What is an Alpha Dog?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Alpha is the first letter in the Greek alphabet. When the term alpha dog is used, it refers to the dominant dog, in a pack setting, that is first and most important. The alpha dog is the dog to which other members of the pack are submissive (called the beta dogs), and most pack animals related to dogs like wolves and coyotes have both an alpha male and female.

Alpha dog showing dominance.
Alpha dog showing dominance.

The alpha dog must rule with an iron fist (or paw) and is accorded first rights in breeding with females and in eating. Both male and female alpha dogs exude confidence, maintaining control through body position, facial expression, and the occasional nip or snarl at beta members of the pack. Understanding the instinctual pack animal organization is essential in helping dogs in homes receive the training they need. Without the presence of other animals, a single dog in a family home is likely to believe he or she is the alpha dog. The dog has to be convinced otherwise by the “people pack” or else the dog is likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

An alpha dog might force its owner to follow it at the dog's pace.
An alpha dog might force its owner to follow it at the dog's pace.

Training dogs focuses on placing an adult in the home in the alpha dog position, and making the dog subservient to the wishes of the human. This can be done, especially when humans are able to calmly, consistently and quietly apply discipline and positive reinforcement as needed. But people must first understand when they get a dog, that they must become an alpha dog or lose control over their animal.

An alpha dog may bite, snarl, and refuse to follow commands.
An alpha dog may bite, snarl, and refuse to follow commands.

When a dog in the home remains the alpha dog, undesirable behaviors may emerge. The dog will not follow commands, may bite, snarl, dangerously guard its food, and will refuse to be walked by an owner. With the last, an alpha dog usually walks its owner, not coming to heel when requested, but hurrying the owner along at its own pace. Not all characteristics of the alpha dog are bad ones. Alpha dogs are often quite smart animals, and in natural wild dog settings, they would be leaders. In a family setting they must be convinced that they are not dominant.

Because dogs are descended from wolves, they have an instinct to determine an alpha dog.
Because dogs are descended from wolves, they have an instinct to determine an alpha dog.

Humans have the advantage when appropriate training is applied, since one characteristic of the alpha dog is that it is frequently the strongest member of its pack. Unless you happen to be raising a very large dog, you will generally be larger than your dog, and size can be a dominating factor. Young children may have much more difficulty controlling a dog with alpha characteristics because they may be similarly sized to the dog.

In addition to training, many male alpha dogs are greatly assisted by undergoing neutering. This cuts down on testosterone levels and the dog’s natural instinct to breed and “mark” territory. Most neutered dogs are less aggressive and more submissive. For best benefit, the dog should be neutered in its first year of life.

We also use the term alpha dog or alpha male to describe males in our society who seem to have the most confident characteristics, may be wealthy and are definitely considered handsome. Another related expression is “top dog.” There have even been some significant studies of late that suggest that human females, when ovulating, are most likely to be attracted to alpha males, those who are younger, are in good physical shape and would potentially produce the strongest and healthiest children.

Actually sharing a few characteristics of pack behavior with dogs makes humans a natural match to coexist with dogs. The key is establishing a human alpha dog so that you are not your dog’s beta dog, but the prime member of the pack.

During ovulation, women are more likely to be attracted to visual alpha male characteristics in men.
During ovulation, women are more likely to be attracted to visual alpha male characteristics in men.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


My dad and I had a lot of problems with our large alpha dog. She was the only dog we had, and she had decided that she should rule the land.

She would bite us, and even though she was being playful, there was a persistence about her technique that went beyond mere puppy joy. She soon began trying to hump our legs, and we struggled to knock her off of us, because she was very powerful. I've heard that when dogs do this, they are asserting their dominance, and I think that's when we realized that we had to take back control.

We took her to obedience classes, and the difference in her behavior after just a few classes was amazing. The trainer taught us how to take control, and the methods she used were so simple yet effective.


@orangey03 – I have four dogs, and for many years, my Doberman was the alpha dog. However, she is getting old, and I think she has realized that she can't do it forever. It could also be that she is getting too tired and sore to keep everyone in their place.

I have watched as she slowly let my pit bull take over as alpha dog. She knows that he is the strongest in the pack, and he is fit to defend our yard against any intruders.

It was a curious thing to see her turn and walk away when a couple of strange dogs came into the yard the first time. My pit bull chased them off, and my Doberman seemed totally detached from the situation.

My Doberman suffers from arthritis and has to be on medication for it. She spends more time in the house than outdoors, and I think that she is actually relieved to be handing over her position of dominance to another dog.


What happens when an alpha dog gets too old to do the things that a pack leader should? Does he choose which dog should take over his position, or does he just struggle along to the very end?


@anon42820 – They will fight. In my experience, the feud never really ends.

I have two female Weimaraners, and I introduced the second puppy when the other dog was a year old. She instantly hated the puppy, and she bullied it until it outgrew her.

Now, the younger dog constantly bullies her, and they get into fights over everything from toys to me. I don't think they will ever resolve the issue of who is alpha female.


@anon262195: That is so wrong. Pack leaders are constantly defending their position, just like dogs. The only reason you see dogs flip flop is because you are around them more. In reality, dogs don't give up their alpha status easily. If they do, they weren't alpha to start with.

Once again, dogs living together will develop a hierarchy amongst themselves but you should always be alpha.


@anon262741: No, there can only be one alpha. Usually, if you have a male and a female, the female will assume the role. Realistically, you should be the alpha.


Is it possible for there to be more than one alpha male or female in a dog pack?


It turns out that dogs, unlike wolves, don't have a clear alpha/beta distinction. They are constantly renegotiating status. This is helped by the fact that dogs don't seem to know how big they are -- a huge dog will frequently act submissive to a tiny but aggressive dog.


Can an alpha female Great Dane that is already seven years old be a problem?


Mugs, rather than keeping them separated, let them fight. Due to strength/size factors, the pug will most likely come out on top of the pom, and once the pom realizes this, over time it will submit.


what happens when the two alpha dogs are next to each other?


I have an alpha male and beta male in my house.

Girlfriend brings her alpha male (dachshund) to house and he marks his territory.

How do I stop this.


Let them fight it out amongst themselves. One will emerge alpha. My money would be on the three year old.


I have two female dogs who are obviously alpha and they hate each other and I have to keep them separated. One is a 12 year old pom mix who is spayed and the other is a 3 year old pug female who is not spayed yet. They lived together for about 1 year and then all of a sudden decided they hated each other. What can I do?

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