Establishing Yourself as Pack Leader

Whether you have just adopted a young pup or an adult dog, you have many things to teach your new companion. You want your dog to be loved, trained and lively, but not spoiled, a robot or uncontrollable. Dogs can be naturals at learning manners and commands, particularly when you understand a key aspect of their nature. Dogs are social, pack-oriented animals. Your dog will respect a strong, clear, fair leader. If you fail to establish this position for yourself, your dog will feel obliged to try to take the position of leader for himself.

The Alpha Role

In a natural state, dogs would live their entire lives within the closely structure social order of their pack. While young, they would begin to learn the workings of the pack's social system and, as they grew, begin to establish their place within the pack's dominance hierarchy. Dominance, submissiveness, leadership, obeying others - these are all concepts that are understood by every dog. These are all concepts that you must understand as well if you are to relate you your dog in a successful manner.

Each pack has a leader, an individual who is dominant over all pack members. In wolf society, this individual is called the "alpha." This is the member who makes the decisions, who must be obeyed. This is the individual that you must be in your dog's eyes.

Steps to Establishing Your Role as Alpha

Professional trainers know that it is a waste of time to try to train a dog without first establishing themselves as alpha to the dog. Every dog needs a leader to listen to and adore. Without this leader, a dog will feel lost and unstructured. If you do not take the role of alpha, your dog will be forced to take the role himself. Here are some steps to establishing your role as the alpha. Notice that these involve both behavior and body language - two types of communication that your dog will understand.

1. Always praise your dog as if you own it. Put your hands firmly on the dog. Hug the dog. Pat him so that your hands get warm from the contact. Do not praise him in a timid way.

2. Praise warmly, well and quickly. Do not drag out your praising of a working dog. Do not fawn over the dog just because he did one sit-stay.

3. Reprimand fairly and quickly, then forgive. Don't hold a grudge. When you put your hands on your dog, do it with confidence and authority. Hands on does NOT mean hitting. Hands on may mean a collar shake, a leash correction, a surprising assist into a sit or down. Do it quickly and with authority. Then when you've made the dog do exactly what you want - once - give him a hug. That's alpha.

4. Make the dog obey on the first command. Don't get into the habit of repeating yourself. A dog's hearing is significantly better than yours, and you can bet he heard you the first time.

5. Give commands only if you can follow through, and make sure you always follow through. If the dog is running across the park to meet another dog, do not yell "come" - if he decides not to obey, you have no means of correcting him. Once he accepts you as leader, he will stop and return to you - because he will have learned that leaders are to be obeyed.

6. Give permission. Give it for what is about to do anyway as long as it is OK with you. This does not mean you say OK when you see your dog about to steal a plate of cookies. This means you do say OK when your dog is about to get into the car for a ride with you, eat the food in his bowl, go out with you for his afternoon walk. It means that in a subtle way you are teaching the dog to look to you for approval and permission instead of making decisions on his own. Remember - the better behaved the dog, the more freedom and fun he can have.

7. Deny permission. Monitor your dog's behavior. Teach him some manners. Even if you like him to walk on your couch and coffee table, he shouldn't behave that way in other people's homes. When you take him to the lake, he should wait for permission to swim. It may be too cold some days or there may be too many young children swimming.

8. Do a sit-stay. This is an easy way to reinforce your role as alpha. Put the dog in a sit-stay for five to ten minutes. For particularly dominant dogs, make it a down-stay, and even more submissive position. If he's a wild animal and he doesn't know the meaning of the word obedient, all the better. When he breaks - and he will - put him back. If he breaks 14 times put him back 14 times. At the end of a few minutes, the dog knows you're alpha. He knows that anyone who holds his leash can call the shots. And this is with no yelling, no hitting, no electronic stimulation, no leaving him in the kennel or garage for three days, no nothing. Just a sit-stay. Easy and effective.

9. Be benevolent, but tough. Act like a top dog. Tough, but loving. Always be fair an never get angry. Dogs understand what's fair and what's not.

10. Be a model to your dog. The top dog behaves with dignity, surety, confidence, authority, and intelligence. This will help your dog to be calm himself.

11. If you have more than one dog in your home, you decide the "pecking" order within the dog pack by routinely feeding the "top" dog first, giving that dog bones first, etc. Make the others wait for their turn. This is another means of exerting your authority.

Your Dog Will be Happier

You may think that this system is just being too controlling and not "fair" to the dog. Actually, by being consistent in your handling and in your demands on the dog you are being fair. He needs structure - to understand what you want and what his responsibilities are. What is truly unfair is giving up a dog because of behavior problems - problems caused by the lack of structure and guidance that were the owners' responsibility to give. Unfortunately, animal shelters are filled every day with these dogs. Firm, loving training will keep you and your dog happy - and keep you together.

- C.A.R.E.S. Companion Animal Resource & Education Society (Schenectady, NY) & Progressive Animal Welfare Society


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