Training behaviors like sit, down or stay will help you to control your dog’s actions, but they will not put you in charge. Until you establish yourself as the leader, you will have to keep your dog on leash and under constant supervision. This means you will need to continually and consistently maintain the environment and your dog’s response to, or interaction with, everything in the environment. You may not be able to match the keen senses that your dog has, but you need to act like you can. It is not quite as difficult as you might imagine. Just start watching your dog. You will be able to tell when he hears something; his ears go up or forward. If he points his nose in the air and starts sniffing, then he smells something. This is the time to intervene. Do not wait until he is halfway down the block. I talk more about dog language elsewhere, but you cannot communicate to your dog that you do not want him to react to an event or distraction unless you catch him before he acts. Nor can you explain to him, after the fact, what he did wrong. (The only exception to this is with some aggressive dogs; if your dog is aggressive, you need to consult a professional behaviorist who is experienced with aggression problems.)
Becoming a leader happens when your dog respects and trusts you, not when you win the fight. You never want your dog to think it is a fight. Being a leader has little to do with what your dog does and everything to do with what you do.
Leadership is about responsibility, and that means knowing what to believe and what not to believe in today’s pop culture training circles. There are four rules I tell all my clients to memorize:
- Dog training is not magic. There are no secrets. Just about everything you want to know is out there is one form or another. You can be sure that every dog trainer you talk to will tell you that they can help you train your dog. Some of them can. Some of them cannot. It would be bad business for them to tell you that someone else has a better training method than they do. But don’t forget, they want your business and for the most part they are going to tell you only what they want you to here.
If you are looking for a trainer, check trainers listed with dog training associations and your local Better Business Bureau. Trainers who do not list with these organizations do it for a reason; they do not want customers to have a venue for registering complaints. And they are not interested in keeping up with new information about their trade. Would you take your dog to a veterinarian that was not interested in new developments in animal medicine? Then why would you take your dog, whom you love, to a trainer that is not interested in new developments in animal training? There are many new scientifically proven developments in animal training and reputable dog trainers will not advertise themselves as experts. They are in fact students of industry leaders, the real experts. I might be the "go to" person about training in my town, but I still have trouble thinking of myself as an expert or “the best”. My ideas about how to train your dog are not original. They are the product of my studying the work of experts and testing what I have learned in real life situations.
Talk to the person that will be training you and your dog. If you feel comfortable that he/she understands what you need and will treat both you and your dog respectfully, then ask for references. Be careful doing business with anyone that is not willing to give references. Your dog is counting on you to make a good choice.
- Put your ego aside. Not knowing how to make a dog behave is not a reflection on your intelligence. Dogs want what they want and they want it now! This is the only thing they are thinking about. All of their thought and energy goes into getting what they want without concern for what anyone else thinks about them. Because of their dedicated focus on right now, they are better at training us then we are at training them. Every second you are with your dog, one of you is training the other. If you do not consciously act like the leader, then by default your dog is in charge. It is bad enough that most dog trainers think they know everything. Combining a trainer and an owner that take things too personally can end in disaster!
Not being able to train your dog yourself has nothing to do with how educated you are, what kind of car you drive or where you live; nor does being a good dog trainer. You can excel at everything in the human world and still know nothing about being a good dog leader. Most pet dogs are ill-mannered and in need of training, so you are in good company. I have dealt with thousands of dog owners from all walks of life and the only thing they all had in common was they each had a dog. Dog people understand how embarrassing it is to have to run down the middle of the street at 6:00 a.m., waking up the whole neighborhood trying to catch your dog that ran out the front door while you were getting the paper. We have all been there; dog people understand. And it doesn’t do any good to worry about what non-dog people think. They don’t even understand why anyone would let a dog in the house.
- Remember, dogs can hear. You cannot get them to behave by shouting louder and louder or just repeating the same command over and over again. Shouting and arguing are not good leadership skills in the dog world. Dogs do give signals of increasing frustration, but not in the same way we do. By the time you find yourself in an argument with your dog, you have lost the argument. You can be sure that if you are angry or frustrated, so is your dog.
