Follower's Boot Camp

"My dog is pushy and bratty! He ignores me, or argues with me, when I tell him to do something!"

If your dog guards resources, ignores known commands, asserts his space but won't respect yours, demand-barks at you, growls when you get on the bed or couch with him, and gets snarky about being handled or moved (unrelated to injury or illness), your relationship may be upside-down. Here are some steps to take, to re-educate your dog so he becomes a nice, secure follower instead of a stressed-out decision-maker. The results? A dog who is less anxious, more attentive to you, no longer guards resources, and (with some additional training) does not explode at other dogs or people on walks, because that's not his job. Time frame? Usually a few weeks, to start seeing dramatic results...although some dogs should be on a modified version of this for life.

*"Wait!" you say. "I read online that dogs don't need leaders any more--that it's outdated, and scientists now say it isn't true. Why will this program help?" Well, for starters, dogs have the same brains they had 50 or 100 years ago, and they don't read opinions on the internet. ;-)

Dogs come pre-programmed to follow a leader, but tend to be more dismissive of lower-ranking individuals. See this article "Rank and Dominance Matter When Trying to Teach Dogs", and the scientific paper it is based upon, for more info. Much like us, dogs who have power will act impulsively, and pay less attention to those "beneath them". Field scientists DEFINITELY know that social dominance is "a thing", and while it is horribly, horribly misunderstood by many trainers these days (the modern definition involves punishment, physically forcing the dog to submit, and unpredictability...which is never how it was practiced by actual dogs or wolves), TRUE social dominance has been proven without a reasonable doubt to be very, very real...and also very useful. Just like gravity, the methods below can be 'field tested' for accuracy by anyone who cares to learn. Now, THAT's Science! :-)

The first step in Boot Camp is to make your attention valuable. When the dog is loose in the house, act "cool" or aloof towards him. No squealy "ohh sweet puppieee, aren't you the cutest puppieee!" stuff. For the most part, ignore him. When you do need to interact with him, *call him to you*--if he comes up in his own and pushes on you for attention, ignore that. Get up and walk away if you need to. If he won't take No for an answer and climbs all over you, you may need to give him a short time-out in his crate or another room, until he calms down. Don't speak to him unnecessarily; just feed, water, and let him out to potty. You can walk him, but even on the walks, mostly ignore him. Just hold the leash and pay attention to the environment, not him. Pretend he's a boring job you need to take care of, if it helps.
This is HARD for most people (doesn't it go against why you got a dog in the first place??) but rest assured, this is only for a very short period (24 to 48 hours) and after that, he becomes an active member of the family again. Even after the "boot camp"/mental-reset period is over, though, you want to continue to give attention on your terms (when you've called him to you, or he has responded to a command) and NOT when he is pushy and asks for it. This is so effective because dogs have a strong need to be part of a group, and followers give and receive attention on the top dog's terms. Removal of this resource creates a dog eager to win it back...gaining you his cooperation in short order, with no physical force necessary. Regardless of what your 'usual' attitude about physical corrections may be, a dog who thinks he's the king is NOT a dog you should get physical with! A non-confrontational rank-reduction plan is not only safer, but it actually works--by changing the dog's mindset. You don't want a dog controlled only by force, because (the unfairness of it aside) one day it will backfire, which usually results in the dog being put to death.

NOTE: The social isolation protocol is similar to the "Two Week Shutdown" applied to newly acquired dogs. (PDF download) This program starts a new dog off on the right paw, as well as avoiding stress and confrontation during vulnerable times.

After the period of "social isolation", ask your dog to Sit (or perform another command). If he does, reward with your attention...and move on to the steps below.

From now on, your dog works for YOU--and not the other way around. Get him on a 'No Free Lunch' style of program. These programs can go under many names--Learn to Earn, Nothing in Life is Free, Rapport and Leadership, Mind Games, "Alpha boot camp", Leading the Dance, pack leader, Say Please, Workfare, Protocol for Deference, Groundwork for correct pack structure. I'm sure there are others. Each school of thought tends to have its own spin on this basic need for direction and leadership, but any good structural program includes it in one form or another because it's just so darn valuable.

The core basics of No Free Lunch:
-ALL resources are kept under your control, and the dog is required to do something for you, to get anything he wants. This includes food, petting, walks, toys, treats, and access to desirable areas. (Some areas may need to be off-limits, temporarily or permanently, depending on his personality. Allowing a dominant dog in the bed or couch is bad policy, and can create confrontations it's best to avoid. If the dog doesn't get off the bed or couch immediately upon being asked, without protest, he definitely is not ready for access to them.) Toys and bones are not left lying around. They are given as a reward for the dog's cooperation, and reclaimed immediately when he wanders off and loses interest in them. His meals should be hand-fed, if possible...and if anything is served in a bowl, the bowl should be picked back up after 15 minutes. If the dog refuses to perform a behavior in exchange for the resource, too bad--walk away and give him another chance later. (Don't keep asking him every 2 minutes, either. If he's refused dinner, try again in an hour or two.) Of course, potty breaks offer less flexibility...but if his housetraining suffers, you can ask for a Sit or Wait while he's still in his crate, and the crate door is opened once he complies.
-Practice daily training, with positive reinforcement. A reinforcer can be treats, toys, or anything the dog values. Have him practice commands often, rewarding with a clicker or a well-timed "Yes!" the instant the behavior occurs. Any behaviours or tricks will work...the point is to get him in the habit of doing things you ask, and that doing so is in his best interests. (HE works for YOU.) His dinner is definitely something he needs to work for (*never* leave food down for him, to graze as he pleases!) and it's often best to split it into several portions, to give more opportunities for him to work for it.

