Feed on

(updated below)

Do you no longer invite friends to dinner because you worry they will learn the truth–that Maximus is the real Top Dog and you are a sorry wimp because he has commandeered the living room couch and carved his name into it with his teeth?

Are you concerned that Brunhilda is vying for the coveted “Alpha” pack position when she takes YOU for a walk, dragging you behind her like a Raggedy Ann doll? 

Do you fret that Brutus is trying to rule the roost by peeing in your bed such that when you look at the yellow stains just right they spell “peon”?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are not alone!

Many of you out there are suffering from Alpha Anxiety, wasting valuable time worrying about how to keep your nefarious canine from pulling rank. Just read this poor dear’s lament.

But, despair not! Relief is just a few paragraphs away.

First the good news. Unlike “death anxiety,” the solution to which any existentialist worth her salt will tell you is death itself, Alpha Anxiety’s cure is not lethal!

On the face of it, it would seem to follow that if the way to conquer death anxiety is to die, then surely the cure for Alpha Anxiety is to become, well, Once-And-For-All Alpha.

Ah, not so fast. That solution is no solution at all. It just leads to ever-greater Alpha Anxiety! You can never be sure that your top doggedness is secure once-and-for-all. You always have to anxiously guard your hard won command. Just when you think you’ve subjugated Beauregard to your supreme authority, the sneaky little stinker finds another way to subvert your right of rulership by, say, sneaking the t-bone off the grill or slipping out of the door ahead of you. There is no end to his craftiness. After all, what else does he have to do at home alone all day but plot his assault on your supremacy?

Now for even better news! Rather than death anxiety, Alpha Anxiety more resembles “appearance anxiety,” fretting about whether or not you look good enough. I know from where I speak. In a previous professional incarnation I taught women studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Women, and young women, in particular, I probably don’t need to tell you, suffer greatly from appearance anxiety. And, now it is on the rise among men and boys. OY!

Just like Alpha Anxiety, appearance anxiety cannot be remedied by transforming yourself into the most beautiful, fittest person in the world because even if you could, and you cannot, stuff happens. You have bad hair days. You gain weight. Your skin breaks out. And, worst of all, you have the bad taste to grow old. 

So every semester, I gave this assignment: Just as an experiment, for one semester, do not read or even glance at Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Glamour, Self, Seventeen or anything like them. Clear your room or apartment of every last vestige of these glossy rags dedicated to ostensibly binding your appearance anxiety–How you too can be a knock-out on $5 a day–all the while cranking it up by telling you to whittle yourself into a size 0. And, no cheating while standing in the check-out line! And definitely do not Tivo America’s Next Top Model

Instead, I told them: Just as an experiment, watch PBS, non-sexist sitcoms (if you can find one) and read only Ms. or The Nation, Mother Jones, Time or Newsweek, The New York Times–anything but the usual suspects that make you feel you are not fully human because you have limp hair and cankles.    

So, if appearance anxiety is cranked up by, well, just about everything, then who or what is planting the seeds of Alpha Anxiety? Hmm. Let me think. Could…it…be… the ubiquitous “dominance theory” of dog behavior: Your sweet, little Sophie is really a wolf dressed up like a poodle. Ignore at your peril her calculating attempts to best you!

And, of course, there’s dominance gospel’s dominant celebrity mega-mouthpiece Cesar Millan and his PR machine. And, let’s not forget the thousands of Cesar defenders and imitators! And now, Animal Planet is apparently trying to get a leg up on National Geographic with In the Dog House. Face it, dominance and alpha champions are EVERYWHERE. Just look in your local yellow pages under “dog training.” And don’t be taken in by “No Harsh Methods” advertising. If they have to say it, it probably isn’t so.

No wonder people are freaking out. If your dog barks and pulls at his leash, there’s something wrong with YOU! You are not projecting dominance. There’s a gaping hole in your alpha aura and your wolf dog is exploiting it! And everyone who sees you knows it. “Look at that poor sucker. Hey buddy, that’s some alpha dog there and it ain’t you! Ha!” Oh, the humiliation of it all.

Well, suffer no more. 

Just as an experiment: For 3 months resist the urge to tune into National Geographic’s The Dog Whisperer. Tie your hands and blindfold yourself, if necessary. Wear ear plugs. Do not google Cesar Millan. If you have his site bookmarked, banish it! Same goes for Animal Planet’s In the Dog House. Hide the remote control if you have to!

Throw away your “good dog collars” (you know, the ones that look like a shark’s mouth), shock collars, e-collars, spray collars, choke chains, prong collars, Illusion collars. If your trainer tells you to alpha roll, shock, shake, jerk, stare down, or otherwise harass your dog into submission, send them packing.

If, when along with your purchase of Frontline for fleas and ticks or heartworm preventative Heartgard for your dog, you receive a free Cesar Millan DVD–don’t take it! Or, destroy it. Or, mail it back to the drug manufacturer, Merial. Tell them you are treating yourself for Alpha Anxiety and have no use for their anxiety aiding and abetting DVD. (see update below)

I know, when you’re in the grip of Alpha Anxiety it’s hard to let go of the very things that you hope will land you on top. But, just the way trying to make yourself over in the image of photoshopped pictures of impossibly beautiful people aggravates appearance anxiety, so struggling to embody the elusive alpha, at all costs to you and your dog, only turns up the dial on your Alpha-Anxiety-O-Meter. But, YOU CAN DO IT! 

Just as an experiment: For 3 months, to satisfy your addiction to TV dog training, watch Victoria Stilwell’s It’s Me or the Dog on Animal Planet. Tivo her. Google her.

