Becoming the ‘Pack Leader’

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To communicate successfully with our dogs, it is up to us to learn their language,” Jan Fennel
When we adopt either a puppy or an older dog, we invariably set out to care for and train him properly. As soon as possible we join a dog training club where we start obedience training with our best friend. We teach him his name, to sit and stay, to come when called, to walk nicely and many other things. Soon, however, many of us encounter behavioural problems because we were not taught the most important task: how to become the pack leader in the eyes of our dog.
Although we consider our pets to be part of our family, our dogs still believe they are members of a community that operates according to principles directly descended from the wolf pack where pack dynamics ensure the cohesion and survival of the pack. All dogs, regardless of breed, still display the same behaviour patterns drawn from their ancestry. Therefore, should we still think and reason like a human when we want to help a dog? Dog-dog behaviour is quite different to dog-human behaviour. Instead of viewing a dog as one who will conform to our wishes if we give it some training, we should rather view the dog in light of his ancestry.
What will give you the right and rank to lead your dog is to understand your dog’s ancestry and accepting that most of it is instinctive and therefore needs guidance.” John Fisher
Over the centuries of domestication, dogs have become on the whole, subservient to man provided that the dog is socialised before it is fourteen weeks old. After that age it becomes unlikely to form a very strong bond with people. The human ‘Pack’ can consist of the dog and his owner, or a large family of humans and other dogs. The dog must always be regarded as a pack animal and as such needs a leader. However, dogs have no instinctive need to recognise people as leaders. Therefore, humans must learn about their dog’s need for leadership in order to be accepted as such. Being tall helps but is not enough in order to be accepted as the pack leader.
Our dogs are never going to learn our language. Yes, they will obediently, “Sit,” “Down,” “Come” and “Fetch” etc., simply because we consistently use the same sound bites which they are able to recognise and connect to a specific behaviour pattern. But that does not mean that they will accept us as leaders. Once we are able to understand how to communicate with them, in a way that they can understand, only then will we be able to help them – and their owners – to overcome their problems.
Like its ancestor many generations ago, the pet dog is, above all, an opportunist. And living with an opportunist in a rule-obeying human pack is not always easy. We try to teach the dog our values but the dog is only capable of learning on a canine level. The dog has his own sleeping place but is allowed on the settee or the beds in many homes. He sees the children jumping up and down and will join them even if he is not supposed to do it. Your dog is ignoring you for the simple reason that he doesn’t think he has to listen to you. So what must you do?
Become your dog’s leader. Your leadership of your dog is his security. Being a pack leader does not mean being a bully. The best way for your dog to be contented is when you are in charge of the “pack.” A dog will work hard to meet the expectations of a leader they respect. The dog’s behaviour is instinctive and therefore needs guidance from a firm, but loving leader. Unfortunately some dog owners are just not able to become pack leaders and should therefore not own large breed dogs that could be capable of doing serious damage to someone.
Becoming a leader
Calm down and calm your dog. Get your dog to watch you rather than for you to shout and become frustrated. Dogs don’t shout or hit. Take hold of his collar under the chin with an open hand and calmly, without a word, hold it steady and wait for the dog to calm himself. This means no petting, feeding, talking or eye contact until he is calm.
This is a ritual we follow at the start of lessons at my club. Many club members find it difficult to pay attention to what they are being told because they are “fighting” their dogs in order to try and gain control and get them to calm down. They end up physically manhandling their pets into a sitting position.

An alternative method we use is to sit the dog in the heel position on the handler’s left side. He then puts his left arm over the dog to reach the dog’s waist. That hand gently pulls the dog into the handler’s left leg and is kept there without any movement such as rubbing or petting. This has a great calming effect on dogs and in no time we have a whole class sitting still and listening to instructions.
If, on a walk, your dog becomes too excited and stressed by barking and begins pulling when you encounter another dog, show leadership by turning him around to face you. Take hold of his collar if necessary. When he calms down a bit you can then decide to let him meet the other dog or you can simply walk away. Changing direction allows you to take control again and calm your dog by distracting him with the aid of a treat, a toy or a down command etc. Get your dog to look at you and not focus on the other dog. Stay calm and take your time. Calmness is a fundamental requirement of good leaders. A handler that gets upset and agitated is not what dogs will associate with leadership.
