Alpha and NILIF

Big dog-300

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

~John C. Maxwell


 What does it take to be the big dog, the leader? Not in size but in temperament. After all, size has nothing to do with being the “big dog” in the dog world. There are dogs the size of Rottweilers that are the “big dog,” but there are also dogs the size of Chihuahuas that are the “big dog.”

We want to take this time to talk about two terms that humans often misuse and misunderstand. One is the term “alpha,” the other is the term “NILIF,” or nothing in life is free. As dog trainers, we hear many people use both of these terms but when questioned on what they mean, they do not fully understand or sometimes have no clue what they really mean.


 In our dog training, we seldom use the term “alpha.” We also never tell people they need to be the “alpha.” When we first meet people to help with their dogs we always discuss leadership and the importance of being a good leader to your dog. In our experience, when people hear the term “alpha,”

they assume it means being aggressive or dominant over your dog.  That  you should “force” your dog to submit to you. This thinking is the furthest from the truth.

In social animals, the alpha is the individual in the community with the highest rank. Male or female individuals or both can be alphas, depending on their species. Where one male and one female fulfill this role, they are referred to as the alpha pair. Other animals in the same social group may exhibit deference or other symbolic signs of respect particular to their species toward the alpha or alphas. In hierarchal social animals, alphas usually gain preferential access to food and other desirable items or activities, though the extent of this social effect varies widely by species. Male and female alphas may gain preferential access to sex or mates, and in some species, only alphas or an alpha pair is permitted to reproduce.

Alphas may achieve their status by means of superior physical prowess or through social efforts and building alliances within the group.

The position  of alpha  also changes in some  species, usually through a physical fight between a dominant and subordinate animal. Such fights may or may not be to the death, with relevant behavior varying between circumstance and species.

Many people use the term “alpha” to tell us that their dog’s aggressive or out-of-control behavior is because he is the “alpha.” This also is untrue. In fact, if your dog is acting outwardly aggressive or out of control, chances are it is because he senses no leadership and has not been provided with rules by you, the human. Dogs are self-serving opportunists, if you allow them to be bossy and it works for them, they will continue to do so. A bossy dog is a bossy dog, not an alpha dog.

In the dog world, there are only two positions, the leader or the follower. If you are not one, you are the other. Most dogs are not born “alpha” dogs. If they sense no leadership in the pack, they will automatically try to fill the role. If they are not a born “alpha dog,” they will be terrible at it and you will see aggressive or fearful behaviors. A true “alpha” dog is rarely aggressive. If you are ever in the presence of a true “alpha” dog, you will see that he commands respect by calm assertiveness, not aggression and certainly not severe aggression unless the situation merits, such as a threat to his life.

A true alpha dog does not need to act aggressively, because everyone in the pack knows he is the alpha or leader and will respect his authority based on his energy within the pack. The relationship is based on trust and respect. Others will rarely challenge his authority. He can give a simple glance and they know not to mess with him. Not necessarily because he was aggressive toward them, but because they understand the intention with a simple look, that if they pushed him he would correct them and they would lose….period. When an alpha dog enters into a pack of dogs, he will let them know his position simply by the way he walks into the group. He generally will enter without sniffing anyone and will be aloof to other dogs around him. Other dogs will often follow the “alpha” dog; the alpha rarely follows the rest.

The picture above is of the alpha male and alpha female dogs of our pack before they passed away. George and Sonora. George was never overly aggressive toward any of our pack of four or the hundreds of dogs we see in our business. He walked with self-assurance and head held high. When we brought in a dog for evaluation, we would use George and Sonora for the evaluation. We used the two of them for their ability to always be aloof and ignore other dogs.

George never had to become aggressive with our other pack members. When we brought home our bulldog puppy Rudy, he would often approach George if George was chewing a bone. As Rudy would approach the bone, George would give him a look. If he continued, George would curl his lip and occasionally growl. If Rudy continued to push it, George would quickly and accurately bite Rudy on his face, hard enough to make him yelp and walk away. The next time Rudy approached, all George had to do was give the look. Rudy would take heed. However, there were times when George was chewing a bone or toy and would let Rudy take it because he was not that interested in it any longer. Being alpha does not mean being a tyrant. It means being a leader, being fair, and setting rules and boundaries. The other dogs always knew when they could or could not take something the alpha pair had.

Sonora was clearly the alpha female of the dog pack. She would stand her ground by growling and showing teeth if she disapproved. She was the more vocal of the two and used it to her advantage. The other dogs would take heed and not push her. She also would share resources and would play with the others.

It became startlingly clear to us that George and Sonora were the pack leaders of the dog pack when they both died in the same week. Our pack used to hang out in our backyard, which they had access to through a doggie door. We would always find them lying on our deck or under a bush or tree. Once George and Sonora died, the two remaining dogs, Bentley and Rudy seemed lost. They stuck closer to us and went outside only to go to the bathroom. To this day, they do not use the backyard as they did when George and Sonora were alive. Neither Rudy nor Bentley is a pack leader.

Now, the reason we say that George and Sonora were the leaders of the DOG pack is because even though they were the leaders of the dogs, they respected us as leaders of them. They would rarely challenge our commands and would allow us to take anything from them. Not because we intimidated them by using forceful techniques, but because we established a leadership program with them—a fair, consistent leadership program based on trust and respect.

