Alpha Or Not
In a previous column I wrote in broader terms about: "Selecting A Super Pup". Now I would like to address the suggestion often made by trainers and breeders that you should pick the most assertive pup in the litter often known correctly or not as the alpha dog. Those of you who have been reading this column might remember that I suggested after picking the right type, breed, breeder and litter that you should pick to the middle of the litter in both size and temperament. Based upon forty years experience training dogs of all types, I firmly stand by my recommendation. The so called alpha dog may be a good choice for the professional or experienced handler, especially if he or she wishes to compete the. dog, but for the novice owner looking for a companion and easily trained gun dog the alpha may be more than bargained for, especially if it is to live in the house and be a member of the family.
What is an alpha dog? Simply put it is the dog that if it were in the wild would be the most assertive and likely to dominate. It would become so by pure physical power and mental accuity. The label is often wrongly given to any dog that might challenge you or your family members when put into a human social group or pack. Virtually all dogs will do that because it is their nature to do so. In the wild there would be ongoing challenges by young and new pack members. The alpha would be the one who wins those challenges. When you bring a new pup home it is important to remember that what may be acceptable in a wild canine pack is not always acceptable in a human social group, and if you are to be successful, early obedience training, crate breaking and sometimes the alpha roll or dominant down are all ways to show the dog its place in this new pack. Correctly and consistently applied they will result in a well-mannered dog that will know its place, and not be one that constantly challenges or develops serious behavior problems. A true alpha dog may be more than most owners can develop into an acceptable companion.
In the field the challenges faced in training a true alpha dog may also be greater than the novice owner wants or is able to handle. Most owners want a dog who with a modicum of training can be taken afield and comfortably hunted. After all, hunting for most of us is about recreation, fun and relaxation. Chasing a four-legged partner all day that is on the verge of being out of control, or is out of control is rightly not seen as fun. Professionals who are equipped to train and handle such a dog are sometimes like the coach who was an all-pro, and cannot understand why his players aren't all performing to his personal level. They simply aren't capable of it. While I have often uttered the phrase that it (dog training) is not rocket science, years of experience have taught me that for some it can be overwhelming. Training owners to handle their dogs is and always has been a greater challenge than training their dogs.
While I have trained for the public for a long time, I am at heart a grouse hunter who enjoys sensitive, biddable dogs for my own companion gun dogs. I am capable of handling an alpha dog, but I prefer one that is more biddable, easy to train and a pleasure to hunt with all day. I do not want my personal days afield to be spent handling hard-to-handle dogs. Friends and clients who hunt with me often comment at the end of the day that I did not use my collar or whistle much. My response is that if you have a sensible dog that has been properly trained, you should not need to be handling dogs while you hunt. In grouse woods I know where my dogs are by sight or bell sound most of the time. When I don't, I know that they know and care where I am, and will do the right thing.
Unless you are an experienced trainer/handler or into competition, you might want to reconsider buying the true alpha pup in the litter. You could save yourself some very unpleasant experiences at home and in the field. Overly assertive pups may turn into adults that intimidate, bite or even attack family members. They need not be 'mean' to do so, just dominant individuals in the hands of inexperienced handlers. Acceptable behavior in a human social group is not the same as acceptable behavior in a wild pack. Note the differences in how dogs interact with humans vs other dogs. A more cooperative pup should be easier to train, and should make a more pleasant companion.