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How To Become The Leader Your Dog Needs

By Cynthia Edgerly, BS, CDBC

One of the easiest ways to raise a dog that’s a joy to live is to become the leader your dog needs.  As pack animals, dogs thrive when there is structure, boundaries and expectations.  Your dog will feel most relaxed and secure when he understands what his boundaries are and that you have things under control.

This concept is important to understand because many people unknowingly give their dogs a leadership position within the family structure.  And, dogs in a leadership role are often labeled  ‘problem dogs’ because they exercise their leadership rights as dogs do; this can include barking, growling, mouthing, biting and a many other behaviors people find offensive.   Dogs in a leadership role are often very stressed overall and so are the people! 

Since people are often unaware how their actions influence their dog’ perception of leadership it’s important to understand:

 * In Dog World – Pack Leaders Have Priority Rights To Resources *

Resources can include anything from your attention to food, objects, spaces, people and other animals.   

Therefore, we establish our leadership role by setting rules, boundaries and expectations around the access to resources. 

Getting Started

To get your relationship started on the right foot, or make changes if you feel your dog has the wrong message, you don’t need to use force to dominate or intimidate your dog.  Force often results in fear, confusion and alienation; that’s certainly not the kind of relationship you want or need to foster with your loving companion.  Consider your role as that of the ‘benevolent’ leader instead.  In this role you establish your leadership in a clear, patient and consistent manner without intimidation; you express love without spoiling your dog; set boundaries that clearly identify you as the leader; and provide consequences for inappropriate behavior.  To do this you will need to meet your dogs’ basic needs and teach basic obedience skills so he understands what is expected. You can then provide structure and establish boundaries. The more time you spend establishing that you are a leader worthy of trust and respect, the better behaved your dog will be.

Meet Your Dogs Basic Needs    Good leadership starts by providing for our dogs basic needs. (click on title to link to article)

Teach Obedience Skills    Develop a clear and effective way to communicate with your dog so he understands what your rules, boundaries and expectations are.  To make sure you are fostering a respectful and trusting relationship, teach obedience skills using positive reinforcement methods. 

 Give special attention to the following obedience skills as they most clearly establish your leadership role

Pack Leaders Have Priority Rights To Resources

  • WAIT (at doors)  – Don’t pass through doors till given permission. The outdoors is a big resource. Pack leaders go through doors (home and auto) and gates first, then give their dog permission to follow. This is also very important safety practice. 
  • LEAVE ITStop going for that food, object or critter and return your attention to me. Pack leaders have priority rights these resources.  This is another very important safety practice.
  • HEELWalk close by my side and keep pace with me. Pack leaders have the right to choose the direction and pace of the walk. If you’re out exercising your dog you should not keep your dog in the heel position the entire walk.  Your dog should also be taught how to walk on a loose leash without pulling and be allowed to sniff and explore with your permission as you do some of the waiting and following.
  • OFFMove off the furniture, object or person (put four paws on the floor). 
  • WATCH OUTMove over or step aside.  Off and Watch Out relate to a pack leaders right to any space, any time.  People with lively households should provide their dogs with a private space (bed or crate.)  Your dog should be free to go to this place when he needs some privacy and be left alone to rest.

Petting & Play   Petting and play are an important part of establishing a good relationship with your dog.  It’s enjoyable to both people and dogs, and it usually fulfills a basic need for both parties.  The big question is – who’s initiating this interaction.  If your dog regularly asks for attention by barking, mouthing, pawing, nudging or dropping toys at your feet; and you comply; your relationship is out of balance.  Note: the key word here is regularly.  An occasional nudge or toy offering done in an unobtrusive, polite manner is not something I would consider a big deal or an indicator that the relationship is out of balance.

A dog that regularly and/or persistently asks for attention would be more accurately described as a dog that is actually demanding attention.  Can you imagine a more clear way to send our dogs the message that they hold the leadership role than meeting their demands?  When this occurs you can put the relationship back in balance by ignoring all demands for attention.  This means no looking at and no talking to your dog.  If your dog persists, you should separate yourself from your dog for a brief time-out of 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Another important practice is teaching your dog what behavior is acceptable.  If your dog backs off or sits down and awaits attention patiently, praise and pet.

As wise and benevolent leaders we should also ask ourselves a question if our dog is demanding attention….

Am I providing for my dogs basic needs by taking adequate time out of each day to interact with my dog in a meaningful way. When deciding what adequate time and meaningful interaction is you should take your dogs age, breed and temperament into consideration.  I am a firm believer that all dogs in good health should be walked off the property for at least 30 minutes each day, preferably longer.  How boring is the idea of hanging around home all day?  Dogs need to be exposed to novel environments just like people do.

Establish a regular schedule for interaction lasting 15 minutes twice a day.  During this time you can teach tricks, groom, massage, pet, play games or practice obedience exercises.   

* If your dog knows you’re going to spend quality time with him each day he can relax easier and will be less likely to pester you for attention. 

Another great way spice up your dogs’ life is by making mealtime more interesting and fun.  You can do this by hiding their kibble in different locations around the house or yard and teaching your dog to find it; stuffing their food in Kongs or Buster Cubes; or practicing obedience skills and tricks.   If you don’t have the time or energy to provide for your dogs exercise needs, consider hiring a dog walker or doggie daycare.  Maybe you could even switch off dog sitting days with a neighbor that owns a dog your dog enjoys playing with.

As you develop your leadership role remember that providing for your dogs basic needs is essential, you are not trying to meet all that your dog wants

Caution:  Roughhousing with your dog can set you up for problems in the future.  Playing this way teaches your dog that it is appropriate to interact with people in a rough manner.  Even though rough play may be something you and your dog enjoy there could be trouble when your dog plays too rough with others.

Implement the Earn and Learn Program    By incorporating this program into your daily interactions with your dog, you further establish your leadership role by setting rules, boundaries and expectations around the access to more resources.    (click on title to link to article)

Cynthia Edgerly, owner of Bingo! Dog Training in Watsonville, California, is a Professional Dog Trainer & Certified Dog Behavior Consultant.   To contact Cynthia please go to her website:  http://www.bingodogtraining.com  or Phone: (831) 768-9308 or (408) 335-8745. 

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Last modified: 04/18/08