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When you hear the term “alpha male,” what do you think of? You probably see some loud, powerful, overbearing man in a position of leadership — a CEO, professional athlete, or drill sergeant.

These images all tend toward negative stereotypes about masculinity: insensitive, loud, opinionated, and pushy. An alpha male resolves conflict by escalating it and then winning in combat, whether actual or symbolic.

So when people use the expression “alpha” in the dog world, they tend to think of the same negative images, seeing the alpha as the aggressive leader who will attack and kill any challengers. But that’s never what the term meant in the dog world. The alpha is just the dog (or mating pair) leading the pack.

To put it in perspective, here’s one example of an extremely alpha male: Gandhi.

That may seem surprising. After all, wasn’t Gandhi a pacifist, determined to achieve his goals through peaceful resistance instead of armed conflict? He never gave the impression of being physically strong and was never loud or bossy. Nobody could seem farther from being the classic alpha male, right?

And yet Gandhi led his fellow Indians into a revolution that took on one of the world’s most formidable empires, and they won, becoming an independent nation again.

Gandhi’s secret to being a great leader was his calm, assertive energy — and this is also the key to being a true alpha, whether you’re a dog or a human. A leader cannot lead through fear or intimidation. They may be able to control their followers for a while, but it’s a following created by coercion. Since it’s not based on trust or respect, it will fall apart at the first opportunity.

After all, how many dictators wind up being assassinated by their own military or inner circle?

The difference with humans is that we will follow an unstable leader who uses strong-arm tactics to bully us into control because they often use arguments based on emotion, usually fear of the unknown.

Dogs don’t work like this. If an unstable dog tries to become the alpha, the other dogs will either not follow at all or, if it becomes too extreme, they’ll gang up and drive that dog from their pack without hesitation.

Researchers found a perfect example of a true alpha in the Yellowstone Park wolf pack. He was a male known as M21. He never lost a fight to a rival, but he never killed a rival he defeated. According to Yellowstone’s biological technician Rick McIntyre, one of M21’s favorite things to do was to wrestle and play-fight with the wolf pups. But what he really loved, McIntyre explained, “Was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.”

Of course, the other big difference between human, wolf, and dog alphas is that the canines have always allowed either males or females to assume the leadership role. They don’t decide based on gender. They decide based on energy. It looks like humans are only just catching up to that one.

So the secret to being the alpha is to always have calm, assertive energy to earn your dog’s trust, respect, and loyalty. The only thing that changes is the degree of assertiveness you may have to use. A timid dog requires very little assertiveness provided that you’re calm enough, and it goes up the scale from there. An aggressive dog requires a much more physical correction.

The only dogs I’ve ever had to put into a submission position are those that are trying to be overly dominant themselves. This isn’t a technique that I learned from any trainer or behaviorist, though. I learned it from the dogs themselves. It’s exactly what a mother dog will do to correct her pups when they’re out of line — roll them on their backs and hold them down until they submit. She isn’t trying to intimidate or coerce them, though. She’s making a simple statement of fact: “I’m the one in charge here.”

The secret to being the alpha — the Pack Leader — is to find the right balance between being calm and being assertive and remembering that a true leader will use whatever technique is necessary to maintain control, but always from a place of love.

Stay calm, and let your dogs respect you.

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