Dog Training Denver, Conifer to Fairplay, Colorado

Affection & Praise Family Dog Training, Inc.

    Established 1996                     (303) 910-3931

                     “Building Lasting Relationships through Training and Understanding”


Basically what happens is this.  Two mature wolves get together and have a bunch of puppies.  Then the next year, if the food supply allows it, they have some more pups.  Now we have a pack of which the alphas are simply the parents and as such have parenting responsibilities.  Once the kids get old enough, they leave the pack and start families of their own.  Not so different from ourselves, are they? 

The parents are fair benevolent leaders.  They watch over and determine all the important happenings in the pack.  The parents control the actions and interactions of the pack when its important.  For instance, they decide when to hunt, who gets to hunt, who stays behind, who gets to eat first, second, last, when to sleep, when to defend the territory or when to flee.  In other words, the parents set the boundaries.

They are fair, calm, cool, collected and confident. The other pack members follow their instructions while maintaining their individuality.  It's every manager's dream.

Even though the pack leader positions carry enormous responsibilities, they do offer some fun fringe benefits: the choicest resting places, all the toys and possessions and to be revered by all, not to mention to be the only one who gets to mate, usually.

Even though dogs have clearly evolved a long way away from wolves, they still have plenty of instincts left over from the days they roamed the tundras.  What follows is what we can do to help our dogs feel happy and secure, while keeping those instincts in mind.

Where we go wrong

Dogs need for us to take on all the parenting responsibilities.  They will gladly accept our leadership, unless we unwittingly hand it over to them.  A lot of problems between dogs and people arise because we do not take on the necessary parenting responsibilities. 

From Rover's perspective we often want to take all of the benefits without first taking on the responsibilities.  This can be very confusing to Rover. We give Rover what he wants, when he wants it and let him control our interactions.  Often we give him too much freedom and don’t protect him well enough, even from himself.   

Just like in human families, if the parents don’t parent, the kids will take over some or all of the responsibilities.  This is a far from ideal situation for anyone. Children nor dogs should be put in a such a predicament.  It is obvious that no dog can run a human family.  Just like parents lead their human families, dog parents need to lead their dogs as well.

Taking on the leadership of our pack provides us with numerous benefits.  Rover will be happy to do what we ask of him and take our cues about what's going on.  If we're happy, he'll be happy -- if we feel threatened, he'll feel threatened -- if we're calm, he'll be calm, etc.  In essence, he'll somewhat mirror what's going on with us and leave the decision making up to us as well.

Pack Leadership

You have probably heard and read a great deal about pack leaders, alphas and how they are supposed to act and behave.  Physical domination, alpha rollovers and getting in your dog’s face all were part of the old fashioned notion.  This myth got it’s start most likely from a renowned wolf behaviorist who based his findings on what happens when you throw a bunch of unrelated wolves together in captivity.  Since then he has revised his views after studying wolves in depth for the past 40 years.

2.  The pack leaders control interactions between them and the pack members.  Rover puts his head on your lap to be petted, he's so sweet, you gladly comply.  Then Rover needs to go out and scratches at the door.  You're proud of him for letting you know, so you comply.  Rover wants to play and puts a ball in your lap, how cute, you comply.  Rover has trained you perfectly!

As the leader, you can schedule Rover's potty breaks (after he’s been housebroken of course), you decide when to play a game and when to end it, you decide when to pet Rover and when you've had enough.  Or, if Rover knows how to perform behaviors on cue, make him do something for you, like "sit," before you do something for him.  This is generally referred to as the "no free lunch" policy and it makes sure that Rover is very clear on who controls the interactions.

If you want to figure out who is the top dog in a group of dogs, don’t be thrown off by who is on his back and who is on top physically.  Just watch who leads the game “Simon says.”  It’s usually some little female who says “now we are going to sniff over here” and “now we are going to wrestle,” etc.

So, You want to be Leader of the Pack

Let's look at which responsibilities you need to assume to lead your pack.

1.  The rules are set and stuck to.  It is a good idea to decide with your family what you deem acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  Decide whether Rover is allowed on your furniture or not, or by invitation only.  If he is not allowed to jump up on your guests, he should never be allowed to jump up, or by invitation only “give a hug.”  If you keep changing the rules, Rover will not be able to trust your directions.