By using the Puppy Montessori program and establishing clear rules and boundaries, you are teaching your puppy what is acceptable in the pack and what is not, which builds respect. By rewarding good behavior and controlling the situations your puppy is in, you are building trust. This puts you in the leadership role. For example, If you do not want your dog on the furniture, you let him know by either never letting him on the furniture or by directing him off of the furniture and rewarding him for lying on his own bed. These daily rules are what will establish you as the pack leader.

NILIF (nothing in life is free)

 We cannot talk about leadership without talking about the NILIF program. NILIF simply means, “Nothing in life is free,” and it means just that.

NILIF is a consistent methodology that is based on action/reaction. Basically it means that your puppy has to do something before he gets something he wants. Where people fail at this concept is by allowing the dog to make all the decisions on his own. By making all the decisions on his own, he then assumes he is the leader. If he is not a born leader, this is where you will see issues such as insecurity or dominance. For instance, your dog wants to jump on the furniture, and he does so anytime the mood strikes. If he wants to play ball, he brings you the ball, and you throw it. He wants to be petted, he nudges your hand, and you pet him. He wants to eat, he barks at you at

dinnertime, and you feed him. All these things are the dog telling you to do something, and you do it. Bingo, in his mind, he must be the leader. This will also lead to a bossy dog.

The NILIF program was designed to put rules and boundaries in place to let your dog know that you are the leader of him, not the other way around. The first thing is to end all attention on demand. When your dog comes to you and nudges you to pet him or brings you a toy to play with, you ignore him. The only time you pet or play with your dog is when YOU initiate it. If he is sitting or lying away from you, call him to you and pet or play with him. Before you feed your dog or play with your dog he is to perform a task such as “sit” or “down.” If he wants to get on the furniture or bed (and you allow him on the furniture), he should have to ask by coming to you and sitting before you give the command to get on the furniture. If he wants to go outside, he should sit and wait before doing so.

So you see, for everything the dog wants from you, he first must perform an action to get the reward he wants. Remember the program is called NOTHING in life is free. It is not called SOME things in life are free and that is where most people fall short on this program. Some people will say they are implementing the NILIF program by making their dog sit before feeding, but they still pet the dog or give attention on demand. This is not NILIF.

Many people tend to be overly affectionate to their dogs. In fact, many of the problems we see in dogs stem from people who give their dogs too much free-flowing affection. We are not saying you should never be affectionate to your dog; we are saying you should not be overly affectionate. Too much affection can create a dog that senses no leadership and oftentimes creates an anxious or nervous dog or a dog that is aggressive or dominant. Your dog should always perform some task before getting affection and should never be allowed to demand affection.

Understand this is just a primer for the NILIF concept, not the complete program or description. Again, as with any training program, you must be consistent. If you allow your dog to jump up on the furniture or demand attention on one day, and not on another, you will be confusing the dog. In a dog pack, the rules do not change on a daily basis. If your rules change daily, your dog will be unsure about what those rules are, which will lead to confusion and distrust. Be consistent!

In conclusion, Raising a puppy is never an easy endeavor but if done right can be less frustrating than doing it wrong. The Puppy Montessori program is designed to help take the frustration out of puppy ownership, creating a better bond between human and dog that can last a lifetime, if not yours, definitely your dog’s.

Following are the twelve key components to the Puppy Montessori program:

Choosing the right puppy—It is “critical” to understand which puppy is right for you. Do your homework; raising a puppy should not begin with an impulse decision. (Chapter 1)

 Understanding developmental levels—Puppies are like children. Understand that they are going to go through different phases of development. It is important for you to understand how to correctly respond to these phases in your puppy’s development. (Chapter 2)

 Communicating—Do not talk too much! It is important not to use words until you understand and establish proper communication with your puppy. (Chapter 3)

 Setting up a nursery—Environmental controls are critical to your puppy’s development and the relationship you will establish with your puppy. The goal is to help set up you and your puppy for success. (Chapter 4)

 Potty training—Proper potty training will make or break your relationship with your puppy. Potty training issues are the number one reason puppies are rehomed. (Chapter 5)

 Socializing—Socialize early and socialize often using proper techniques.

(Chapter 6)

 Leash walking—Leash = Love. The leash is the artery to your puppy’s experience in the outside world. Dogs have four legs and are meant to walk. (Chapter 7)

 Obedience—Train early, Train often! Obedience is the heart of a healthy human/dog relationship. (Chapter 8)

Curbing destructive behaviorsIt is easier to train good behaviors than undo bad ones! Do not give too much freedom too soon. (Chapter 9)

 Health and wellness—A healthy dog starts as a healthy puppy. Proper nutrition, grooming, and vaccinations are the foundations to a happy, healthy dog. (Chapters 10, 11, 12)

 Proper play—Owning a puppy is not a game. Your puppy is constantly learning, even through play. Understand how to properly play with your puppy. (Chapters 13 and 14)

 Leadership is the key—Become the big dog: understanding alpha and NILIF. (Chapter 15)

Kenneth and Cindy Quigley are the Owners of Super Mutts Canine Retreat in Arizona. They are dog trainers and have fixed many broken dogs. They are the authors of ” Puppy Montessori, How to raise a puppy”  Cindy Quigley is also a dog groomer and has 19 years experience working with dogs professionally in veterinary offices, grooming shops and boarding kennels.

You can visit them through their website at

You can purchase Puppy Montessori through their website or on Amazon. Now available on Kindle!



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