Lessons from the dog: Alpha males, love and the importance of making conscious choices.

In our house, my husband is numero uno, the king, the be all and end all… the alpha. At least if you ask the dog. If you suggested such a thing to the rest of us, theatrical bouts of gagging would no doubt ensue.

It’s a strange situation, I think, given that I am the one that makes sure Rocky is fed and groomed, walked and cuddled. I check his water bowls, buy him treats and take him to the vet. But I can be holding a treat in my hand, and if Mike whistles, Rocky responds to him instantly. Dad over food in the hand.

Not that I’m jealous or anything… well, maybe just a little.

Apparently this is a real thing. A study in 2018 showed that male dogs will approach their male owners far more than they will their female ones. Women do better with cats, apparently. That explains old cat ladies, I guess.

I suspect Mike has just firmly established himself as the alpha male in their relationship. He is strict with Rocky, taking no nonsense and ejecting him from the house if he tries to assert himself. Rocky will growl and snap at you if you try to remove a tissue he is consuming. Who knows why he needs to eat tissues, but it’s better than his previous habit of eating underwear. Mike, who has buckets of patience and engages with reason-based parenting with our kids, brooks no nonsense from the dog. Dogs have no capacity for reasoning, so this is probably a good thing. I just let him eat the tissues.

But it gets me thinking about alpha males and the power they seem to have over others. From religious cults to political ones, alphas hold an almost magnetic sway over the lives of their flock, relegating reason, critical thinking and important familial relationships to second place. And they can leave a trail of immense suffering in their wake, all because they are empowered by the rest of us. We’d be better off rid of them, but that would require their supporters to address their dog-like obedience to their call.

Maybe it has something to do with pheromones. Maybe dominance gives off some evolutionary programmed olfactory signal certain social or pack animals can subconsciously pick up. Apes like us, dogs like Rocky. Dogs can smell testosterone levels. Unsurprising, I suppose, given they can smell cancer, covid and the remnants of an old banana you threw out before you left the plane at Sydney Airport. Humans, it turns out, can subconsciously smell personality types– specifically extroversion, neuroticism and dominance. Which is pretty funky. We are rubbish though at smelling out the good guys.

And that’s the rub of it. There are so many invisible influences on our behaviour and choices. Neuroscientists have known for a long time that a lot of our rationalising is our conscious minds trying to explain what our subconscious neural patterns already decided, and that we are riddled with cognitive biases which influence this subconscious decision making.

Because we’re primates, apes just like chimps and gorillas, we too are programmed by evolution to lean into tribal belief systems that work on status, dominance, and hierarchy. But we have other cognitive mechanisms lurking in our oversized frontal lobes – reason, inhibition, long term planning, perspective taking – that chimps don’t. It means we can reflect on who we want to be and the implications of our actions, and in doing so, we can hack our inherent biases that lead to either a desire to dominate or the empowering of dominant characters, and actively choose a path of kindness, connection and equality. We can, if we make the effort, build better societies for everyone to live in.

Mind you, you don’t have to go all the way to Trump or Hitler to find alpha issues. There are plenty in the everyday relationships around us. And it is in these green fields that active choices can and should be made.

Ironically, given he didn’t want the dog in the first place, Mike, dare I say it, loves our pet, and Rocky knows he is loved in return. He lets Rocky curl up right beside him, on the “Rocky designated” sofas, despite being quite allergic to the hound. He plays with him, chasing him in the park and rough housing with him as though the dog were a three-year-old child. Rocky delights in it. His eyes light up like a kid at Christmas as he chases my husband around the kitchen island.

Getting a dog was one of the best things we ever did. Even though he is getting old and slow, and his vet bills are racking up. Even though he will liberate the contents of a bathroom dustbin in search of tissues, or sneak onto our bed and cause a week of hay fever and itchy eyes if we happen to go out and not shut the door.

Rocky brings great happiness to all of us. He is a bundle of unconditional love, an exemplar of the simplicity of being and the joy that comes from it. He is not shy to communicate how much he loves us in return – rushing up to us with literal leaps of joy if we’ve been parted for any more than 5 minutes. Of a morning, he will emerge yawning from one of the kid’s rooms and seek me out to me to say hello. And if, perchance, I happen to be in the middle of something, and he feels I haven’t noticed him, he bats my leg with his paw until he is acknowledged and had his back scratched. I’m here, he says, did you miss me?

I think our relationship with our dog, and with each other, is defined by some philosophical choices we made long ago. The decision to respect each other as the unique individuals we are, rather than acting out the prescribed roles we find ourselves in – parent-child, husband-wife, humans-dog.

We recognise that each of us, even Rocky, are unique creations of life, with one chance to walk this path of life, but that who we are and how we feel are shaped by the interactions we have with the people who claim to love us. We try to act from the other person’s best interest. We try to make ourselves available and attentive to each other, which is why Rocky knows he can paw my leg and will get a response from me that makes him feel good. We don’t always succeed, but we at least aim in this direction.

Mike might roll his eyes at my tendency to wax lyrical here, but he agrees, he’s the one who started us down this track in the first place. But we’ve learned over time too that love is precious, and needs to be nurtured to survive and grow. And that you can float through life and love, and wash up on the shores of disappointment, or you can make conscious choices about the shape of your life and the relationships you want to have with each other, and live a life you like the feel of.

Despite Rocky’s programmed pack-instilled beliefs, we don’t have an alpha in our house. Because an alpha always mean someone is deemed to matter more than the rest. And that’s not just untrue, it’s also damaging to important things – like love, happiness and possibilities.


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