godsil.  All too frequently owners concentrate on stopping inappropriate actions, but forget to teach their dogs an acceptable behavior for the same situation.   Decide on an appropriate behavior and train your dog.  If you need help, check with your veterinarian for a dog obedience class instructor who is knowledgeable in motivational training methods.

Down is a subordinate position.  Once Spot begins to respond to basic obedience commands, have him hold one 20-minute down-stay per day.  Enforce it but also praise and reward him while he's being good.

A belly rub promotes a natural acceptance posture.  When Ginger understands the down command, invite her over for a once-a-day belly rub.  Show her how enjoyable this gesture of subordination can be.  Command "down" and start rubbing until she relaxes and goes belly-up.
Dogs thrive in the security of a predictable environment.  The most important element of a dog's environment should be the owner.  ALPHAbetizing encourages owners to maximize the effectiveness of time spent with their dogs.


Terry Ryan has been an obedience instructor since 1968.  She exhibits in obedience, conformation and tracking, teaches canine behavior at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, and will be teaching a CGC program in Australia and Japan.

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