There is a lot of misinformation out in the dog world regarding the term dominance and alpha. The true meaning of dominance is a description of status within a stable canine social hierarchy. A dominant canid controls priority access to a range of resources including food, choice sleeping spaces and breed rights. (Barbara Handelman, Canine Behavior page, 84) Since we are not canids and do not smell, act or feel like canids we need to approach our relationships with our dogs with benevolent leadership.
“Leadership is the ability to influence others to perform behaviors that they would not necessarily perform on their own.” (Yin, 2007, p. 415)
A strong human leader shows the dog what behavior is desirable or undesirable by bestowing or withholding resources. (Barbara Handelman, Canine Behavior pg, 85)
Leadership is established when the owner can set clear limits for the dog’s behavior and can effectively communicate the rules by always rewarding correct behaviors as they occur while preventing or immediately removing the rewards for undesirable behaviors, before they are accidentally reinforced. The owners must reward the desired behaviors frequently enough that they become habits. When owners can meet these criteria, their dogs will consider them to be predictable, dependable and trustworthy. (Yin, 2007, p.417)
It’s important to remember that what our dogs practice they get better at. Interrupting undesirable behaviors by using consequences and/or management helps them learn what is acceptable and what is not. In the context of play it’s important to remember there should be interruptions in play, things like pauses, shake offs and role reversals. If anyone is dominating the play or it is getting to wild it’s good to step in and interrupt with a well trained recall or manually catching up your dog. Less is always more with dog play. Too many dogs makes it harder for dogs to read body language from everyone and play tends to be more aroused and definitely harder to manage. One on one is my favorite number for a play date. Size, breeds and age can matter on pairing of the dogs.
Regarding other behaviors, such as fence running and barking, it’s best to interrupt and manage these behaviors. These tend to escalate into very problematic behaviors if allowed to continue. So time-outs, leashing dogs so they are with you or using an incompatible behavior are all methods that are helpful in managing dogs. As you continue to make wise judgments on behalf of your dog, such as a “leave it” when passing a non-social dog, makes you that predictable, trustworthy, dependable leader that your dog will look for guidance from in all situations. You will begin to notice him orienting his head toward you to see what you have to say about things, instead of making his own choices. So continuing to work on developing a better relationship, based on leadership, is a much more effective way to communicate with your dog.