Becoming the Pack Leader!!!


“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. Their language is a non-verbal, body language whereby they can express emotions and their intentions.

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. If a child is scared we hug and reassure him/her. If you do the same to a dog it thinks that you approve of its behaviour and the fear gets worse. Instead of viewing a dog as one who will conform to our wishes if we give them some training, we should rather view the dog in light of his inborn 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 according to Fisher. The human ‘Pack’ can consist of the dog and its 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 a 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 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 rules and 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 his 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 each other with rolled up newspaper. 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. Once he has remained calm for a while, say, “Yes” and then only gently caress the top of his head.

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 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 “most wonderful place on earth to beor “Heel” position on the handler’s left side close to the leg. 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 a dog and in no time we have a whole class sitting still and listening to instructions.

When, on a walk, your dog becomes excited and starts pulling and barking when you encounter another dog, show leadership by turning him around to face you close to your body. Take hold of his collar and wait for him to calm down before deciding to let him meet the other friendly dog or you can simply walk away. Changing direction allows you to take control again and calm your dog by distracting with the help 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 each 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 them 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 arrival home, I open my car door for the dogs to see and smell that I’m back, and 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 your dogs. 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 this is not possible then, when you are sure the dogs are paying attention, eat a biscuit over their food to show that you have eaten first. This you only have to do a few times.

Use a dinner gong or call the dogs to come and watch you prepare their 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 dogs in the same place each day. They eat where you put the food! Pick up food that was not eaten in 5 minutes and offer it later again.

The dogs must learn that it is the pack leader who dictates food manners, when it is given and eaten. If a dog does not fit in with the leader’s rules at meal time, he misses 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 to the dogs then make sure that they 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 out of that room. Have the dogs 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 dogs.

Control access to all doors and narrow openings. Do not let a dog go through a door ahead of you when on leash. 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 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 uninvited, 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 or as needed.

All toys are your toys and are controlled by you. When you leave the dogs after a game, all toys leave with you. The toys only come to “life” with you.

Control all games; you make the rules, start playing when you want and end games when you want to and especially before the dog become 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 mat or 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 kinder 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 dog 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 and tell him to stop. If he ignores you or starts again with this behaviour, gently hook a finger onto his collar, say, “come with me” and lead him to a restricted area inside the house such as a toilet, bathroom or laundry. Close the door and leave him 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 the 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 on walks. Leading instead of being lead will reinstate the dog’s idea of his rank and place him in a leadership position.

In the wild the dogs wait patiently for their leader to walk ahead of them as they begin the hunt. Taking your dog for a walk must also only start when he is calm. When 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 somewhat. Try again later.

When the dog has calmed down and the lead is attached, you can slowly proceed to the door where the dog must sit and allow you to leave first. In the yard you must 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 squeezing 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.

At the gate the same procedure is followed; dog sits calmly and owner again leaves the property first. Call the dog to follow and sit next to you to make sure there are no cars or strange dogs in the road. You may decide to go back into the property and out again.

In a quiet neighbourhood where traffic is few, it is helpful to start walking in the middle of the road when safe because there are no smells on that part of the road and it is easier to maintain the dog’s attention. Walking next to the sidewalk where other dogs have left messages makes it very difficult for a dog to pay attention to its owner/handler.

When training on a walk, do not have a destination to go to in mind; think of it as spending time with my dog!


Continue with obedience training throughout your dog’s life, at home or at a club. He must look at you when his name is called; sit and wait for you to go through a door first when on leash. He must wait for permission to eat, 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” d