By Michael Miller
So, you’ve been to basic obedience classes and your two-year old Chocolate Lab Sasha has graduated at the top her class. By working with her on a consistent basis, you’ve taught her to sit, lie down and stay at your every request. You’ve even been able to teach her a few tricks that have amused your friends and relatives. She may have a few unwanted behaviors such as barking at the sound of the doorbell, or pulling aggressively whenever she is walked on a leash, but she seems to be able to learn anything and you feel like you’re on top of the world because you have taught her that you’re the boss. However, does Sasha really think that you are the boss? Does she respect your leadership abilities as much as you think she does? Without knowing exactly what is going on in her head, these minor annoying behaviors may continue to grow until they are out of control. A closer look at the situation may shed some further light on this confusing issue.
Dogs instinctively follow a set of rules known commonly as “pack law”. In order to survive, the pack must have a capable, consistent leader who is responsible for supplying the remaining members of the pack with four basic requirements: food, shelter, safety and entertainment. As long as the chosen leader shows sufficient aptitude in supplying these necessities, and a consistent set of rules are identified and followed, the pack will survive. However, the remaining members of the pack will continuously look for signs of weakness in the leader, and if deemed appropriate, will challenge for this position. Each member knows instinctively that a pack without a strong, capable and consistent leader will not survive and survival is the primary concern.
In a human/dog environment, the rules are not as well defined and may not be agreed upon by each family member. The husband may let the dog on the furniture, while the wife may not approve of this behavior. Both the husband and wife may not approve of feeding the dog at the dinner table, but when they aren’t looking, the kids may indulge her. It is these inconsistencies that the dog is looking for to disqualify the human family members as leaders. Therefore, in order to survive, she must assume this role and keep it until a well-qualified leader is re-established.
Once the dog has assumed leadership, she knows that for the pack to survive she must always lead. Therefore, she will continuously work to train the human members of the pack to follow her rules. This is often done in two forms: active dominance and passive dominance. Examples of active dominance can be barking to play, grabbing your hand to pull you somewhere, or jumping up to greet you. Passive dominance can be nudging you for a pet, going to the door to be let out, or going to the cupboard and begging for a treat. In every case, whether active or passive, the dog is forcing the owner to react to her requests. As she grows and her behavior grows worse, the family may look at her as possessing disobedient behavior. However, when viewed in the eyes of the dog, she is only acting in a way that is required in order to survive.
To establish yourself as a leader you must first establish a set of rules and maintain those rules at all times. Consistency is the key here. Without a set of rules to follow, the pack becomes disorganized and cannot survive. Second, the leader must always lead. In the dog’s eyes, a qualified leader will never submit to any request made by a subordinate member of the pack. Finally, it is important to let your dog know when she has done something wrong and praise her when she has done something correctly. This teaches her to learn the difference between right and wrong.
Next time you feel that you’ve taught your dog everything you’ve ever wanted, and she responds to every request you ever make, take a deeper look at some of the other actions that your dog is making. In your eyes, you may feel that you have complete control, but in your dog’s eyes, she has the control.
Michael Miller is a local franchise owner and behavior therapist with the world’s largest dog training company, Bark Busters. For more information or to schedule an appointment call 429.0065, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.barkbusters.com.