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Becoming Leader of the Pack

Your dog nips when you try to get him off the couch...or bucks when you try to put on the collar...or yanks ahead whenever you attempt to take him for a walk. While not uncommon, these behaviors are unacceptable. The dog has decided he's "alpha" - the leader of the pack.

Dogs need social order. A dog's social system is a "pack" with a well-defined pecking order, or hierarchy. The Top Dog gets the best food, the best place to sleep, the best toy - and gets to go first. Some dogs assume the proper place in the pecking order. However, others will challenge authority in a quest to become alpha.

Are you encouraging your dogs to challenge authority? You might be if you treat your dogs as equals, not as subordinates...if you let them sleep on the bed or couch...if you don't properly train your dogs and instead let them get away with disobeying commands. The alpha dog can be any size, and may seem normally pleasant and good. But when challenged, the alpha dog will quickly put the challenger in his place with a stare or growl - or a bite. This is instinctive behavior. But in a human family, it's unacceptable and dangerous.

Dogs need and want leaders. They want the security of knowing their place and what's expected of them. Most of them don't really want to be alpha. But if their humans don't provide enough leadership, the dog will take over the alpha role. If your dog respects one family member but dominates the others, you still have a problem. The dog's place should be at the bottom of your human family's pack order. To reclaim your rightful place as leader of the pack, you must teach your dog how to be a subordinate, not an equal.

How to become leader of your pack:

Your dog watches you constantly and reads your body language. He knows if you're uncomfortable in a leadership role or won't enforce a command. This behavior confuses him, makes him insecure and will encourage him to assume the alpha role and tell you what to do.

"Alpha" is an attitude. It involves quiet confidence, dignity, authority. A dog can sense this attitude immediately - it's how his mother acted towards him. Watch a professional trainer or a obedience instructor. They stand tall and use their voices and eyes to project the idea that they're capable of getting what they want. They're gentle but firm. Most dogs are immediately submissive towards this type of personality because they recognize and respect alpha.

Practice being alpha. Stand up straight. Walk tall. Use a deep, firm new tone of voice. Don't ask your dog to do something - tell him. You make the rules and give the orders. With most dogs, this change in your attitude and an obedience training course will turn things around. However, a dog who's already taken over the household and has enforced his position by growling or biting will need an attitude adjustment as well.

An alpha dog knows that he can beat you in a physical fight, so using aggression won't work - and can be downright dangerous to you. You must outthink him - and be stubborner than he is. Following is an effective, non-violent method of putting him back at the bottom of the family totem pole. For this method to work, your whole family has to be involved. This is serious: a dog that bites or threatens people is dangerous, no matter how much you love him.

Canine Boot Camp for Alpha Attitude Adjustment:

Your dog's mother taught him how to be a dog once and how to take orders. Along the way, through lack of training, he has forgotten. Now it's time to retrain him. You're going to teach him that from now on, he has to earn what he gets - food, playtoys, praise. No more free rides. This may shock him at first but he'll soon catch on and become eager to please you.

Teach your dog how to SIT. Reward him with praise ("Good boy!") and a tidbit. Now, every time your dog wants something - dinner, a walk, attention - tell him (don't ask) to SIT first. When he does, praise him with a "Good Boy!", then tell him OK and give him what he wants as a reward. If he refuses to SIT, walk away and ignore him. No SIT, no reward.

If you allowed free feeding, switch to a twice-daily feeding. Make him sit for dinner. If he won't obey, no dinner. Walk away and ignore him. Bring the food out later and tell him to SIT. Don't tell him more than once. Give commands from a standing position and use a deep, firm voice.

If the dog disrespects certain members of the family, let them be the ones to feed him and bring the good things to his life for now. It's important that your whole family follows the same program. Dogs are like kids - if a dog finds someone he can dominate, he'll continue to do so. You want your dog to learn to respect and obey everyone.

Anticipate your dog's behavior so you can avoid or correct it. If he tries to bolt out the door ahead of you, make him SIT and wait while you open the door and give him permission - OK! - to go out, and never ahead of you. (Without a leash, you have no control over him and he knows it.)

Petting and attention: In a real dog pack, subordinate dogs touch, lick and groom the alpha dog to show respect and submission. Until your dog's attitude improves, cut down on the petting. When he wants attention, make him SIT first, give him some praise and pats, then stop. If he pesters you, tell him NO! in a firm voice and ignore him. Pet him when you decide to. Also, for now, don't get down on the floor or on your knees to pet your dog. That, too, is a show of submission. Give praise, petting and rewards from a position that's higher than the dog.

Games: No more wrestling or tug-of-war - these games encourage dogs to dominate physically and to use their teeth. In a dog pack or litter, these games actually serve to establish pack order. Instead, play hide & seek, fetch or frisbee. Make sure you're the one who starts and ends the game, not the dog. Stop playing before the dog gets bored or tries to keep the ball.

Sleeping: Don't allow the dog to sleep on your bed - that makes him feel equal or superior. At least until your dog's alpha problems are fully under control, all furniture is off-limits.

Crate-training: A crate is a great place for a dog to sleep, to eat in and to have a "time-out." The crate is your dog's "den." Start by feeding him his dinner in his crate. Close the door and let him stay there for an hour. If he throws a tantrum, ignore him. Don't let your dog out of his crate until he's quiet and settled. [You can give him a treat for being calm in the crate.]

How do you know Canine Boot Camp is working? Your dog should start looking to you for direction and permission. If your dog still comes to you "standing tall, then he's still alpha. A dog who accepts humans as superiors will approach with his head slightly lowered and his ears back or off to the sides. Some improve quickly; for others, Boot Camp must be a way of life. Social climbers may need refreshers if you get lax and let them climb back up the family pack order.

Obedience Training: Take all dogs through an obedience course with a qualified trainer. Obedience class teaches you to train your dog. It teaches you how to be alpha, how to enforce commands and rules, how to get respect and to keep it. All family members who are old enough to understand and control the dog should participate in the class.

Obedience training is a lifelong process. Obedience commands need to be practiced and incorporated into your daily life. Certain commands, like DOWN/STAY, are effective reminders of a dog's place in the family pecking order.

Dogs want to please and need a job to do. Training gives them the opportunity to do both. A well-trained dog can go more places with you because he knows how to behave. A well-trained dog who's secure in his place in the family pack is content; he knows what's expected of him. He's free to be your loving companion and not your boss. He's free to be a dog!

- Condensed from "Who's in Charge Here?" by Vicki Rodenberg, Chow Chow Club Inc.

Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport