Dogs, in their natural state, are pack animals. We tend to think of them simply as autonomous pups and don’t often consider their immutable core nature as pack animals, however. This failure to take into account the true nature of dogs can make training more difficult. Likewise, understanding what it means to be a pack animal can unlock one of training’s greatest secrets.
Dogs, in packs, have leaders. The leadership role in dog packs is one of great influence. Other dogs in the pack naturally subordinate themselves to leadership and will look to their leader for guidance and instruction.
Of course, domesticated dogs don’t travel in packs. Instead, they build a pack based on those with whom they regularly interact. In essence, the owner and the owner’s family members or close friends become the dog’s pack.
This creates a wonderful opportunity for dog trainers. By casting yourself as the leader of your dog’s pack, the dog will naturally tend to follow your lead, will naturally feel inclined to respect you and will demonstrate an instinctive need to learn from you. Since a dog’s real social structure will always be seen through the innate canine perspective of packs and leaders, it only makes sense for trainers to take advantage of this by assigning roles for both pet and master that will make dog training especially effective.
There are several things a trainer can do to emulate being a pack leader. These techniques will allow your dog to find what he will rightfully feel is his place in your family’s social order and will make him substantially more amenable to your training. Some may say it is as easy as “making sure the dog knows who is the boss,” but that is an oversimplification. Being bossy is not the same as being a leader. Simply trying to enforce your will on a dog does not necessarily communicate to him that you are truly the pack leader. The talented trainer will understand this and will take specific actions to emulate a pack leader.
Some expert-recommended techniques include:
Good leaders are consistent enforcers of rules and regulations. Leaders who too often “look the other way” are not taken seriously. A dog will notice whether your rules and expectations are consistently maintained and may even test your mettle upon occasion, pushing the boundaries of established behavioral norms to determine who is really in charge. By being a wholly consistent leader, you are likely to establish yourself as being the head of your pack and your dog will then be much more apt to follow your lead.
Leaders are respected not just as an arbitrary outgrowth of their assigned position but because of how they behave in that role. A firm, but fair leader is far more likely to be admired and followed. One must be firm with their dog when training, but cannot hold unreasonable expectations or enforce their rules with violence or punishment. A good pack leader can still use the positive-reinforcement techniques that have been proven the core of successful training. Being a respectful leader will create a respectful follower in your dog. Their submission to you should be premised in respect and appreciation—not in fear or humiliation.
The successful pack leader will interact with his dog in ways that reinforce the notion of the social hierarchy. Dogs, for instance, look for cues from leadership in the eyes. By maintaining eye contact with your pet during training, he will better understand your role as leader. Likewise, it is desirable to occasionally demand your dog’s attention while walking, playing or during more intense training sessions. By commanding your dog to heel and to look at you, for instance, you will further reinforce your position as pack leader.