If you are having trouble with your dog regarding things like growling if you touch their food bowl, or being destructive in your home, you are dealing with a dog who does not respect you. To establish and maintain your role as the pack leader requires some discipline and consistency. Keep in mind that a dog who does not understand the pack order is unhappy. By establishing a clear place in the pack, your dog will avoid confusion and anxiety, and you will have a healthier relationship.
Dogs need to have a clear place in their pack. A dog who doesn’t understand his role winds up as a confused and an unhappy dog.
Unhappiness and role confusion can manifest as signs of separation anxiety, such as destructive behaviors when you leave the house. A dog that steals food from human hands does not percieve the human to be the pack leader – and will continue to disrespect the human in other ways. A dog that questions his place in the household pack may suddenly display destructive behaviors, and take his anxiety out on your house (or your sofa, or shoes, or you!).
A dog that knows his place in his human pack is a happy dog. A dog that does not is a confused dog and can exhibit many unwanted behaviors because of it.
Here are some tips for managing your relationship with your dog, and helping him to realize that you are the leader of the pack:
1. Take your dog for a “pack” walk. Have your dog heel beside or behind you. This is different than a walk with your dog where he can pee or poo or sniff wherever he wants… you are teacing the dog that the human who is holding the lead is the pack leader. If you let your dog lead, he will think he is the leader. Instead, during the “pack” walk, you will lead. In the dog’s mind, the leadergoes first. Be sure to prohibit the dog from peeing or sniffing when or where he wants – you will allow him to do these things where you decide to allow him. Once the male dog has marked a tree, that should be enough. The behavior we are looking for from the dog is to concentrate on following the human. Practice a pack-type walk daily. The pack-walk accomplishes a few things – it’s a time for bonding, a time to reinforce your role in the pack, it’s great training, and it also helps the dog release pent up energy.
2. The leader eats first. In the wild, when a pack kills, the leader eats first. If you feed your dog first, you are giving up this role. As the leader, eat something first before feeding the dog, while he is watching. This is especially effective if the dog sees you eating the food and thinks it’s his food. You don’t actually have to eat dog food, but a piece of cheese would suffice to prove the point.
3. Never feed your dog while you are eating. Do not give your dog table scraps from your plate.
4. Feed your dog on a schedule. Dogs do not need to “pick” and “nibble” all day. The food should be placed down when you feed the dog, and if the dog does not eat within a short period of time, it should be taken away. The dog should associate food as coming from the human.
5. The leader should go through doorways first. This includes going up or down stairways. As the leader, you should go through then the dog should follow. Teach your dog to “stay” and after you have gone through the entrance or up the stairs, train your dog to “come”. Basic commands are vital to training your dog – without understanding what you are asking the dog becomes confused and unhappy.
6. This may be difficult, however, when you enter the room or come home, ignore your dog for a minute. This is a battle of wills, believe it or not, and you are exerting your leadership role by making the dog wait a moment for attention.
7. No free treats. Throughout the day, reinforce training by using a command and then rewarding it. For example, ask your dog to sit, and then when he does, follow with a pleaurable activity. Before you give a treat, or food, or a toy, have the dog see this as a reward for obeying a command. Be strong, yet consistent with the training. Food, water, praise, are all rewards for the right behavior – nothing should be “free”.
8. Never get down to the dogs level. Don’t lie on the floor with your dog to watch TV. The human should be higher than the dog, and never put himself in an equal or lesser height position.
9. The leader greets visitors first. The dog should take it’s cue from you. In a pack, the leader decides when it’s safe to meet the newcomer, not the dog.
10. Don’t step over a dog if he is in your way. Make the dog move. It’s a sign of respect to the leader.
11. Hugging your dog may be considered a challenge. If you have an aggressive or dominant dog, be aware that it could be misinterpreted during this re-establishment of pack order.
12. Making eye contact with a dog represents a challenge to that dog. While establishing leadership, try to avoid staring contests. If you wind up averting your eyes or blinking first, that will reinforce to the dog that he is the leader.