3.  The pack leaders protect the pack. 

It is your responsibility to protect Rover, even from himself.  For Rover to take all his cues from you, he has to be able to trust in you to keep him safe, to make the right decisions for him.  That means keeping him safe from people and dogs that may harm him and being selective about whom he gets to play with; teaching him what's edible and what's not, keeping him away from cars, wasps, toads, bears, etc.

If Rover gets hurt or has an extremely unpleasant experience under your leadership, he'll learn not to rely upon your decisions and take matters into his own paws.

4.  The pack leaders decide when to defend the territory and when to flee. This one is super important! Even though a pack member may alert the pack to the presence of an intruder, the leaders will evaluate the situation and decide how to deal with it.

Rover barks for two reasons: first, to tell the intruder to go away and second, to get his pack leaders to come and make a decision.  So, with his superior hearing Rover may warn you that there is someone outside,  but he shouldn't continue to bark once you've indicated to him that the coast is clear.  Just check out what he was barking at and then talk to him in a upbeat tone of voice until he stops. 

Rover shouldn't have to make decisions either regarding which visitors are friends and which are foe.  Clearly show him how your feel about visitors.  If you like them, act friendly and jolly.  If you act nervous or upset, Rover will take this as a cue to chase them away.

Rover looks to you to find out how to feel about something.  Rover will pay attention to your demeanor and tone of voice, not your words (dogs don’t speak English).  If Rover is nervous or upset about something that you consider safe, just talk to him in a jolly happy tone of voice. Don’t comfort him, because comforting will make you look concerned, not happy.  Act how you want Rover to feel and he will come around.  If Rover has a big fear of something however, he will need systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.  Please have your trainer instruct you how to do this properly. 

By the way, if you yell at Rover, he's just going to think that you're barking too, at the same thing he's barking at.  Now you're both barking.  This will only make him bark more.

5.  The pack leaders control the interactions between pack members.  If your parents had not interfered between you and your siblings and would have let your siblings do anything to you that they wanted, you most likely would not be friends with them today.  Even though dogs know their own language better than we do, please do not assume that dogs will always work out their relationships with their siblings peacefully.  They need their parents to keep a close eye on them.  There are just two categories of behavior: acceptable and unacceptable.  Good behavior gets praise and unacceptable behavior gets corrected, for instance by a time-out. 

6.  The pack leaders determine who gets to eat first, second and so forth.  Rover's food is one of the highlights of his day (some of us can empathize).  Feeding Rover at regular intervals, twice a day, is a great way to affirm your leadership.  Hand feeding Rover every now and then will really drive home the point that the food comes directly from you and doesn’t just magically appear every day. Even better is to work some of Rover’s obedience exercises for him to earn handfuls of food. Leaving a bowl of food out all day does nothing for your relationship and is not recommended.

7.  The pack leaders determine when the pack sleeps. 

When you go to bed, so should Rover and when you are ready to get up, so can he.  Please do not let Rover determine when you get up, or have him wake you up at all hours of the night.  If he tries, just ignore him consistently (except if Rover is a very young puppy, an incontinent senior or if he's trying to tell you the house is on fire).

Pack members sleep together.  Therefore, we recommend that Rover sleeps in the bedroom or close to it.  This will strengthen the pack bond.

8.  The pack leaders are fair, calm, cool, collected and confident. 

The leader is not a bully, he doesn't have irrational temper tantrums and he doesn't take a bad hunt out on the other pack members.  He doesn't show insecurity or fear.  He shows his confidence with body language by keeping a relaxed* upright posture. The pack trusts him completely.

Don't intimidate, yell at or hit Rover, he'll just learn to be afraid, insecure, distrustful and defensive.  Don't expect Rover to read your mind either, or know the English language, other than the cues you have specifically taught him.  He cannot mind cues he doesn't understand.

*If a dog shows a stiff upright posture, he is actually insecure and defensive.

Once you take on these responsibilities, you'll enjoy the following benefits:

1.  The pack leaders own the choicest resting places. 

These are usually the highest places from which the leader can oversee the area.

In your home these choicest places are your couches, chairs, bed and on top of the staircase (towering over everyone).  It's up to you of course whether or not you allow Rover to rest on your couch or bed, as long as you realize what these places mean to Rover.  If you do allow it, we recommend that it be by invitation only and that you teach Rover the cue "off."

