(30) A Tail of Two Dogs: The alpha dog and training

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)


Profile of Tigger


If you have read previous blogs, you know the story of Tigger (Blog 6) and the differences between Molly and Tigger’s training. Their training and animal personalities remind me of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps, I should call their story, A Tail of Two Dogs. Their training contrasts significantly yet both trainers achieved obedience from the dogs.

Front profile of Molly


In the case of Tigger’s pound and stick training, obedience lasted only as long as Tigger feared the individual giving the commands. In Molly’s case, the positive reinforcement method used required patience, positive conditioning, treats, and love. Tigger operated out of fear and Molly operates from a desire for affection (and food).

Reading a paper by a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), Nicole Wilde, Tigger’s training resembled an “old, strong-arm” technique that modeled what observers thought happened in a wolf pack. Observers believed that the alpha wolf (leader of the pack) forced other wolves into compliance through domination. Domination involved the alpha wolf slamming a subordinate wolf to the ground and holding it down with teeth wrapped around the subordinate animal’s throat until the animal gave in.

After years of studying wolves in a research and educational facility in Indiana, a new discovery showed that the leader of the pack did not survive long if he used a “heavy paw” and force with members of his pack. When an alpha did bully, the other males in the pack would eventually overthrow the alpha leader. She commented in her paper, “Leadership Versus Dominance,” that the long-surviving alpha wolves are patient, calm, and “are assertive when necessary, but are not bullies.” She suggested they are wise in their approach to handling other wolves

The pound and stick technique tends to make aggressive dogs more aggressive and only works as long as they fear their owner. When the owner is away, the spouse, children, or caregiver becomes victim to the dog, who ignores commands because the dog has no history of fear with anyone except the owner or trainer. Interestingly, the pound and stick method relied on the domination model to train dogs.

Molly’s trainer taught us about “alphamanship,” taking the leadership position of the pack at home. William William and Tigger playing with a frisbyclearly filled the role of the top dog. I ranked second. Molly ranked third. To establish the order, Molly’s trainer told us three things needed to be controlled. First, we must control the food. Our instructions included feeding Molly twice a day but only allowing her to eat for ten or fifteen minutes. After that, the food bowl is removed. Second, we must control the place she sleeps. Third, we start and stop all playtime and games. Taking command of these three areas asserts the control over her and creates submission to our roles as leaders in the household.

We found similarities between the training methods of our dog with the control of these three elements. Additionally, both trainers insisted we are the first to go in and out of doors with the dog and we must never step over or around the dog—the dog must always heed to us and get out of our way. Of course, with a 130-pound service dog, you couldn’t step over her if you wanted and if she won’t move, you find a detour.

Ms. Wilde offered seven points to developing leadership over your dog in your home.

  1. The Leader Controls the Resources, which is the same concept as the three elements mentioned above.
  2. Put your dog on a learn-to-earn program, offering the dog those things he/she likes in exchange for the behavior you want. With Molly, treats and affection works.
  3. Be clear on whether your dog is permitted to sit on the furniture; if so, the dog may only do so with your invitation.
  4. Control the space, which means the dog is never permitted to block your passage.
  5. Training should be done daily through everyday events with frequent, short obedience sessions.
  6. Handling the dog is important so that the dog becomes familiar with your touch and permits you to pet, massage, and groom him/her.
  7. Good leaders are not bullies. Use praise and rewards to reaffirm positive behavior; be kind and patient with your dog.

Neither William nor I know Ms. Wilde. Our trainer gave us her paper to ensure that Molly remains an obedient service dog. Ms. Wilde maintains a website at www.nicolewilde.com. She is an accomplished writer, trainer, and canine behaviorist. Ms. Wilde maintains an educational blog that may appeal to those with dog obedience issues or who just love dogs (and wolves).

Post your Comments:

How did you establish a leadership role with your dog in your home? Please comment below. 

About the blogger

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her husband, William, and dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.