Establishing Yourself As Leader Of The Pack
Whatever advice you get on training a dog there is always some mention of becoming the leader of the 'pack'. I often feel that 'Leader' is too harsh a word as I am looking for a 'partnership' but there is no doubt your dog has to look to you for leadership, instruction and guidance. It has to obey your command and when under control situations obey it without question. It all sounds so easy but establishing yourself in this role is not as simple as many think.
Like any animal every dog is different and have differing personalities and character, some will be totally submissive whilst at the other end of the spectrum others may be very dominant, add to this other characteristics such as boldness, sensitivity, nervousness and all of a sudden the combinations grow. Many professional trainers like a sensitive type of dog that has a willingness to please. The 'sensitivity' often results in the dog needing very little in the form of chastisement, and with structured training generally learns quickly if you reinforce it's good work with praise. With such a dog, becoming the leader isn't difficult and in fact the dog may never challenge you for leadership. This is often the case in females and this is the reason many people prefer them.
Rarely however are matters that straight forward. Your dog is born into a pack, the first seven or more weeks are spent in a pack situation and many of it's natural instincts emanate from being such an animal. With this in mind I would always advise new owners to take their pup at about seven to eight weeks of age before a 'pack' pattern establishes itself from being within the litter too long. At seven weeks the pup is old enough to leave the mother and young enough to adapt easily to a new environment and a human pack. When you take your young pup therefore, you and your family becomes it's new pack and the dog will need to adapt to your pack rules. There is no doubt then when you watch a young litter of pups you will notice that each pup will have adopted a role, and in picking your pup you may have gone for any one of the characters they had displayed. Advice from others or your own specific preferences will have determined your choice. Now that pup has to fit in with your pack and all their characteristics and routines. They have to learn their place in the household, what they are allowed and not allowed to do and generally build a security of mind through knowing where they fit into the pack order. As a human with more intelligence you have an advantage psychologically, physically and mentally over a young dog and as such should make sure that you always remain on top. Normally a puppy is easy to lead but to do so you must spend time with it and without harshness, show it what you want. In doing so you will exert your 'leadership' without pup or yourself even really knowing it. Although punishment should not be ruled out, you must realize that your pup does not know anything and unless it understands what you require cannot be punished because it does not know it is doing wrong. Put the pup in a position where it does right and then you can reward. This will create a far better relationship with the pup than constantly reprimanding and nagging it. So guide, encourage and reward acceptable behavior. Avoid situations which encourage incorrect behavior and at times even ignore unwanted behavior if you are not in a position to put it right.
Simple commands such as catching the pups attention with it's name, and encouraging it to come 'HERE'; saying 'kennel' and guiding the pup into it; teaching it to sit and even to urinate and defecate on command are all parts of exerting your 'leadership' on the dog. To do all this you have to play a part that will get the desired results and your eyes, hands and voice are very instrumental in this. A high pitched, sweet voice to call and praise, a gruff sound to scold is obvious but also use your hands and your eyes. Your eyes can speak volumes to a dog. Large and staring are menacing and 'punishing', soft half closed and smiling are encouraging. But your hands are positive direct contacts with your dog. Stroking, shaking, scratching, massaging, holding are all ways in which you can use your hands and impart messages of leadership. I spend a lot of time with young pups getting them to accept being with me and not being afraid of my hands. In future I will want them to see my hands as friends not to afraid of so I am careful how I use them. When I have pups I like to spend time with them and we regularly have a play on the lawn. All pups like to have a bite either at my hands or any part of me they can get their teeth into. Most of the time this is not too drastic but occasionally they get carried away and those little needle teeth can be more than fun. If they do nip a little more than I like, a quick 'ouch' and light tap on the nose can do the trick of making them desist. I then let them sniff my hand again and am delighted if they nuzzle or lick it instead of biting. Sometimes I will just nip their lips or nose as they are biting my fingers, in this way they do not see it as me punishing them but as something that happens when they bite and don't do it as readily. A friend of mine has obedience border collies and she tells me that they tend to bite noses - yours, so she feeds them small pieces of cheese from her mouth and in this way they don't look to bite at the face but look for pleasure. This is also a good way to develop eye contact. If a puppy runs away and ignores me when I call I will endeavor to catch its attention and get it to obey so that I can praise it. Running away, sitting on the floor, waving an enticing piece of rag or a toy are all techniques I use to get the dog to come to me.
Your pup must know where it is allowed to go in the house and must also have a place of security. A crate or a kennel area in the house is ideal for this. It is taught that crate or kennel means exactly that and it must stay there until allowed to leave. The crate or kennel however must never be considered as or used as punishment. Train pup to go there willingly. This is its 'Den", its own room. The important feature of a crate or kennel area is that in there the pup cannot do wrong, it is not learning bad habits and when out with you this time can be quality learning time where you can teach pup what you want it to know. Short periods of training, no more than twenty minutes at a time, three to four times a day are far more productive than long brain tiring sessions.. When you go through doors make the dog wait while you go first and teach your dog basic politeness. In the house a lot of this can be done very easily through repetitive training in simple stages showing the dog the social graces that you expect from someone within your pack. If you do this, the challenge to your leadership may not arise but watch out if it does, and sometimes it isn't blatant. The defiance or lack of response when you give an instruction and pulling on the leash to get through a door are just obvious illustrations. But look also for the dog that barks to tell you it is time for a tidbit or a walk, or the scratching at the door to let it come in or go out without any real reason, the guarding of food or a belonging even in play, and the impatience to get to food when it is placed on the floor are all signs of a dog that is taking control. Some dogs will even do it almost fun like and play the fool to get the results required from you, their leadership comes from manipulation. If you do find yourself with a very dominant dog then the answer is to not only train it to a high degree but to ensure that it complies every time with your commands. And probably one of the most important commands around the home is to make it lie down, in this way it assumes naturally subservient position to you.
As pack leader you should have a dog looking to you, respecting you and wanting to do things that will please you but always watch out for that challenge. If you know your dog you will realize when it is trying to please and when it is pleasing itself, and when that happens make sure the dog knows you know and demand consistent obedience. In future articles I will expand on many of these leadership topics and show how they can help you develop a true partner that looks to you for leadership.
[Other articles by this author]