Dealing with your dog in this manner is more than just counter-productive to training; it can be downright dangerous. Your dog can misinterpret your emotions as aggression and become fearful or aggressive himself. If you find yourself out of control, then put your dog away! If you cannot control yourself, how can you control your dog? Try again later when you and your dog have both calmed down.
Whatever you do with your dog is also an example for your dog. Dogs, more than other pets, copy people actions and emotions. They not only want to be with us, but they want to act like us as well. And yes, when your dog stands his ground and barks at you, he is yelling back. More accurately, he thinks your yelling is barking. So why shouldn’t he bark back?
- Learn the rules. These are the rules that your dog knows, but has never shared with you. They are the rules that he lives by:
- Everything is a resource. This rule is simple. All you have to do in order to understand it is to step out of your human multi-dimensional world and believe that only one thing exists: resources. Again, everything is a resource and this means everything -- the couch, the bed, the kitchen, the back yard, the dog’s bed, the front door, space, time, activities, people, water, food, affection…everything. And, if your dog wants one of these resources, then he goes into problem-solving mode and thinks of nothing else but how to get what he wants.
- Every resource has a value. The reason your dog might be good about not chewing your shoes, but doesn’t miss a chance to dart out the front door, is because being outside has a higher value than shoe-chewing. One toy might be more valuable than another, which is why your dog always seeks it out. It could be that the reason you have to step over your dog to get down the hallway is because the hallway space is a valuable resource and it belongs to the dog. If your dog growls or nips, it could be because he is guarding something of great value. Do not try to second-guess the value of something to your dog. It is unlikely that you share the same values. Remember, some dogs highly value eating bugs and cat poop.
- Now here is where it starts to make human sense: all the resources belong to the pack leader. This means that if your dog really believed that you were the pack leader, you would never have to worry about him chewing your socks, running out the front door or trying to bite your significant other when they tried to get into bed. If everything is a resource and all the resources belong to the pack leader, then the dog would not guard them unless they belong to him. And, if they belong to him, then he must be the pack leader because the pack leader owns all the resources. Are you starting to get the picture?
- The leader of the pack always enforces the rules. Now why does your dog think he is the leader? Exactly -- you don’t always enforce the rules and the leader always enforces the rules. If you are not the leader, then by default the dog is. See how easy it is?
There are a thousand ways you could show your dog that you are the leader, but the best way to start is to think about these rules when you interact with him. If the furniture is yours, then don’t let him jump on the couch unless you invite him to. If it is your house, then don’t let him go in or out the doors without permission. If you own playtime, then ignore your dog when he drops the ball at your feet, no matter how cute it is. Wait until he goes away then call him back and ask him to play. Make it your idea. If he is lying on the kitchen or hall floor, don’t step over him; use your foot to gently nudge him out of the way. After all, isn’t it your floor? In short, your dog is not allowed to own anything or make any decisions.
Of course, some dogs will not respond to these obvious leadership signals. If you have unusual problems dealing with your dog, or his behavior is endangering himself or others, then you need to invest in private lessons or a more comprehensive training program. But if you are just looking for more respect and a relatively well-behaved dog, then give it some thought. A slight change in your behavior can amount to a significant change in his. Dogs love their owners, but they respect their leaders. You need both to have a well-balanced relationship with your dog; you need a well-balanced relationship with your dog in order to train him.
Now that you understand a bit more about pack leadership, stop copying the TV dog trainers who pin the dogs to the ground with an alpha roll. This is great entertainment but does not automatically earn you your dog’s respect. There is a good reason that the television shows flash disclaimers across the screen -- someone can get hurt. And remember, you do not have to be a tyrant to be in charge; you can be a benevolent leader.
With all training programs, you should closely supervise your dog for an initial period of time (longer for puppies). But after you have shown your dog what you expect from him, in most situations you should be able to let your guard down if you have established yourself as the pack leader. If you have not, then to your dog you are just a big hairless monkey who yells at him every time he decides to have some fun with your stuff. You will know when you are the pack leader because your dog will start looking to you for permission to act, instead of you constantly looking at him in order to keep him out of trouble. In short, leadership means you are in charge.
Eleanor Scheidemann is CEO of The Dog Lady, Inc. You can also visit her blog, The Dog Lady Speaks, and learn more about her recommendations for natural dog food.