Your dog pulls? Try a halter where the leash hooks in front.

Just for the heck of it, for one day (and then more as you catch on) vow to “catch” your dog in the act of doing, well, something you like and reward her with something she loves. A treat. A chest scratch. A ball toss. Praise.

Let’s say you catch Roxie in the act of sitting. “Oh my little Roxie, what a goooood girl.” Is Baxter laying quietly with you while you watch Victoria Stilwell (or even better, actually watching her with you, as my Sadie does)? Reward him and tell him what an excellent dog he is. Don’t want Missy jumping on guests? While you’re managing the situation by putting her behind a baby gate and treating her every time she is quiet, get thee to this website and find a positive trainer in your area.

Just like my students, who at semester’s end were amazed at how much less they were performing the masochistic daily drill of scrutinizing themselves in the mirror looking for “six impossibly ugly things about myself before breakfast,” and, how much more they liked themselves, so you too might feel at the end of your 3-month experiment a little less obsessed with dominating your dog. Perhaps your fear of not achieving alpha will have gone the way of the choke chain you threw out months ago. Maybe, best of all, you’ll feel more relaxed and connected to your increasingly well-behaved pooch.



October 5, 2009: There is good news from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) regarding the not-so-good Merial-Millan business relationship I referenced above!

The selected quote below is from the announcement on the AVSAB facebook page. Be sure to visit AVSAB on facebook to read the entire notice and the encouraging responses!

In early August, AVSAB President, Dr. Kathy Meyer spoke with Dr. Hal Little, director of Merial Field Veterinary Services, regarding their campaign featuring the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. The following points were discussed during their conversation: 

1. The Millan promotion will stop at the end of August rather than at the end of September.
2. The promotion was not particularly successful, although Dr. Little could not give Dr. Meyer specific numbers.
3. It was NOT a multi-part contract, e.g., no other product promotions with Mr. Millan are planned.

Read more of the results of the discussion between Dr. Kathy Meyer (AVSAB) and Dr. Hal Little (Merial) by clicking here.

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11 Responses to “And another thing… Do You Suffer from “Alpha Anxiety”?”

  1. Great article. The good news is “In the Dog House” is actually a leftover Canadian show and is no longer in production, so maybe AP will just run out of episodes and stop showing it.

    As for “And don’t be taken in by “No Harsh Methods” advertising. If they have to say it, it probably isn’t so.” – I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that! Thanks for the confirmation.

  2. ari_1965 says:

    Very good. Thank you.

  3. Great article, as always. I’m optimistic, though, because at least where I live (Seattle) positive training is the norm. We have our share of old-school trainers, but the trend is an increase in reward-based trainers and not many new jerk-and-pull trainers. Though Barkbusters does pump out some new CM clones and try to push their way with a lot more advertising $$.

    PS. To find a trainer in Seattle, your readers can visit http://seattledogtraining.com or of course just go to Ahimsa. :)

  4. LOVE the article! Thank you for the views AND the humor – Cesar is a pervasive little devil, and this article will be of great help in approaching the discussion in a humorous way. THANK YOU!!!!!

  5. Of the various anxieties I do suffer, I’m HAPPY to say this is NOT one of them. We missed you at class this week. Hope to see you more as the heat diminishes.

  6. puptrainer says:

    This does qualify as an actual disorder! And damaging – how much time have I wasted being irritated by this crap? Too much! I might need a sponsor to help me get over it though…

  7. Natalie says:

    Hmm, is it just me, or is Ms. Stillwell of IMOTD extraordinarily annoying?

    Her voice, her outfits, her fanny pack, her voice, her “know-it-all” attitude, her voice, her voice, etc.

    Don’t get me wrong here. I’m as anti-Milan as the rest of ’em. And I certainly wouldn’t do any better hosting the show. I suppose the nature of these quick-fix reality tv shows is to amaze the viewer with the expertise of the trainer. But for me, I don’t even think that +R is the “perfect” solution. Yes, it’s better than the Monks and the Milans, but why should we think that we’ve reached the apex of dog training skills? 15,000 yrs after we started working with canines and now, in 2010, we suddenly think we’ve got it right?

    Deborah, I’m really enjoying reading your blog. And I’ve tried my own version of your methods on my own dog, with the result of much fun, much pride on my part, and a heart-warmingly squinty-eyed, smiling Bella! Does anyone else’s pup out there squint when they’re happy? :) What turns me off is your 100% support of IMOTD. Stilwell certainly is moving in the right direction, but she’s not Mother Theresa. I get that watching her is better than CM, but why even watch that show?

    The point of +R training, for me, is that it’s a process for both myself and Bella. I’m constantly thanking her for letting me know that my questions/requests do not make sense to her, that I need to try some other method. And then we get to celebrate our successes together. The way that Stilwell puts it seems to be that if you just do what SHE does, +R works. Yes, I get that it’s mostly the fault of the producers and editing, but still. It annoys me to no end that this show makes Victoria’s word “holy.”

    Thanks for letting me rant.

    • Hi Natalie

      I know VS isn’t for everyone. I don’t always agree with her either and find the need for reality TV to find a quick fix annoying. Nonetheless, I do think her message about dogs and dog training is a much needed antidote to CM.

      Thanks for writing and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog!

      • Natalie says:

        What I really wish is for someone like Neil Sattin to get his own TV show on Natural Dog Training! Now that would be a fantastic alternative, especially since he doesn’t seem to tout “quick fixes.” There’s always the other guy, Lee Kelley, but he doesn’t seem to be as approachable as Sattin. He seems to be more interested in theory and sharing how knowledgeable he is, and also too focused on the technical, rather than the practical.

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