My husband, Chris, is clearly the alpha dog in our pack of Border Collies. He takes on this role naturally and the dogs don’t have a problem with it. Each acknowledges his status as leader; acknowledges and accepts it as the normal course of things.
It is vital in a pack to have an alpha; one who keeps the group strong and in order. Chris demands obedience from the dogs, but only after demonstrating how to obey.
When they go out to work stock, the dog waits on Chris to go through the gate first; then walks beside or slightly behind on the approach to the stock. But what appears to be submission is actually respect; at a command the dog is off on his outrun and the fun commences.
A Border Collie exists to work stock.
Working stock is a partnership. Chris demands compliance to his commands in the field, but will allow the dog to dictate the flow if he demonstrates a sense for the task on hand. Chris celebrates the intelligence of the breed by allowing the dog to work out some situations by himself. What an awe-inspiring sight to watch dog and handler move the sheep in a choreographed manner across the field.
Watch Chris in the pasture with the dogs scampering around, totally ignoring the sheep scattered in the field. Then, with a shrill whistle, all the dogs drop to the ground. The dog whose command Chris uses next will launch himself from the ground and take off around the scattered flock. The other dogs stay where they are.
If you look closely, you can see their bodies twitch in envy as they watch the chosen dog gather the sheep. The restraint shown here is an indication of the intelligence of the breed. But it also shows the deference shown to the alpha leader; a deference that extends back to their wild ancestors.
Off the field, the lines are more ambiguous. Chris keeps a ready supply of balls for one of the pack’s favorite games. He is still alpha, even in play, but here you can start to see the other dynamics of the pack.
Tweed is second in line of command; although as he gets older and slower, Cooper is beginning to push his boundaries. More and more often he gets to the ball first and brings it back to Chris for another throw. The two younger dogs, both female, stay on the edges of the game, circling and dodging the older dogs. Belle, however, will take advantage of a moment of distraction to grab the ball and take off. She brings it right to Chris to throw, even though she knows she will probably not touch it again.
I am a recipient of the pack’s respect. I think I’m looked at as more like the alpha dog’s favorite; tolerantly obeyed because it makes the top guy happy. When I play with them, however, the ball is never brought right back. I have to follow the ball holder around a little before he will drop it. Just a small act of defiance; enough to show that they know who I am and my place in the pack.
Who is alpha in your pack? Tell me about your dogs in the comments.