Many people hear everyone constantly say, “You need to be the pack leader.” However, many of you ask, “How do I be the pack leader for my dog?”
What does it mean that dogs are pack animals? This means they always roam and stick together in a pack. Lions are the same way; you will very rarely see a lone lion because they travel in packs. Anytime you have a pack, there has to be a leader in charge of the pack. Think about a pack of dogs like a small business in America. There is no successful business that does not have someone in charge of it. There has to be someone in charge in order to make the decisions, ensure the employees are taken care of and have everything they need, reprimand an employee when he or she does something that goes against the policy of the company, and ensure the overall success of the business. The pack leader, or “alpha-male,” of a dog pack essentially has those same responsibilities.
It is imperative that you become the pack leader in your household with the addition of the new member of your pack (i.e., your puppy). It is important that you teach your new puppy that you are the pack leader. You must teach him that you are the one who is in charge of the pack; you make the decisions; you have the best of everything; you decide when to play with him; and out of your entire family, you must demonstrate to him that he is the lowest member of the “pack.”
Many people wonder why this is important. This is another very important process to ensure that you have a happy, confident, and well-trained dog. Dogs are much happier and stable when they know their place in a pack, and there is no question about who is the dominant individual in the house. As some of you may have already experienced by having dogs, people often say, “My dog listens to my husband really well and does not listen to me at all.” Or “My dog will listen to my husband and me, but he will not listen to the kids.” Again, this is because your dog knows whom the pack leader is, and listens to him or her. Generally, the person the dog listens to the best is the one who has displayed the best pack leader characteristics and he knows that person is in charge. We are going to discuss many things you can do in order to show your dog you are the pack leader.
One of the most basic things that I always stress to people during their puppy consultations at our dog training facility in Northern Virginia is: Do not let your dog get on the furniture. This is something a lot of people do not like to hear. However, this can and often does lead to major problems in the future. One of the problems with letting your dog get on the furniture is you are bringing them to your level. Essentially, you are teaching them they are on the same level as you and your family. Remember, dogs should be treated as the lowest members of the pack, not as equals. Having them sleep on the floor and on their dog beds is just one more thing to reinforce to them that they are lower members of the pack. Hence, they get the lowest and worst spots to sleep and lie.
Another problem that can be caused with letting them get on the furniture is territorial aggression. I have talked to many clients who tell me that if they try to get their dog off of the couch, he will growl and snap at them—again, because now the dog sees this as an invasion of his space. I have talked with numerous people who tell me that when they try to get into bed with their significant other, their dog will growl at them. Again, by bringing them to your level, you can create numerous problems with the order of your pack. You are demonstrating to your dog that he is equal to you; this can lead to many problems.
You should be the first one to do everything. What exactly does that mean, you ask? You should be the first one to eat, then you feed the dog. You should be the first one greeted when a family member arrives home, or if you arrive home first, the family members should be greeted and then the dog. Again, you are reinforcing to him that every member of the family is higher on the pack structure than he is. You should be the first one out the door and the first one up or down the stairs. Simply put your dog in the sit position and then allow him to come after you have gone, or hold him back so he cannot pass you. While walking on the leash, your pup should walk beside you, not in front. Again, leaders walk in the front of the pack. Just keep in mind when you start to work with your dog that you and your family should be the first ones to do everything. The dog always comes last.
In military and law enforcement, generally, our dogs do not have any toys that belong to them. This is done for two reasons, one of which I discussed earlier: Your dog will never be motivated for something to which he has constant access. The second reason we do this is to show the dog that he owns nothing; all toys are ours, and he plays with them when we allow him to. He gets them for doing something good, the toy becomes the treat. Many dogs become toy-aggressive because they have learned that the toys are theirs and you are trying to take their toy. Again, you are the leader, so you control everything in the house. Just like my father was our pack leader, so he controlled the remote control, and he only let us have access to it when he wanted to. Just one more small thing of the many that reaffirmed he was indeed the leader of our household. Get in the habit of touching and playing with your dog while he is eating, or has a bone or a toy. This is done to desensitize them to any possession issues that could arise in the future. Again, they learn that you give the food, toy, bone, or ball, and that you can take it away; it is yours and you are just letting them temporarily have it.
Another important thing about which I get asked about is when dogs try to force their owners to play with them or pet them. For example, you are sitting on the couch and your dog comes over and drops his ball in your lap or lifts up your hand to make you pet him. Those are both examples of your dog trying to make you interact. As hard as it may be, never give in to this forced interaction. Once you give in, your dog will always try to force you to interact. If our dogs do this, we simply pay no attention to them. They learn that their efforts did not pay off and they will no longer try to engage. If you feel you must give your dog a toy, and he keeps dropping it in your lap or next to you, simply put away the toy. This shows them that by trying to force you to play, they lost their toy. Again, they will stop doing this because they will equate this action with getting their toy taken. We teach the dogs that we decide when it’s time to play, not them.
Never feed your dogs from the table. This is a common mistake. If you do this, you will have a dog that begs, drools, and stalks you and your family at the table. By handing them food from the table, you are teaching your dog that the table is a great source for amazing food. Imagine if every time you hung around the table, your father offered up $100. How much would you be waiting at the table? Your dog has the same mindset as you. If you feel compelled to give your dog table food, wait until everyone from the family has finished and gotten up from the table. Then you can place some of the leftovers in your dog’s bowl. By doing so, you are teaching that food never comes from the table and it will only come from his bowl.
Make your dog listen. I always tell our clients when doing our training in Northern Virginia, “Never give your dog a command that you are not going to reinforce.” That is one of the most important things when it comes to advanced training. If you give a dog a command that you know he knows, you must follow through with it and make him do it, with no exceptions. If you tell him to sit, down, or come, you must ensure he does it, even if you have to physically make him do it. Your dog must learn that once you issue a command, there is no way out of it. Just like with kids, if you let them get away with not doing something you told them to do once, they will try to get out of it the next 10 times. I always tell my clients, “You will never hear me tell a dog something that he doesn’t end up doing. Once I say a command, it’s not if he will do it, but whether they do it on their own. Otherwise I will make him do it.” To me, this is an essential principal in training and being the pack leader. If my father told me to clean my room, it was getting done and there was no way out of it and I knew that, so I rarely even tried to get out of it. Apply those same principles to training your dog—if you cannot back it up, don’t give the command.