Alpha Dog: Not a leader, but THE leader

“The alpha (capital letter Α, lower case α, Greek αλφα, is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The capital letter Α is equal to the Latin letter A. α` is the Greek number for 1.”

In the canine world, the term ‘alpha’ has long been used by us humans for the leader(s) of a pack. Especially in wolf literature and studies, alphas were spoken of as the leaders of the pack. As more, different and new insights emerged from studies on wolves, people abandoned this term. In regard to wolves, which often live in a family structure, they are now referred to as leading parent animals. However, the animal world is very dynamic and knowledge from wildlife research is (and probably will always be) incomplete. Some of the reasons for this are that the world of wild animals, and Nature in general, is largely outside of our vision range and consciousness. In addition, the survival instinct of wild animals creates an unpredictable factor in their behavior, especially when the behavior must be adapted to unnatural causes of human origin. And the latter is very often the case. What can we learn from this? In the dynamic world of living wild creatures where changes take place much more frequently than they previously would, we cannot give a black and white, conclusive and long-lasting description of wild species’ behavior. For that reason, a realistic, flexible and sharp mindset is needed in regard to the behavior of wild animals and the early recognition of changes that have, or may have, an impact. Anything but simple and by no means possible for everyone.

Back to the term ‘alpha’ in dogs. The behavior of dogs can be studied better and more completely, because this usually involves situations where dogs and people share a life together. For me personally, the behavior of natural (primitive) dogs is the most interesting. It should come as no surprise: Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) are natural primitive dogs. In fact, there are few to no other dogs that live and work in packs close to, and in Nature, with a task they perform for (and partly with) humans: protecting livestock. The countless LGD packs that are at work all over the world and the many LGD packs I have interacted with all have lead animals, but not all of them have alpha’s. The term alpha in the world of working LGDs is the term I use, which distinguishes in one word THE leader from a leader. These alphas are not numerous. Pack leaders are more numerous. In this respect, it is not so different as among people: there are many leaders, but not many true leaders. No doubt it is no different among wolves. 

I find alphas in working LGD populations a great pleasure to experience and especially to live and work with. These leaders are capable of raising the pack to a very high level. Their presence makes insecure animals more confident, provides peace, stability, calmness and a feeling of safety. They are excellent in distinguishing the difference of individual characters and how to deal with them. They are very easy to get along with their own people, provided those people are on the right frequency. They don't ‘hump’ one’s leg, don't pee on your shoes, don't test you with dominant expressions such as raising a lip or growling. They don't need it, provided their people are worthy co-leaders with whom they can work together well. Being a worthy human co-leader is not for everyone and, for a large part, cannot be learned. It is a way of being, who or what you are, not something you can become through a course or training. In the absence of capable human co-leader, alphas will develop a less close relationship with ‘their’ people but can still function without a problem in such situations. As long as there is no unjust, ignorant and blunt handling and approach by ‘their’ humans.

These dogs are clearly more intelligent and wiser than others of their kind and that already shows at a very young age. In the four litters that we ‘bred ourselves’, a total of 25 puppies, one alpha was born. This young man has often amazed us with his intelligence, wisdom and behavior from the moment his eyes opened. He ended unnecessary quarrels without violence solely through his posture, overcame moments of fear very fast, so that calmness in the rest of the litter always quickly returned. Always and without hesitation he showed respect to the older dogs us and to unknown human visitors. As he got older, he also showed that he could be hard yet fair towards a more hard-headed same age companion. One simply needs a different approach than the other. His father, also a true alpha, was fond of his son. Never seeing him as a competitor, he looked at him with a kind of look he didn't give any other dog and left junior-level leadership to his son without any issues.

These alphas put pain and suffering aside without hesitation for their pack-mates and for the necessity to act, protect, and maintain peace and stability. It is not always easy to see if such dogs are suffering from something. And if it is clear that there is something wrong with them, but a pack member, herd animal or ‘their’ human has worries or stress energy due to that, then these types of dogs without any doubt spend their energy on that, sacrificing themselves, to have stability and peace return. They can actually do everything better than others: dealing with pain & stress, give & take, share & claim, be hard & tender, forgive & condemn, you name it. These dogs are so special yet not so numerous that they deserve and receive the term ‘alpha’ from me. They are incredibly valuable now and in the future: an ultimate basis for offspring and unrelated young animals growing up. The stable factor during every situation and event. The Teacher, The Counselor, THE Leader: The Alpha.