Becoming Your Puppy's Pack Leader

Becoming Your Puppy's Pack Leader

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Becoming Your Puppy's Pack Leader

Pack Structure

Dogs are pack animals, just like wolves are pack animals. They are predators. Horses and cows on the other hand, are herd animals. Being herd animals also makes them prey (food) for predators. Predators live by one set of genetic rules, prey animals live by a different set of genetic rules.

Pack animals live in family packs which have a pack leader and lower ranking pack members. Dog packs, like wolf packs, are not a democracy. A pack is organized in a hierarchy of rank. Simply put, this means that every member of the pack knows exactly what its rank is within the family pack. Pack animals genetically understand this concept. This concept is the reason people have dog fights when they add a new dog to a home that already has dogs. Everyone has to re-establish the new pecking order when a new pack member comes on board.

Beginning of Pack Structure

When a puppy is raised with littermates they begin to establish their family pack at about 4 ½ weeks of age. They start by playing with one another. They bite and push each other around. Those pups that bite the hardest and push the most become the higher ranking pack members of the litter. With that said, there is no question that the mother is the pack leader. A good mother will exert her leadership by warning puppies to stay away from her food bowl when she is eating. She protects her litter which demonstrates leadership and she also controls the litter in subtle ways that establish her as the pack leader.

What is a pack leader?

When people get puppies they need to establish themselves as the new pack leader. To do this correctly they should first understand exactly what a pack leader is. Pack leaders are aloof, they are calm, and they are self confident. A pack leader is fair in how he lives with pack members. While the pack leader is a dictator, he is a fair dictator who enforces a well defined set of rules that members know, understand and are expected to live by. What a pack leader is not, is a dictator who loses his temper, bullies pack members into compliance, and does not act in a fair manner in regard to the lives of pack members. For example, the leader always eats first. Lower ranking members don’t get the choice food. But when the leader is finished and he turns the food over to other pack members, he does not come back and drive them away from the food. People who put food down and then take it away or push the dogs away from the food bowl are bullies. This is how their dogs view them. This is not practicing fair leadership principles.

The correct way is to make the dog do something (i.e. sit) before the food is put down. But once it's down they leave it alone until it's time to pick it up. We leave food down for 15 minutes and then pick it up, even if the dog has not eaten it all. It’s easy to bully your way into a leadership position. People (mostly men) do this all the time. The problem is that the bullying destroys their relationship with their dogs. I want my pack members to trust me, feel relaxed around me and be comfortable in my presence. The only way this can happen is if they know the rules and anticipate our expectations. When that happens they know they will be treated fairly. They also know that if they ignore the rules they will suffer the consequences. This leadership relationship is a learned endeavor. It’s learned through the day to day experiences of living with an owner who establishes and enforces rules. It’s also learned through formal obedience training. But with this said, I tell people that hundreds of thousands of dogs go through obedience classes in this country every year. The vast majority of dominant dogs come out of these classes just as dominant as when they went in. That’s because the owners were not trained in pack structure. Puppies who grew up and became dominant and aggressive dogs were always raised by people who did not establish the correct family pack structure.

Where does it start?

When a puppy comes to your home its only experience in life has been with its mother and littermates. It sees that things have changed, but it has no reason to believe that how it interacts with a family pack has changed. It has played with littermates by biting and chasing, so that’s how it thinks it should continue to interact within a family pack. It takes a few days but once it accepts you and your family as its new pack, it will try to interact with you the same way it did with littermates by biting and chasing. The fact is, in its own small way it's trying to find its rank within the new pecking order of your family.

It’s your job to teach your puppy (without scaring it) that you are the new pack leader. It's your job to teach it that biting and chasing high ranking human pack members is unacceptable. Therein lies the rub. Many people ignore these small challenges and others overreact to them. You have to find the middle road. Those who ignore this behavior often end up with dominant dogs. Those who overreact and use too much force in correcting the biting end up with shy dogs that never reach their potential.

Establishing the Tether

When we bring a pup home we always use a dog crate. Those who don’t use a crate are making a mistake. Those who won’t use a crate should just quit reading because they are wasting their time to read further. Our first goal is to reduce the possibility of house training mistakes and to teach the pup that being wild in the house is not going to happen. So in the beginning most of our interaction with a new pup is done outside. We use a flat collar with a snap and one of the 20 foot cotton lines we have. When the pup runs around we let it drag the line. While this is not a house training article, I want to make the point that teaching a dog to pee or poop when it's on a line is a very smart thing to do. You will find out how smart if you ever have to travel with your dog. When we bring a pup in the house we never allow it to run around the house. We always have a line on it. What better way to establish our leadership than to control every aspect of the pup's life? Trust me this does not fall on deaf ears.

Those who allow puppies to run around un-tethered are only asking for the problems that will eventually come up. These pups are going to get into things, they are going to pee on the floor, or they are going to jump up and play bite. When we are tired of dealing with the pup it goes into its crate. In the beginning it's going to scream like a banshee for a few days, but such is life. We will put the pup in a crate in the garage and let it scream its head off. For those who don’t have a garage you can leave a radio or TV on, or cover the crate with a sheet, or leave one of the toys with treats in the crate, or leave a cow knuckle bone to chew on (although you need to be a little careful about loose stools here). As time passes and the pup calms down and learns manners in the house, I may let it lie at my feet when I work on my computer. If it doesn’t calm down it stays in the crate when I don’t have time for it.


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