Your Family as a Pack
Megan Brooks CDT
Your Family as a Pack
It is very important that you understand dog psychology. Dogs do not think anything like human beings; therefore, it is our responsibility as dog owners to learn to think like dogs.
Dogs, like their ancestors, live in family units called packs. The dog pack relies completely on a strict hierarchy, or pecking order, to keep things operating smoothly. The entire pack depends on a strong, stable, benevolent leader to protect and lead them. Each member understands and accepts his place in the pack. In your family, if you do not establish yourself as an efficient leader, your dog will take the role on himself. Confusion about who holds the ALPHA position is at least partially to blame for most behavior problems.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that the dog pack is not a democracy! As humans we tend to regard one another as equals. We want everything to be fair, just and equal. We assume that if we don’t share with our dogs that they will feel sad or left out. Dogs do not have the ability to adjust to this way of thinking. Dogs are dogs, and as dogs they need to know their place in the pack in order to live as well adjusted family pets.
It is also very important to understand that your dog will be much happier when you are the leader of your pack. Dogs that are forced to hold the alpha position are often nervous and stressed out. It is a hard job and your dog will be relieved when you take over the position.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that you must be mean or cruel to establish yourself as the alpha dog. In fact, you should never have to yell at or strike your dog. Bullying and abuse only break your dogs trust and teach him to fear you. In the wild, dogs will never follow an unstable leader. If you lose your cool and scream at or hit your dog, he will see you as unstable and unpredictable.
Establishing ourselves as alpha dogs is a continuous process. Dogs live completely in the moment and who is the leader must be re-established several times daily. If you follow the program I’ve outlined below, you will be reminding your dog (or dogs) every day that they can relax because you’ve got everything under control.
Behaving like a leader
If you are not behaving like a leader should behave then your dog will not feel comfortable trusting you as leader. This generally has one of two outcomes; Either the dog suffers anxiety over the lack of leadership being provided and behavior problems occur or the dog feels it necessary to take on the leader position and behavior problems occur. Either way, in order to solve these behavior problems and ease your dog’s stress it becomes necessary to learn how to become a confident, calm and assertive pack leader. First, let’s talk about how leaders do not behave. Leaders are not timid, inconsistent or unsure. They do not demonstrate emotional instability. Leaders do not rule using force and they do not react out of frustration or anger. Leaders do not panic or flinch when faced with a new, stressful or unfamiliar situation. Unfortunately, most people were not born with the skills and emotional stability necessary to lead a dog pack. When we choose to bring dogs into our homes it becomes necessary to learn how to lead them. This is for the sake of our families, households and lifestyles but even more for the sake of the dogs we love. Leaders are stable both in body and mind. They are calm, assertive and fair. Leaders project calm, stable energy to the pack members who respond with calm submissive energy because they can be comfortable accepting you as their calm, stable and assertive pack leader.
The Pack Walk
It is natural for dogs in the wild to wake up first thing in the morning and migrate in search of food. The pack leader dictates where the pack will go and how long the walk will last. The pack members obediently follow their trusted leader until he or she decides that the walk is over.
By using dog’s natural instinct to migrate we can create an opportunity every morning to communicate to our dogs that we are the pack leader and that it is their job to follow us.
Rules of The Pack Walk:
P The walk should take place first thing in the morning before food, affection or anything else
P Dogs must walk beside or slightly behind you. If your dog is in front he is, in fact, leading the walk!
P The Pack Walk is strictly business; no sniffing, marking or other activities unless you give permission!
P The Pack Walk should take place a minimum of 40 minutes twice daily and is a leadership exercise, not a means of adequate daily exercise to drain energy!
It is very important that affection be earned and given only at appropriate times. It is very hard for most people, myself included, to resist lavishing affection on their beloved canine pals. Unfortunately, giving dogs affection at inappropriate times can have devastating effects.
Dogs view affection very differently than humans do. When you offer your dog affection that has not been earned it can communicate to him that he is, in fact, the pack leader. If you try to comfort a frightened dog by telling him “it’s ok” in a quiet soothing voice as you would a scared child you would not be helping to calm his anxieties and in fact would be reinforcing the scared behavior. Offering affection to any dog when he is excited further reinforces excited behavior. Try to only offer affection when your dog is in a calm state. Never when your dog is excited, scared, nervous, barking, whining, growling or otherwise not in a calm state of mind. It is recommended that you try to never give affection unless it is on your terms. If your dog comes to you for affection and you give it to him you have just given in to his demands. Instead, ignore your dog’s attempts to solicit attention. He will eventually stop altogether. Call your dog to you to share affection. Doing this clearly reinforces your status as leader and teaches your dog that coming to you is always a wonderful thing.
