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The Family Pack

Many of the dogs I train have challenges that can be traced back to the structure and leadership within their home environments, or lack thereof. That's one of the reasons why a Board and Train program is so important, it takes a dog out of an environment where they have been able to exhibit and practise bad behavior and puts them into a highly structured environment where they learn new behaviors under clear leadership. But what does Leadership mean and how should we understand and interpret our dog's behavior?

Leadership does not mean being the Alpha Dog in a dominance hierarchy

Many trainers and owners still subscribe to the "dogs are wolves" philosophy. Dogs are descended from wolves, but this philosophy is really based on the, now outdated notion, that we must become the alpha leader and rule our pets the way a wolf would rule a pack. It creates an underlying assumption that most canine behavioral issues are due to a dog trying to be dominant. This leads some to attempt to rectify those behaviors by "becoming the alpha" and using any techniques that they think an "alpha" wolf would use; like force based dominance to create submission.

Wolves in the wild generally do not gain rank by fighting their way to the top. Instead a male and female breed and the pack is a family unit comprised of the parents and the offspring. The parents naturally become the leaders. The offspring naturally follow their lead. As a result of this discovery regarding pack structure, wolf biologists no longer even use the term alpha with wild wolf packs. In fact, modern canine behavioral studies largely refute the dog = wolf philosophy.

Still, it is undeniable that dogs are pack animals and that informs the way they see the world. They do have a strict concept of a pack hierarchy, but they are not constantly seeking to become the pack leader or to climb the ranks through aggressive dominance behaviors.

Dogs are not furry little humans, they see, experience and interpret the world through the eyes of a canine pack animal

Our lack of understanding of the canine worldview is often where we get into trouble. When we anthropomorphize our pets to the degree that we believe they are little furry humans, then we begin interacting with them as humans - wanting to be their friends more than their leaders. In doing so, we are putting our emotional needs for achieving their love ahead of their needs for a safe and secure pack.

This creates endless confusion and chaos for our dogs whose requirements and expectations of the family "pack" structure, and its leadership, are repeatedly going unmet. When a dog looks at it's pack and realizes that there is a lack of effective leadership, there is going to be trouble. Within every dog is a natural born leader. He or she has the instincts and lessons from mama necessary to function as the leader of a pack should there not be a clear leader, or the current leader proves to be unstable, and this helps inform the canine perspective. When there is a leadership vacuum, or the leader is unstable and thus unsafe, in the dog's perspective, he will then step up to assume command.

This isn't your dog trying to become "alpha" out of some aggressive play for dominance, this is your dog attempting to act for the health and survivability of the pack, to fix an issue that has a human cause.

Dogs need Leadership

As pack animals, puppies use play to learn appropriate communication and behavior, how to hunt, how to discipline a pack member if they become leaders, and what their limits are.

This learning of dog etiquette from their mama is important so that as they grow up, they know how to communicate, understand what their role in a pack is and how to respect each other so that they can keep the pack safe and healthy. When a new puppy comes home, he needs and expects the same thing. A dog needs to understand his place in the pack, he needs to know what the rules are, and he needs to know what the expectations of him are. In your role as leader, your dog will expect you to hold him accountable to those expectations.

Unfortunately, it's not enough to just set and hold expectations, although that will go a long way. Equally important is how you go about doing it and communicating it to your dog. Above all, your dog needs clear, calm, consistent and stable leadership and he will look to you to fulfill these needs. He will read you, your body language, your tone of voice and your emotional state. These will all go into his assessment of your leadership.

Not holding the pack accountable, and not doing so in a clear, calm, consistent and stable manner are signals that you are weak, inconsistent, unstable and thus an unsafe leader, and that's where problems start.

Dogs are acutely aware of the emotional states of their humans, and can quickly assess our leadership

Juliane Kaminski, senior lecturer in psychology and leader of the Dog Cognition Centre at the University of Portsmouth in England, said in a statement. "Domestic dogs have a unique history — they have lived alongside humans for [about] 30,000 years, and during that time, selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs' ability to communicate with us."

Moreover, studies also suggest that dogs have a 'theory of mind,' and can tell the difference between our intentional and unintentional actions, can read our body language, and that the words we say, and how we say them matter.

My experience as a dog trainer aligns with these conclusions. Dogs are highly sensitive to our body language and emotions. They can usually read us faster and more intuitively than we can read each other. Because they can't speak our language, they have, for the last 30,000 years, learned to read our non-verbal body language extremely well. They read and react to our emotions, our likes, our dislikes and our fears and they will mirror them and act accordingly. Thus, seasoned dog trainers know that the state of a dog is usually a reflection of the state of its home environment.

If you treat your dog like a human, your dog will treat you like a dog

When we treat our dogs like little furry humans, we are communicating the wrong things to them. We are saying one thing, but they are hearing something else, and the message they are getting is that the pack is not in good hands. Thus, they will push the boundaries and begin to exert their will of what they believe the pack leadership should be. It's not that your dog wants to treat you badly on purpose, it's just that a dogs priorities and values are very different from a humans priorities and values.


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