Claim your space. Dogs hold each other to a well-developed set of rules about personal space, and they understand any species' application of it--other dogs', yours, or even the cat's. It is *rude* to jump all over someone, and a dog of high status won't allow it. They can easily learn that the same degree of respect applies to humans as well. Learn to own and use personal space, rather than physically yanking your dog around. If he's barking at the door, claim the door and anyone who walks in it. If he jumps on you, claim the space around you. Claim space when going through doorways--and only let him through when he is waiting calmly (not trying to push past you!) If he's considering a barking fit at a dog further down the sidewalk (always better to nip it in the bud, before he loses control!) then step in between and claim the other dog. (At the same time, give him something else to do besides fixate on the other dog. Motion is good...) Standing in between also makes your dog feel safer, because he knows you've got his back and that the other dog is YOUR problem now. Examples of techniques in this vein include "Faith in Handler" exercises and the "Advocate for Your Dog" method.

For some descriptions of how to claim space, try these two links. Link1 Link2

Yielding space to those with higher status can also be practiced with Dick Russell's yielding exercises. Again, space is a valuable resource, especially to a nonverbal species like the dog (or wolf).

Act the part. "Alpha" is an of calm, assertive confidence. A true leader KNOWS they are in charge; they aren't asking, or bullying, or trying to convince anyone. Aggressive, domineering bosses are actually showing insecure, middle-of-the-pack behavior, and even in the canine world, he who "lives by the sword" is likely to fall by it. You don't command respect and authority by force. You have to win their minds.

If he's doing things you don't want--Don't Let Him. Control the environment, and set him up to succeed. Make the "bad" things hard or impossible to do...instead, proactively show him a clear path to what you DO want. You don't need him rehearsing old unwanted behaviours, as that makes him more resistant to change. You also don't want a "battle of wills". Just set up your house and yard so that it's not even an issue. He gets into the trash, then growls if you try to clean it up? Put the trash in an inaccessible place, at least for now. Or crate him when unattended. Or install a cheap motion alarm near the trash that makes an unpleasant sound, so it's less appealing to him. Be creative if you need to...but avoid those unnecessary conflicts, especially in the "rebooting" stage.
If you call him to Come, and he ignores you, go and get him immediately. The "Come" happens with or without his approval, but there's no treat &/or praise if he didn't take the action himself, and that sends a pretty clear message. Also, NEVER give a command you can't enforce. If you know he can blow you off without consequence, don't even speak. Just resolve to set up your environment better the next time. Some dogs may require a long line with no loop/handle (airline cable, if he's a chewer) attached to him for a while, to make it safer and easier to move him or enforce a command. For example, if he jumps on the couch and growls, a long line lets you lead him off safely, whereas grabbing him by the collar when you haven't yet established your "right" to do so, is likely to get you bitten. *Tipping the couch over is also an option. ;-) but then you still might have to lead him away to another room or his crate, if he keeps getting back on. Guarding dropped food or stolen objects is another useful situation in which to have a long leash on. He can be led away from the object without direct confrontation, and put in another room so you can reclaim the item. Yes, this is a Band-aid--eventually you will be able to reclaim the object just by asking for it, using space. However, during the training stages, tools and Band-aids are often the most effective option in the long run!
Learn how to train him to walk on a loose leash, and walk him regularly. This not only builds rapport, but also creates a habit of him following your lead. Make sure it is *loose* leash walking! Being dragged all over by a dog is pretty much the opposite of leadership.

Don't forget the "civilizing effect" that ordinary obedience training can have. "Go to Place" commands, long Downs, and loose leash walking build self-control; so do things like the "Sit on the Dog exercise", Susan Garrett's "Crate Games", 'indirect access' exercises such as Leave It, and owning all thresholds (doors and gates) by making sure he waits patiently until he is given the OK to pass through them. For many dogs, the simple give-and-take of basic obedience and day-to-day life is enough to provide the necessary leadership that a dog craves! It's those independent-minded, high rank drive working dogs that will make you go the extra mile. Don't blame him for being "More Dog"...just give him what he needs.

The Big Picture--putting social hierarchy into perspective:
Nothing about dog behavior happens in a vacuum. Leading a social group isn't just about directing movement, and deciding what and where to eat! There should be lots and lots of pro-social behaviours in this relationship (with the exception of the two-day social isolation lockdown described at the top). Group play, bonding and fun, affection, grooming, pack walks and travel, interactive body language ("conversation", to them), and loving eye contact are more important, and far more frequent, than status displays.
Please note that the act of deferring to a higher ranking member is GIVEN, not taken. It truly is a "submission hierarchy"--and not a "dominance hierarchy". A top dog with decent social skills does not force a subordinate to the ground. (This is where the badly executed 'alpha rolls' do so much damage. You don't want to *kill* don't tell him that you do!) "Alpha" status, like respect, should be EARNED. If you want to be follow-able! Being the leader means taking responsibility for the needs of the group, not making unfair demands, understanding each member as an individual, and being a great communicator (which includes a knowledge of canine body language and social customs--how else will you know what your dog is saying??) because his input is very important to your decisions. Even if you sometimes disagree on what's best, you need to know where your dog is coming from. Is he afraid, or distracted? Is this situation too much pressure for him? Are you pushing him too hard overall, and not allowing him frequent breaks to rest, 'center himself', and process things? Dogs have needs too; they're not machines. You have to guide them within their limits, and build their skills, just as you have to build your own.

One last note: Leadership is not "training". It is the foundation of a good relationship, which training rests on. Operant conditioning is Training. That means positive reinforcement, corrections, and clever variations on those things...and that is another subject!

Links to more resources, for a better understanding of canine social structure and leadership

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