The Truth About "Alpha Dogs"

Alpha Dog and Handler
Schweet Entertainment / Tim Kasiewiczv
A Special Forces troop readies his dog for a terrorist apprehension and explosives search drill at Vohne Liche Kennels.

One of the main problems with using punishment — a rattling can, a raised voice, a choke chain — to train any dog, is that it reinforces the punisher’s behavior, not the dog’s. When a handler uses punishment, the problematic behavior stops, but only temporarily. Over time the dog’s tolerance for the punishment builds, and he becomes tougher and more resistant to that same punishment. In order to elicit the same behavior, the handler has to increase the punishment. Punishment also inhibits unwanted behavior without replacing it with an acceptable alternative; this can result in the unwanted behavior reappearing later, or in another unwanted behavior taking its place.

The notion of a handler or trainer being the “alpha dog” in the relationship is also an area of concern for me. Licklider believes that a dog needs to have a strong desire to be with his handler, and that he needs to see that human as the “pack leader.” For this to occur, the handler must become the dominant personality, or the alpha dog, in the relationship. In this situation, failure to dominate a dog can cause problems for the handler — and for the dog. In the series premiere of Alpha Dogs, a training situation ended with a dog aggressively biting his handler; the dog was overwhelmed by the chaos and the sound of gunfire, and the result was that he turned on the handler. There is no scientific evidence to support the notion of the need for an alpha dog in a handler-canine relationship. Instead, asking a handler to dominate a dog can push that dog out of his comfort zone and result in the type of redirected aggression that was displayed in that first episode.

The Dangers of Shock Collars

Another controversial aspect of the Vohne Liche Kennels approach to training is the use of shock collars. I asked Licklider about this particular training approach; he told me that he is hesitant to use shock collars as a training tool, and that he has never used them on his own dogs, but that there is a demand for them from the handlers and agencies he deals with. Licklider believes that if he didn’t include shock collars in his training, his customers would find the training elsewhere after graduating from his program, often from unprofessional sources. “I couldn’t stick my head in the sand,” he told me. “If people were going to use them, it was my responsibility to teach them to use it correctly.”

Alpha Dog at Hurdle
Schweet Entertainment / Tim Kasiewicz
A soldier coaches his dog over hurdles during training at the Vohne Liche obstacle course.

Although shock collars are a powerful tool, they can have serious repercussions for dogs and handlers. Dogs trained using shock collars are at higher risk of developing negative associations with people or places, increased anxiety and avoidance behaviors. According to Steve White, a police sergeant canine trainer in Seattle, a trainer has to have “ice water in their veins” in order to use a shock collar correctly. By this he means that a handler can never administer a shock out of frustration or heightened emotions, which is a hard skill to teach someone. If shock is administered by an emotional handler, the dog learns to associate that emotional state with adverse consequences.

Positive Reinforcement Works — Even for Working Dogs

Punishment-based training isn’t the only option for police and military dogs. It is entirely possible to use positive reinforcement to train these highly skilled canines. Steve White went to the same military dog training school as Licklider, but he told me that his methods have changed over the years. For White, being a good handler is not about being alpha and ruling over your dog with an iron fist. It’s about instilling discipline and creating a relationship with your dog. White likens training to turning your dog into a disciple by making yourself worth following. This means choosing a training approach that makes the handler more interesting to a dog than the environment around them. Rather than pushing the dog around, a successful handler develops a relationship with his dog, who views him as a partner.


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