Reuniting after separation
Many times a day the leader meets his dogs after having been away for a while. It can be the first meeting of the day or after a shopping trip, a bathroom visit or a walk in the garden. When meeting their owners the dogs start leaping around, barking or bringing toys for attention. Yes, the dogs love you but do they respect you as their leader? The leader must ignore the dogs and carry on with the daily activities. Wait five minutes and then call the dogs for a meet and greet.
It must be remembered that when you leave the home there is no way the dogs know whether you will ever come back again. So after each separation dogs will want to re-establish contact with you. When some owners return home they find it difficult getting through the front gate for jumping, excited dogs barring the entrance.
No matter how excited the dogs are, this ritual must be stopped. Pack leaders are aloof and will not acknowledge the pack dogs’ efforts to get attention. They will turn a blind eye, pretending that they are not there and walk past the dogs. No eye contact, no conversation, no touching unless it is to push a dog away.
On arriving home, I open my car door for the dogs to see and smell that I’m back, then wait for them to turn and walk away before getting out and walking past them and into the house. Five minutes later I call them for a greeting with me and to enjoy my company.
What must be understood is that this change is aimed at establishing a better leadership relationship with dogs and that you can still fuss over them as much as you want, but now it is on your terms. The dogs must not be confused over who looks after whom!
Act like a leader by coming and going as you please and make it look like an ordinary occurrence. Don’t leave food or make a fuss before leaving. The house will become silent and the dogs will know that you have gone.
Food control
In the wild the leaders eat first. With our busy lives we cannot possibly create a pack situation where the Alpha dogs make use of aggression and body language to show leadership. The best we can do is, as often as possible, to feed the dogs after we have eaten. If that is not possible then, when you are sure the dog is paying attention, eat a biscuit over their food to show that you have eaten first.
Use a dinner gong or call the dogs to come and watch you prepare the food. Control of the feeding arrangements means the dog/s sit and wait quietly for the food to be put down. I expect eye contact –“Watch me”- before permission to eat is granted. Occasionally give a “Leave” or “Out” while eating and permission must be given to eat again. Do not feed the dogs in the same place each day. Pick up food that was not eaten in 5 minutes and offer it later again.
The dog must learn that it is the leader who dictates food manners, when it is given and eaten. If he does not fit in with the leader’s rules at meal time, he will miss a meal. The point is to make rules that the dog will understand because it is part of pack behaviour. We live by rules every day and dogs are more willing to live by rules than we are.
All humans in the family must feed the dog. By being part of the team that prepares and handles the food, they also become leaders of the pack.
House routine on your terms
Dogs must be calm indoors. If there are rooms in the house that are out of bounds then make sure that the dog and all members of the family are able to enforce the rule. If a dog enters a room where he is not allowed, say “Out” and immediately “walk” him right out of that room. Have the dog move out of your way as you move about. Do not step over a dog lying down in the hallway but gently, using your body, shuffle him to get up and away. Leaders do not walk around their dogs.
Control access to all doors and narrow openings. Do not let a dog go through a door ahead of you unless you have a reason to let the dog out on his own. The dog must sit or wait for you to lead the way. Calm, silent dominance works best.
Do not allow your dog to become your “shadow” or a “Velcro dog,” For at least an hour a day the dogs should not have any access to you. If you go into the garden and see your dog lying quietly under a tree, it is an opportunity to go and praise the dog for the behaviour you like.
Everything is on your terms. Dogs entering your space and demanding attention must not receive petting, food or eye-contact. Quietly turn the dog around and gently push him away. Do it a second time if needed.
All toys are your toys and are controlled by you. When you leave the dogs, all the toys leave with you. The toys only have “life” with you.
Control all games; you make the rules, start playing when you want and end the games when you want to and especially before the dog becomes disinterested. Above all, the dog must understand that, “I will play with you, but not now. I will let you know when.”
