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"You need to be the alpha!"

"You should be the leader of the pack!"

There is a lot of talk about being the boss when it come to owning a dog, but not a lot of talk about what that does and doesn’t mean. The discussions below are designed to help clear up some points about leadership.

Pack Order

Wolves live in packs. To live harmoniously they form a hierarchy. The alpha is the leader, the beta is second in charge and the omega is bottom of the rung. Since dogs came from wolves, many people expect that dogs will have a pack order identical to wolves. But we have bred away from wolf behaviors, more in some dogs than others. For example, Huskies, are more similar to wolves, but dogs like the Chihuahua no longer resemble a wolf. Likewise Huskies have a lot of similar behaviors to their distance ancestors, such as similar pack behaviors, where as Chihuahuas don’t show much pack behavior at all. Without wolf pack order, the alpha concept doesn’t work very well. However, dogs do understand good leadership just as you do. Dog want good leadership from their owners, and without that leadership, some dogs get into a lot of problematic behaviors.

Are Dogs Part of Our Pack?

Another well used term is "Be the leader of your pack" referring to your dog pack. But it warrants first asking are dogs part of our pack. The answer is yes, but.... Yes, but not in the same way a wolf is part of a wolf pack. As discussed in my book, "Training the Hard to Train Dog," wolves taken from birth and raised by humans never develop the same kind of bond as dogs do with people. The ability for a dog to bond to people took generations of breeding to develop. Just as wolves, even those raised in captivity, never consider people as part of their pack, dogs don’t have a wolf-pack relationship with their owners. Our dogs can understand a hierarchy in our household, which can work to create harmony for individuals living in a group. Dogs who understand that you are in charge are more content and will live more harmoniously with other dogs than dogs living in a home where the owner has little or no leadership. What often surprises a lot of people is that dogs who show a natural submission towards people, may hold a high status among their own kind. Although some dogs want a strong leader from their human family members, we are not part of a dog pack.

Bonding is a Key Word

Although wolves’ survival depends on a pack hierarchy, dog’s survival doesn’t. What has replaced the need for hierarchy in many dogs is bonding with their humans. As mentioned earlier, there is a great diversity in dogs and that creates a great diversity in behaviors. And although all dogs respect and want good leadership from their owners,for some dogs, without bonding, the dog will not comply to commands. The good news is that dogs naturally bond to a good leader.

What is a Good Leader

A good leader controls all of the resources that are important to the dog, such as food, playing (especially with toys), and sleeping areas. Good leaders also expect their commands to be followed. Poor leaders allow insubordination. Weak leaders make insecure dogs feel less secure. A good leader never uses excessive force or brutality to maintain command.

The Magic of Training

Many people ask, "What does teaching a dog to sit have to do with having a dog under control?" The answer is that teaching the sit command is the beginning of communication with your dog. You build from that sit to teaching the "watch" command, which when done right, is a real powerhouse for control. Then you need to add a bit of impulse control training. Some of the more impulsive dog need extra training to learn how to follow your commands when the dog has his or her own agenda.

Where People Get into Problems

Some dogs are quite amiable in the household and will tolerate poor leadership from their owners. However, other dogs may need strong leadership to feel secure in the household and around other people and other dogs. There are some dogs, who when they are allowed to control resources, quickly move to becoming out of control. Theses dogs don’t respect a weak leader and therefor do not respect their owner enough to follow the owner’s commands. This can result in a mild problem where a dog picks and chooses what commands to follow, or a severe problem where the dog does almost nothing the owner asks and shows outright defiance or aggression. Leadership problems can build if you have a dog who is very possessive about resources, such as food, toys, or sleeping areas. If the dog isn’t taught to relinquish those resources to the leader (you the human) then many dogs will move onto other issues and some will begin to snap, growl, and bite people. Along the way the dog loses the respect of their owner as a leader.

But I Want My Dog to Love Me

Being a good leader is not about bullying or punishing your dog. Many people are surprised to find that taking on the role of leader often increases the affection a dog has for you. Perhaps one of the best examples of this was with a dog I owned named Cookie. When I’d go off to teach dog classes, my husband, Ken would try and get Cookie to bond to him by sitting her next to him on the couch and giving her attention. That just didn’t work. What did work is when he began to do some leadership training with Cookie. In the book, Training the Hard to Train Dog, beginning on page 129 you can read how Ken changed his relationship with Cookie through training. You’ll find this under the section: Ken and Cookie: Training a More Dominant Dog. By Ken doing a bit of "power training," Cookie developed a relationship of respect and love that was missing before.

Solve Your Relationship Issues-Become a Leader

To become your dog’s leader, you need to meet the "leadership" expectation dogs have for you. Leaders:

Own and control all the food

Own all the toys

Has first choice of where to sleep

A good leader will insist a dog do as he or she is told, not chose to do thing the dog wants to do, but not use punishment or harsh treatment to achieve that.

How Do I Achieve Leadership?

You become a leader by training the dog in all the leadership areas. All training begins with communication, so you will begin with something easy such as teaching the dog to sit on command. The next thing you want to teach is eye contact. Eye contact is very symbolic for a dog. For them to look at you before taking an action means they respect you as a leader. For that reason, you will find information on the "watch" command beginning on page 76 of my book. That is where you take eye contact from an immediate reward for a simple task, to where the dog has to offer eye contact over doing something they’d rather do. By working through the training that begins on page 76 titled "The Watch Command, a True Powerhouse of Training," you teach the dog to look to you for leadership in situations the dog would not seek your guidance. Training the watch command as described in the book is where teaching leadership and taking control of your dog really begins.

Since leadership means controlling all the resources. The book goes onto give ways to train the dog so you control the food and toys. The book also tells what to do if the dog growls at you because he doesn’t want to move off the couch. Dogs who refuse to move from a sleeping area are taking a step towards being in control. That actions takes control away from the owner. Training can reverse the roles to where they need to be.

But Don’t Leaders Need to Punish or Use Alpha Rolls?

Granted, I’ve seen some alpha dogs roll some adolescent dogs to let that young one know who is the boss around here. But remember, you and your dog don’t have the same kind of relationship to dogs in your household as a dog does to another dog. That makes trying to communicate to a dog using an alpha roll a technique one which often fails. What you really need to do with your dog is to find a way to bridge the communication gap between dog and human, and use that communication to establish yourself as a leader. If you go around alpha rolling your dog or using punishment to try and establish control, the dog will only feel brutalized. You need to remember that even in a wolf pack, the alpha doesn’t brutalize all of his subordinates. The more aggressive actions are reserved for unwanted invaders to the area, not for pack members.

Articles on This Website
Dominant or Assertive Parts one and two (Finalist DWAA contest)
A Matter of Misunderstanding (Winner of DWAA’s Maxwell Award)
Teaching Your Dog Who Is Boss

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