Do you want to give your dog something truly valuable? How about feeling secure and understood and provided for, in his own language - and as an important part of something bigger than himself? Dogs come already wired to be team players with humans, based on thousands of years of past genetic knowledge. That’s a built-in opportunity to have a happy, responsive, cooperative dog; all you have to do is successfully play your role!
From a dog’s perspective, good masters provide food/resources, security, and direction. There’s a lot of peace of mind in knowing you are doing what you're supposed to be doing, and trusting that it will work out for the best. In knowing that you are not only loved, but safe, and well-provided for. A dog who looks up to a strong, fair leader will feel more confident. His self esteem will increase because he is associated with YOU; you are his team. When you demonstrate your understanding and connection to dogs by speaking his language, he’ll be more bonded to you, and eager to do his part... and he's also free from the fears and insecurities of a dog who feels like he is on his own, or has to handle things for himself. So many dogs with major behaviour problems, including too many who were euthanised for those problems, are literally crying for someone to step in and say, “No worries, I’ve got this”. A dog shouldn’t have to navigate the human world through his own decisions. His only concern should be to follow the guidance of a loving, confident, assertive master who has his best interests at heart.
A lot of people don’t have to add anything special to provide their dog with what he needs; they're probably already doing it! The average dog will do just fine under a confident person who provides basic obedience training, takes the dog on loose-leash walks and other adventures, offers fun games and physical contact and nourishing food, communicates clearly, and requires polite manners from the dog. But...some dogs have had bad experiences, learned counterproductive things, or just plain NEED more guidance or firmer leadership than others! If you have one of those dogs, read on.
Every dog is an individual, and there’s no one specific technique that works for every dog or every problem. You have to train the dog in front of you. However, the vast majority of common dog problems could all be solved by understanding two fairly simple things:
Problems commonly solved by good leadership, and a properly structured relationship:
Touch issues (“she won’t let me...”)
Anxiety in the home
Reactivity on walks
Excessive rivalry with other dogs in the home
Problems solved by leadership + reinforcement + controlling the environment:
Literally almost everything aside from medical issues.
Reinforcement, both positive and negative, is also known as operant conditioning. If you’re interested in the technical labels for the four quadrants, there’s plenty of information online. The simple version is this: pay CLOSE attention to the choices your dog makes. Reward behaviour you want more of, with praise, treats, toys, or granting permission and access to things the dog wants. Discourage behaviour you don’t want, by removing access and/or through verbal or physical correction. Rewards increase behaviour, punishment stops behaviour. It’s really that simple. (IF you are already involved in a poor relationship with your dog, in which he doesn’t respect your guidance, and instead blows off commands he knows, guards food or the bed or other resources, or reacts to humans and dogs as though it’s HI job to make those decisions instead of yours...then you probably should avoid physical corrections. You haven’t yet earned the right to have them received in a healthy way. No worries, you don’t need them for this program!)
If you’re at the end of your rope with your dog, regardless of whether he is assuming too much control of the household or is just fearful and insecure, here is the fix.
-Crate when unattended, to prevent constant rehearsal of bad behaviours. No more free rein of the household.
-No more access to furniture, especially the bed.
-Get the dog “working for you”. Practice basic obedience regularly. Whenever the dog wants or needs something, require him to perform a known command FIRST. (Every time.) Have him Sit for his dinner; have him perform tricks he knows in exchange for a treat or toy or game. He should Sit politely to be leashed before walks. He should sit calmly to receive affection. If he refuses, the food or attention is removed, and he can try again later – a while later, not in 30 seconds!
-Walk your dog daily, and do not let him drag you around. Teach loose leash walking. Have him Sit to get permission to start the walk. Do not proceed forward if he is pulling, no exceptions.
-Claim your space. Don’t let the dog climb on you, bump you out of the way, crowd you at doorways, or demand attention. Ignore pushy behaviour. Practice being calm and aloof yourself - you don't care if he gets rewards or attention, they simply appear when he is doing things right. Absolutely do not let it become a battle of wills!
-Give plenty of downtime, where the dog has no stressors aside from managing his own boredom or anxiety. Crates, the Sit on the Dog exercise, the Long Down, Go To Place, etc are excellent for this.
-Reward the positive things, and many neutral things. Always reward calm behaviour! Petting and praise should be enough reward here for most dogs, as food may increase their excitement.
-Gradually reintroduce restricted privileges as they are earned.
-Practice impulse control exercises!
-NEVER give a command you don’t enforce. Don’t punish, just make sure the behaviour happens...and if you can’t, don’t ask for it in the first place. For example, don’t call a free roaming dog to you if you don’t know if he will Come. The goal here is to establish a permission based lifestyle, where the dog is conditioned to look to his human for guidance.
*The above information is intended to provide a background understanding of the factors involved in a properly functioning human-dog relationship. If your dog is showing aggression, the best course of action is to get a qualified, experienced “balanced trainer” involved asap.
Fearful dogs require MORE structure, not less. Properly done corrections do not harm the bond (but being afraid to tell your dog “No” can)! Submissive dogs don’t resource guard. These are basic truths that are easy enough to verify firsthand.
Yes: a dog is not a wolf. Still, deep down, he has the instinct to be part of a group, and to know his place in that group. Dogs, like any group-living species, have a social code – rules for how to act when interacting, expectations for how others will respond, and plenty of body language to communicate and negotiate! Ethologists have been studying dogs for a very long time, and dogs have not changed over the centuries. You could spend many years experientially learning about the “dog code”, but the most essential things involve modeling the calm, confident, assertive behaviour of a leader of dogs, and understanding body language basics, so you have solid TWO way communication with your dog. The information presented here comes from direct observation, and hands-on verification of a great many fractious canines over a long time period...combined with the insights from scorees of others who have done the same. Welcome to the science of ethology!
Dogs come pre-programmed to follow the direction of their leader. All we need to do for a successful and largely uneventful dog owning experience, is to step into the role which evolved between the species at the dawn of domestication. (See Jared Diamond’s six criteria for domestication, from his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for more insight.) For the science-minded, studies show that rank is relevant in capturing attention and trust in a solid, consistent leader will have most dogs accepting their guidance without much resistance.
*If you’re new-ish to dogs (the last 20 years or so), you may have been exposed to a lot of political ideology against being the leader, owner, “alpha”, master, “boss”, or any other hierarchical position that has you in charge of your dog. If so, you may want to consider what you’re projecting upon the concept, and why. For now, don’t worry about the terminology. Have a look at these two links from veterinarians and this link from the SPCA, to get an ACCURATE description of this relationship issue. For those who read on the internet that canine social structure and hierarchy has been “debunked”, you can click here for a thorough debunking of the “debunking”. ;-) The bottom line is that your dog is hardwired to respond to confident guidance, that someone should be providing clear direction regarding what’s appropriate behaviour, and that someone should be YOU (not your dog).
Yes: he knows you’re not a dog. And yet, he only has one possible worldview: that of a dog! He can’t understand that he “should” display fear of humans in a different way than he shows fear of another dog. He can’t rationalize that he should communicate differently towards a toddler who reaches into his food bowl, or the cat, because “they’re not dogs”. All he has available to him are body language, and the physical and psychological responses of his own species.
You’re the one with the big brain...so if someone’s got to learn another language, it should be YOU. (And honestly, isn’t it at least a little bit fun and fascinating, to model how someone else might see the world?)
Many links from different trainers on the importance of good leadership.
A sample “Follower’s Boot Camp” for dogs who have taken too much responsibility upon themselves.
Teaching impulse control.