In any case, do not let Rover influence where you walk, sit or lie down.  If Rover happens to be snoozing right in the walk way to the kitchen, do not walk around him, but make him move (mumbling "excuse me" if it makes you feel better).  Warning: this could be interpreted by Rover as a challenge.  If your dog has shown aggression, consult with your trainer.

2.  The pack leaders own all the toys and possessions. 

This means that you should be able to pick up, take away, put away, play with, and chew on anything you like.  When you give Rover a bone, you should be able to take it away whenever you want without Rover giving you a hard time about it.

However, things aren't quite as simple as that, because in doggie world, possession is often 9/10th of the law.  That means that sometimes, a dog can successfully defend a possession against a parental figure.  Dogs and wolves alike do stealthily sneak away possessions though as soon as the "owner's" back is turned.

To solve this problem, not only is it good to teach Rover "drop it," and "leave it," it’s even better to teach him to enjoy it as well.  If Rover merely tolerates your taking something out of his mouth, he might not at all tolerate it from a stranger or a child.  This situation is responsible for numerous serious bite incidents every year.

3.  The pack leaders are usually the only ones who get to mate.  We'll let your imagination tackle this one.

1.  If Rover has a confident personality, he could show aggression whenever you do something he does not like.   For instance, if Rover is lying on the bed and you try to make him move, he may growl at you, or if you grab his collar, he may bite.  Unfortunately, dogs often correct each other by biting the muzzle of the offender.  On hairy dog snouts this usually isn't a big deal.  But the same correction given to the vulnerable face of a child is an altogether different matter.

2.  If Rover does not have a confident personality he might become overly attentive, hyper, and nervous.  The pack leader responsibility is too much for him to handle.  He has to protect the pack and make all those important decisions, but this really scares him.  He'll bark like crazy every time he hears something, hoping the "intruder" will go away; he'll run up and down to make sure nobody's coming.  He will drive everyone insane, including himself.

It is therefore not unusual for a dog to be very scared of strangers and bark his head off at anything that moves and simultaneously bite his owners for infractions.  Frustrated clients often refer to these dogs as "psycho," but from the dog's perspective it all makes sense:  "first they want me to assume all these leadership responsibilities, which scares me to death, then they get upset when I do my leadership duties and then, on top of everything else, they keep being insubordinate!"

These problems can be prevented or cured if and when you assume leadership.

***WARNING***  Do not provoke a confrontation with Rover.   Once you assume the responsibilities, the fringe benefits will be yours.  Challenging Rover could cause Rover to be aggressive, in which case you might back away and teach him the exact opposite of what you wanted.  Please don't do it.

Besides obedience training, the easiest way to affirm your position as pack leader is to use the "no free lunch" policy.  Whenever Rover wants, needs or asks anything from you, before you comply (if you want to comply that is) ask Rover to do something for you first, such as "sit," "shake," "down," etc.  If you do not want to comply, simply ignore him.

It has often been said that being the pack leader is all about not allowing Rover on your furniture, not letting Rover walk in front of you on walks and through doorways, not feeding Rover before you eat yourself, etc.  However, these things have no influence as long as you are the activity director and in charge of all of these things. 

For instance, it would be just as disrespectful for Rover to knock you out of the doorway as it would be for you to do that to your parents.  Would your parents allow you to drag them down the street?  Could you sit in your father’s favorite chair when he wanted to sit there?  As a child, did you eat whenever you wanted?  There really is no difference, other than dogs are furry and don’t speak English.

This article is a summary only of the protocol for Pack Leadership.

For more information please call Affection & Praise Family Dog Training at (303) 910-3931.

Disclaimer: Please note that the information herein is provided as a free service.  It does not create any form of legal or professional relationship and Affection & Praise Family Dog Training, Inc. does not accept any liability or responsibility for any action taken or avoided on the basis of information provided.  It is dangerous to rely on generalized information or guidance.  You should always seek independent professional advice in order that it can be tailored to your own individual circumstances.

In Conclusion

If we do not take on the parenting a.k.a. pack leader responsibilities, Rover will feel like he has no choice but to take over.  In his mind, the pack will perish if he doesn’t.  This could lead to the following problems: