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Lessons From a Real Groomer: Be The Alpha of Your Pack

Updated on December 8, 2022
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Mrs. Obvious is a mother, wife, and mentor. She used to own her own groom shop called Puppy Love and was self-employed for nine years.

A Pack of Four Golden Retreivers

The golden girls. These four live together and are a real "pack".
The golden girls. These four live together and are a real "pack".

Who's The Boss?

Our dogs are the perfect companions and often our best friends. They are in tune with our emotions, they love unconditionally, they worry about us when we are gone and they celebrate our return. They eat the same food every day without complaining and they treat us like a god.

If you agreed with everything I said above except your pet doesn't treat you like a god, then there may be a problem. Lets discuss a little dog psychology. Believe it or not, even though our dogs are the best type of companion other than a human, you cannot treat them like a human when communicating with them! Your pet dog is and always will be a dog; not a human. And he will love and respect you more if you treat him like a dog, because that's the form of communication he understands.

Lets do a little role reversal. Let's say the dog barks at you to fetch the paper and squeals when asking you to pee outside, but you don't understand his barking and squealing commands. Doesn't this sound foreign and crazy? Wouldn't you feel awkward and confused having the dog trying to give you commands because he wants to treat you the same as himself? It's the same when you superimpose human qualities and behaviors on your dog. Your dog is not the same as you. When you expect a dog to know and understand what you want, without communicating in a way he can understand, you are in denial of how dogs function psychologically.

You Must Be the Alpha Dog

A dog's instinct is to live within a pack with a clear leader who gives orders. Each dog in the pack has a place, as in a hierarchy, or a chain of command like in the military. It is important for the dogs psyche that this structure exists or the dog will feel and act out of place, uncontrolled, wild, try to dominate you with biting or growling, be anxious, nervous and protective of you against other people or animals. It is essential that you are the respected pack leader, the alpha. It's not enough to say you are the alpha, you have to act it and be it. By that I mean that the dog doesn't challenge you, ignore your orders, beg, dominate you, or destroy your things. A dog who feels they are a part of a pack with you as the alpha, is secure, happy and confident. He listens to and obeys the leader without question. He remains calm in new situations and knows his leader will be in control so he doesn’t have to panic or overreact.

Becoming the alpha comes naturally to some and can be harder for others. Working with a good trainer can help you develop some alpha skills, and nowadays there are great videos online to help teach these skills too. I really like a guy known as "The Dog Daddy". He posts videos to TicTok and also to Facebook and YouTube. He travels the world helping people tame their aggressive, out of control dogs, saving them from having to be euthanized. There is a bit of controversy about his style, but if you watch, he is never hurting the dog, and they learn from him really fast. I'll put a link to his page below.

The Mommy Syndrome - A Human's Confusing Behavior

Being the alpha should apply no matter what situation you and your dog are in. But the situation we will focus on is grooming. If you are trying to groom your dog and you are not the alpha you will end up very frustrated. Dogs whose behavior is naughty when "Mommy" tries to groom them are revealing a problem I call the "Mommy Syndrome".

Most "Mommies" are afraid to be the boss; to give a sharp, quick, attention getting correction to bad behavior. Instead, they coo and whine and say things like "oh, my pooor baaby" and "mommy won't hurt you" and "it's all right, goood girl". If your dog wasn't sitting like a perfect angel and allowing you to do to it whatever you wanted, then you have just reinforced negative behavior! Since dogs are in tune with us on an emotional level, if you are comforting them with your voice for a bad behavior, then you must be pleased with the bad behavior and feel guilty for asking the dog to do something it doesn't want to do. You are being a "Mommy" and not an alpha.

You shouldn't be asking the dog's permission to groom it. If you are the boss, you don't need his permission, you should be able to do anything to the dog with very little resistance. In a pack, the alpha dog would give a sharp warning for bad behavior such as growling or nipping the out of control dog. For you, a light smack on the butt, or a poke in the neck or ribs with two fingers will mimic a nip of a dog's teeth and in dog language communicate that the behavior is undesirable. Make a negative sounding noise like "enngh" to reinforce your point. Use your calm, encouraging, soothing tone of voice for the moments when your dog is sitting still, obeying your directions, standing when asked, etc. This is reinforcing the good, desired behavior. Your kind tone of voice IS the reward here. If you are consistent with this your dog will respond; sometimes immediately and sometimes over a few sessions. It's the only thing that is going to work if your dog is willfully disobeying, or worse yet, not allowing you to groom him by screaming or biting at you.

How Does My Groomer Make it Look so Easy?

One reason the Mommy Syndrome that is happening at home doesn't come into play at a groom shop is the intimidation factor when outside of his comfort zone. Your dog has been treated like a human at home and may be confused about his place, but in the shop we treat dogs like dogs. We carry ourselves as the alpha of the grooming shop "pack". Most dogs when presented with an alpha in a pack they are not familiar with will fall into a lower rank with no problem.

Secondly, we never give mixed messages with our voices regarding their behavior. I have no problem telling your dog "no" and exercising my rights as alpha in the groom shop pack. I do that gently and naturally, with respect for the animal. Not out of anger or frustration, but with confidence and calm. As the dog responds with the appropriate and/or submissive behavior I back off and give the praise he earned for learning to operate in my pack.

Once I have the dog's respect, his trust is quick to follow. This is the beginning of a great relationship based on inter-species respect for each other. At the end of every groom is the time I give the dog extra encouragement and use my excited voice to let him know that we are done and I appreciated his obedience. Hugs and kisses are my favorite part of working with animals and this is the appropriate time to have a little fun once all the work is done.

If you try exerting yourself as the authority and not giving mixed messages with your voice, you will find that you can become the alpha of your pack, and you will get a lot more respect and cooperation from your dog. If things just aren't clicking, or you find that you need the expertise of a trainer, then by all means, call in the reinforcements. But if you try it, you'll like being the "leader of the pack".

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2009 Willow Mattox


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