1. Pack leaders always eat first!
In the pack, dogs eat in the order of rank. The alpha dogs eat their share and then subordinate members eat in order of rank. If you share table scraps with your dog, he should always have the last bite. Do not feed dogs from the table; instead place it in the dogs bowl only.
2. Do not “free-feed” your dog
There are many reasons not to let your dog have access to food all day but the most important reason is that when your dog sees you as the provider of his food, he will learn to respect you as his leader. Most adult dogs should be fed twice daily (always follow the advice of your veterinarian). Allow your dog to eat and pick up what is left in the bowl after twenty minutes.
3. Nothing in life is free
From now on, all things good must be earned. This includes meals! This is a great time to practice commands or work on new tricks. Even if you just ask him to “sit” before you give him his bowl of food, he will learn to respect you. All family members, even small children should ask the dog to perform a behavior before giving the dog a treat. This communicates to the dog that even children are of higher rank.
Rules regarding play:
1. The leader will start and stop all doggy games
You will decide when it is time to play and when you are finished playing. If your dog
brings a toy to you in an invitation to play, take the toy from him and set it aside
for a few minutes until you are ready to play. When you are finished, you should have
possession of the toy. Never chase your dog when he has a toy!
2. Do not roughhouse with any dog
It is never a good idea to roughhouse with any dog. Doing so teaches dogs that it is okay to jump up on and mouth people. It also undermines your status as leader when your dog thinks it is acceptable to chew on and climb all over you. Rough play encourages rough and even aggressive behavior.
3. Avoid playing tug-of-war
I generally do not recommend that dog owners engage in games of tug-of-war with their dogs. If you choose to play tug-of-war, keep in mind that in your dog’s eyes, the winner is the alpha dog.
4. Avoid chasing games Some dogs will pick up a toy and proceed to run so that you will chase them. This is a bad game! In the dog pack, he who has the toy is the alpha dog. Since we as humans are not nearly fast enough to challenge them we must not ever allow our dogs to get us into this situation. Keep your dog’s toys put away except during playtime if he plays chase games. Attach a lunge-line to him to ensure that you can catch him and reclaim the toy. Remember that the pack leader never takes a toy from a subordinate pack member; the pack member always drops it first.
1. The alpha dog chooses where to sleep
I strongly advise against permitting dogs on the furniture, but if you choose to allow your dog on the furniture or in your bed keep in mind that you should get comfortable first and then your dog can be called to join you. If you want to sit down and your dog is already there, move him. It won’t hurt his feelings and it will communicate your position as alpha dog. Never arrange yourself around your dog.
2. Narrow spaces
Your dog may try to shove through hallways or doorways in front of you. This is unacceptable behavior! Have your dog “sit” and then “wait” until you give him the “ok” to walk through the doorway. You can walk through first or at the same time as your dog but he should never go first. Do not step over your sleeping dog, say, “excuse me!” and shuffle your feet, if necessary to encourage him to get up.
3. Attention seeking
Nudging, pawing and/or barking at you in order to gain your attention is common in dominant dogs. As the pack leader, you should not respond to these demands. Initiate attention on your own terms. At first your dog will probably try harder to demand attention, but as long as you (and everyone in your pack) is consistent your dog will soon look to you as his pack leader.
4. Greeting your dog How you greet your dog when you arrive home can define you either as a leader or as
a follower. It is one of the most important factors in establishing leadership. Most of us rush home and gather our pampered pooches in our arms, telling them in baby talk just how much we missed them. This single display of emotion tells our dogs everything. One of the times the pack will re-establish who is leader is when the pack is reuniting after the owner has been absent. Your dog is looking for signals that you are still the leader when you come home and as soon as you make eye contact or acknowledge your dog you communicate that you are a follower.
The proper way to greet your dogs is to ignore them for at least five minutes when you return home. I know it’s hard but it is for the better. Once you have put everything down and have checked the messages, if your dogs are in a calm state you may give them a low-key greeting by calling them to you. Avoid dramatic departures as well; dogs can actually develop separation anxiety when too much excitement accompanies departures and arrivals.
Last Updated: Monday, December 14, 2009