Time out
There are times when your dog displays behaviour that is unacceptable or a nuisance and has to be stopped. It could be barking at birds in the garden, at the dog across the road, or at people passing your home. Chewing the legs of your new cane furniture, the corner of a carpet or the cat flap, or chasing the cat are some of the bad behaviours a leader must put a stop to. It may be a fear reaction, boredom or latent aggression that made the dog do naughty things but often it is the lack of leadership that has led to unwanted behaviour.
Instead of hitting the dog with a rolled up newspaper or grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and shaking it as was possibly done in the past, there are more effective and more humane ways of correcting a dog. Ways that he will instinctively understand. It is called negative reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement is something your dog definitely does not like. “Time Out” is such a method and the trick is to get the dogs to believe that it was their action that brought about the unpleasant circumstances. It has to be done without physical force or shouting because that will be perceived as punishment by the dog.
When the dog has done something that must be stopped, incessant barking or damage to something, walk over to the dog to stop him. Gently take him by the collar, and with no talking, lead him to a restricted area inside the house such as a toilet, bathroom or laundry. Close the door and leave him in there for five minutes. Puppies can come out after two or three minutes. When time is up simply open the door and walk away for the dog to come out and follow you.
You may have to repeat the procedure another time or more for the dog to connect that it is his barking or biting that has caused his isolation. The beauty of ‘time out’ is that it is painless and done calmly and consistently.
Best is to decide beforehand where the Time Out restriction will be. It must not be the dog’s crate, kennel or sleeping place that he uses regularly.
The walk
The article thus far has been about reducing the dog’s status in the home by transferring all privileges from the dog to the owner. However, it will be of no use if the dog is allowed to walk in front of the owner. Leading instead of being led will reinstate the dog’s idea of his rank.
In the wild the dogs wait patiently for the leader to walk ahead as they begin the hunt. Taking your dog for a walk must also only start when he is calm. When the dogs see or hear their leashes/leads being taken out, they get very excited. Wait for calm, then put the leads on or put them down/away if the dog/s did not calm down somewhat. Try later.
When the dog has calmed down and the lead is attached, you can gently proceed to the door where the dog must sit and allow you to leave first. In the yard you should first practice a controlled walk before heading for the gate. Walk next to a wall so that you can use your legs to prevent the dog from forging ahead of you, by using your thighs to squeeze him against the wall. Do not venture outside the property until the dog is calm and stops pulling. Rather go back and try again later.
For a social walk attach a long line 15 feet-( 5m ) so that, as you start a casual walk, the dog can smell the ‘messages’ other dogs have left along the way. A long line affords scope for the dog to smell and catch up and investigate things which in turn allows for a very pleasant walk. You can step on the line to instantly stop the dog from doing wrong.
In a structured walk when you have a goal in mind, you want the dog to walk right next to you. No pulling or lagging. Best is to join a club so that you can teach your dog to walk nicely next to you. Remember that dogs walk faster than humans so you can reduce pulling on the leash by walking faster when you are walking with your dog.
Teach your dog to walk beside or slightly behind you. Once dogs start pulling they find it difficult to stop. The dog must not take charge of the walk!
Start walking in a left circle with your dog looking up at you and the toy or treat that is to be used as a reward. Placing your left leg in front of the dog, as you move forward, you force his body close, next to you, in the ideal position, so that he does not pull ahead of you.
Alternatively, say, “Come with me” and stepping off on the left leg walk briskly in a straight line. The moment your dog forges ahead of you, call his name (as a warning) and turn to your right and carry on walking. Repeat the same procedure and soon your training course will form a square. Do not have any destination in mind when teaching your dog to walk next to you. Repeat this many times. Do not rush things! Take your time and stay calm.
Continue obedience training throughout the dog’s life, at home or a dog club. Make it part of his daily routine. He must look at you when his name is called; sit and wait for you to go through the door first. He must wait for permission to enter the car and to leave it. Coming when called is a must. Humans spend many years at school so why stop going to dog training classes before you have properly trained your dog? Remember: “A Trained Dog is a Good Dog.” Jan Meyer

This programme is not a quick fix, It must become a way of life. Adhere to it at all times so that it will become second nature. Be patient, be gentle and you will become your dog’s leader.

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