13. About sleeping in your bed – try to avoid it. If the dog winds up sleeping with you, make sure they know they are not entitled to jump up and take over, but must be invited to come up. Also, do not allow the dog to crowd you out of the bed – in the dog world the most comfortable place is reserved for the leader, but establishing himself as “owning” the bed, he is essentially undermining and disrepecting you as the leader. Have your dog sleep at the foot of the bed, and do not let him push you into a corner of the bed.
14. Do not rough-house with your dog or encourage biting. Dog’s should not mouth or bite people, even in play. Rough-housing encourages this bad behavior, and if the dog misinterprets signals and rough-houses at the wrong time, with the wrong person, it could have difficult, expensive and dangerous consequences.
15. Your dog will demand attention. As the leader, you decide when attention, such as petting, will be given. Be aware that a dog nudging you, pushing his head into your hand, pawing your hand, aare all demands for attention and if you give in because it’s cute, you are abdicating leadership to the dog.
16. You decide when the game begins and when the game ends. One mistake I often see, is allowing the dog to decide when the game is over, by taking the ball and going off to chew it. To avoid this behavior, stop the game before it gets to this point. The leader decides when it’s time to play.
17. If your dog is dominant and decides he owns the sofa, you need to be firm with reinforcing his place as being the floor. The leader of the pack gets the best spot, and then pecking order determines where the pack falls in place. If you do decide your dog is allowed on the bed or on the furniture, be sure he knows that you are the one who gives him permission to be there. Do not allow the dog to indiscriminantly decide to jump up. Make him wait, until you give him permission to come up. The leader decides when he is allowed up, and also tells him when he must get down.
18. Many dogs love tug-of-war. If your dog is dominant, this may be a no-win situation. If he wins, he has now reinforced his position as leader.
19. Dogs do not “own’ items. Teach your dog to “leave it” or “drop it” or “mine”. Anything the dog has should be relinquished to the leader. This can be important if your dog grabs something dangerous, like a chicken bone. Tell the dog to “drop it”.
20. Dogs should not be allowed to pull on the leash. When they do this they are leading the way and it is the humans that need to lead the way and show they’re higher up in the pack order. (In the wild, the leader of the pack always leads the way; the leader leads the hunt.)
21. Practice making your dog wait until you tell him it’s ok. Whether it’s food, or going outside, you should, as the leader, specify when it’s permitted. If the dog immediately jumps onto his food bowl, take it away and start again to make him wait. If your dog has trouble with this, remove the food, then try again in ten minutes. The dog will pick up its cues from you – if you are firm, yet fair, the dog will begin to understand that these are the rules, and by pleasing you, the leader, he will be rewarded.
22. Another way to reinforce your authority is to work on the down/stay. Have your day lay down, and have him stay there. Work up in time, from a minute, to two, to five, to ten minutes. This is incredibly helpful if you need time to get something done and its safer to be sure your dog stays in one place. Don’t expect him to lay in place for twenty minutes the first time you try this – remember, the younger the dog, the shorter the attention span! If he stands up, correct him, and have him lay down again.
As the leader, you should convey confidence and calmness. Your emotions, including fear or anxiety are telegraphed to your dog. When we are in the show ring, a trick I use is to have a mint in my mouth – it calms me down, and the dog cannot smell fear on my breath. If your dog senses fear, he will think you are weak, and then he has to step up and be the leader. This can result in aggression – toward other people or toward dogs.
Use your body language to stand tall, and picture yourself as the leader. Even with a big German Shepherd or Mastif, you are number one. By standing straight and tall, and conquering emotion, your dog will then follow you and be happier, knowing that he has a strong pack leader.
Note that this does not mean that the dog will not jump into action when needed. A trained dog reads his owner, and if you are being attacked or are in fear, that’s when your dog can jump into action and protect the pack.
You are the alpha, and the pack leader. Understanding how to be that leader can make a huge difference in how your dog reacts, and your relationship with your K9.