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Teaching Your Dog Who is Boss

In hopes of getting their dog to comply, a lot of people set out to show their dog who is boss. Some people refer to that process as taking on an alpha role, while others talk about becoming their dog’s leader. With most people, those two terms have come to mean different things. Many people think of being "alpha" to your dog as ruling by force, whereas becoming your dog’s leader is done by training the dog to do as he or she is told. At the heart of both is the desire to communicate to the dog that he must behave in a manner you want.

There are several obstacles to getting your dog to behave. One is that dogs really don’t speak English, even though they can learn a lot of our commands. The other is that too many people fail to recognize that dogs have a culture which is different than ours and for us to happily exist with our dogs, we need to bridge that cultural gap.

Let’s dive right in with an example of how a misunderstanding in our two cultures can create problems between dog and owner. Let’s say that by accident, you drop the steak you intend to cook for dinner. In your mind, that steak on the floor is yours and not the property of the dogs, unless you say otherwise. To me, that idea sounds reasonable. After all, who owns the house and who buys the dog food?

However, your dog may have a different opinion and may try and claim that steak as his own. To some people, this may come across as a challenge to their authority. Surely if the dog understands that the owner is the alpha, or leader, or whatever, the dog would not dare to try and claim that steak. So logically, the dog needs disciplined, or alpha rolled, or reprimanded somehow so the dog understands who is boss. And certainly this kind of challenge must be an indication that the dog thinks he is an alpha. And we all know that out of control alpha dogs are bombs waiting to explode.

But, just for a moment, let’s look at things from the dog’s perspective, starting with how an alpha dog might react. An alpha dog would see himself as in charge unless trained otherwise. Since he owns everything, you are wrong if you don’t hand over the steak to begin with. If the alpha dog sees you as enough of a subordinate, he’d probably take the steak out of your hand when you try to carry it, rather than wait until you drop it. So, of course he’d consider that steak his when it hit the floor, and in fact, he’d wonder why it took you so long to finally handed it over.

At the opposite end of pack hierarchy is the omega dog. This dog would not challenge you for that steak. But since the omega dog doesn’t want to starve to death, the dog may sneak up, grab the steak on the floor (especially if he thinks you are not looking) and run off. In dog’s culture, they have a rule: if you can’t get something by force, then try securing it by being sneaky. In between the top and bottom of the pack order are a host of dog attitudes which often include the idea that

possession is nine tenths of the law. And then there is the Jack Russell Terrier who, even if he isn’t an alpha, might try to jump up and grab that steak, because this breed has a "devil may care" attitude when it comes to obeying the alpha. So don’t be surprised if your dog tries to grab the steak when it lands on the floor, and then has absolutely no desire to give it back. That attitude may not have anything to do with being alpha, but can have lot to do with what the dog feels is appropriate to do.

Since none of us wants the dog to eat our steak, let’s look at some possible solutions to our problem. One way to handle this is the way I was taught when I was young. I was raised to believe the way you train a dog is to discipline misbehavior so the dog learns to behave. This is how that idea unfolds with a Jack Russell Terrier. The steak hits the floor. The dog runs to claim his prize. I immediate rush towards the dog saying "no, no, no." The Jack Russell takes a microsecond to decide that he can get that steak and escape before I can get there. The dog then grabs the steak and runs off. I give chase, becoming angry enough to really swat that dog when I catch him. The dog is quick and finds this chase game fun, giving a double reward to the dog. I finally catch the dog and if I swat the dog while scolding the dog, the dog can react by trying to bite me in self-defense, or become so frightened he submissively pees, or a host of other unwanted behaviors.

Almost fifteen years ago, I was reformed from that kind of dog training by my Jack Russell Terrier. Now I handle the situation this way. I train my dog in basic commands, because that sets up a relationship with my dog where the dog learns to follow my guidance. I use positive techniques and let the dog learn that the reward comes when the dog chooses to comply. To keep out of the "steak fight" issues, I teach two things. The first is the "leave it" command. The "leave it" command teaches a dog not to grab something you don’t want the dog to have, such as your steak. The other thing I teach the dog is impulse control.

Impulse control is very important with Jack Russells. Since these dogs are quick to react and more independent, it is their nature to make a decision and act on that decision without any input or guidance from their owner. What that means is that the dog acts without hesitation and may become so focused on what he has decided to do in a situation, that without impulse control training, the dog won’t hear his owner’s commands. Impulse control training teaches the dog to hesitate, or in some situations to wait, until the owner gives a command such as "leave it."

When training for impulse control, I put a dog into a sit or down stay, then toss something the dog is inclined to pursue like a treat or toy. I then teach the dog to not break that stay and pursue that prize, but to look at me for guidance as to what to do. This sets up a pattern in the dog of both hesitating, and then checking with me before acting on the dog’s initial idea. This training also helps the dog to have a chance to hear and consider my guidance. With less impulsive dogs this isn’t as

critical. With Jack Russell, training for impulse control often makes all the difference in having a dog who will listen to commands.

It is important to realize that we have different ideas than our dogs as to how things should unfold when a steak hits the floor. It is our job to communicate to our dogs our rules on how to behave. When your dog learns to do as he is told, that makes you the boss in your dog’s eyes. You can better achieve the behaviors you want through training using positive techniques, rather than discipline or punishment.

Peggy Swager is author of "Training the Hard to Train Dog." Her website is where you can find more of her articles.

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