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Establishing Leadership in Dog Language

What constitutes a ‘well mannered’ dog? A good definition might be of a dog that is well behaved at home. That would be a dog not begging at the dinner table or in the kitchen, not jumping on people, not blasting out the front door, the minor infractions. It would also include a dog that doesn’t nip when it doesn’t get its way. A dog that isn’t guarding its food bowl or couch, worse yet, the bed. Possibly the worst, a dog biting a household member (the dog is using negative re-enforcement on the human by biting). This last behavior creates an atmosphere of fear from everyone with which the dog feeds off of causing him to become even more reactive. Moreover, this behavior is something nobody will tolerate and visitors will avoid coming over out of fear of being bit.

We, as dog owners, make a lot of mistakes with our pups when we are at home. The biggest mistake, believing that our dogs are kids or humans and that just by talking to our furry friend, we can convince them of their wrong doings. Dogs do not understand our words. They do understand our tone of voice, our emotions and how we react to their behaviors very well though. We have a blog which goes into detail on how your voice affects your dog and how to use it and will not be covered here.

What I would like to go into detail about is how we can show our dogs that we are the homeowner, that is to say the dog is not, and therefore the pup is not the decision maker at home. When a dog understands this message, a lot of the unwanted behaviors can be minimized or eliminated… without any formal basic obedience training. Extreme behaviors, once started by the dog, are very difficult to remove as the dog realizes the effect it has on those around them. Establishing boundaries will do little without using negative reinforcement.

Some of you are certainly asking “why” would we want to show our dog leadership? It is simple, if we do not then more often than not, our dog(s) will show us leadership. What? Remember those few bad traits I had mentioned above? Nipping for example? This would include biting… How does a dog show another dog not to come near its bowl when it is eating (sometimes even when there is no food in the bowl)? It will growl and nip in the mild cases of possession. It may attack and bite in severe cases. Regardless of whether this behavior is due to fear or dominance, this act is one of ownership.

Remember back to the time when you were in high school. There was certainly a day or two in there where you had a bad experience. One where another student did not agree with you and no amount of arguing or repeating of facts could convince this person of your opinion. The reaction from your antagonist, to take a step closer and get into your face. The tone of voice was deeper and menacing. The words were blatantly abusive and intimidating. What was your reaction? For most people, this experience would reflect that time they encountered the “Bully”. Those encounters resulted more often than not in the affected person backing away, restoring that “bubble” of safe space between the two persons. Who won this argument? You, standing obviously on the correct side of the debate or that bully who just shut you up? Not sure? One thing is for sure, a boundary was set for you. There is no debating with this person and therefore no winning. You got ‘owned’ (dominance established).

Now, did you ever notice if there was a person or persons that the bully did not pester? I promise you, there were a few. These persons did not back down to the intimidation (whether or not by fighting) and established a new set of boundaries. That isn’t to say that those persons won the debate but they earned respect.

Dogs have a very similar ‘bubble’ that people have. Get too close to the timid dog that you do not know, and it hides or moves away, re-establishing its bubble. Get too close to the dominant dog and it may react harshly to your intrusion, driving you out of its bubble.

So, how do we show a dog leadership without actually training with it?

There are several big things that we can do that dogs understand.

Here is a list of actions that can be taken;

  1. Eat before your dog(s) does (feed your puppy by hand)

  2. Claim the kitchen when you are cooking (push your dog out)

  3. Make your pup ‘work’ to get up on the couch or bed

  4. Remove (boot) your pup off of the couch or bed often

  5. Work door manners (you cross the threshold first, the dog follows)

  6. Access to toys / high value items (restrict them to training only).

Done properly, all these actions will show your pup that you own the home.

Eating before your dog. The dominant dog, especially where prized foods are concerned, will claim its food and eat first and not allow others in a close proximity. Not only is this behavior found in nature but has also been observed in domestic dogs (13 Year study - Ref. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the dog).

Claiming Space. Dominant dogs will claim ‘space’ at home. Those areas are typically the couch and the bed but isn’t restricted to those two. These areas are inside its bubble. The kitchen is often seen by dogs as their source of food and difficult dogs will claim the area near the source. That might be a cabinet, the fridge or the person cooking. The doorway to the kitchen may even be blocked by a dominant pup. This trait of claiming space is found in most working dogs with few exceptions. Not only has this been verified scientifically but has been our experience working with extremely difficult dogs.

By making your dog work (Sit, Down, Touch, Shake, Play Dead, etc) before getting onto the couch (bed), he / she is earning the privilege to get up. If no basic obedience is present, the pup should at the very least be invited to join on the couch. By kicking them off (pushing them off), you are effectively claiming your space (re-establishing your bubble) and asserting your dominance.

Impulse Control. Specifically door manners are referenced here. Most dogs want to blast out the door to see what might be chased, whether that be a squirrel, bird, dog or person. By checking this behavior at the door, you are effectively placing yourself in the position as the decision maker about whether or not something is to be chased.

Toys or high value objects are often a point of contention with dogs. Removing these objects and only allowing access when you as the owner decide puts you in command. When allowing access, the pup should work for the toy! Sit, Down, Shake or the like. Not only are we taking charge but we are also increasing the dogs’ desire to work.

Whether you are bringing a puppy or a rescue into your home, it is very important to set those boundaries immediately.

Tip: Do NOT love on your pup for no reason! Make them earn the love. By loving on a pup (dog) too much and for the wrong reasons, you can inadvertently turn an otherwise good dog into one that will need a lot of training to re-establish good behavior.

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