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Dog Psychology

Updated on December 12, 2018
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Nicky works as a dog psychologist rehabilitating dogs, and training (and sometimes rehabilitating) their owners.

Take control and help reverse unwanted behaviour.


To form a close bond with your dog, it helps if you can talk their language. Just as you would learn any foreign language, you need to learn dog! Talking dog doesn’t involve many spoken words, but has more to do with body language and energy. In the animal kingdom this is how communication occurs, all animals respond instinctively to different energy intensities. Dogs don’t judge you as a person of a certain age or race, they see you as energy. In order to communicate with your dog, and get them to behave as you want, you need to have calm assertive energy and set boundaries. It is natural for dogs to have pack leaders, and to be followers. By becoming your dogs pack leader you are creating a well balanced happy dog….and owner! If you continue to try to communicate with your dog as you would a human, any unwanted behaviour will never go away….and it won’t be the dogs fault, to dogs’ human communication really is a foreign language.

Calm Assertive Energy

In a pack of dogs the objective is always to achieve balance. A pack of dogs will hone in on any animal that is displaying anxious, fearful or too excited energy and will react accordingly to restore balance. There are three positions within a pack – front, middle and back. Each dog will naturally gravitate towards its place based on relative dominance. You can’t change the place a dog takes in a pack, it’s just how they are born. The pack leader is always calm and assertive, and the most dominant dog leading from the front. Collectively the dogs in front provide direction and protection. The dogs in the rear are programmed to alert the pack to danger from behind, alarm barking. The dogs in the middle are mediators, communicating with the front and the rear pack members. Dogs which are positioned in the middle are the easiest for humans who can’t talk dog to look after, they take direction well and are naturally submissive. Dogs in either the rear or the front of the pack are more likely to be reactive, and display unwanted behaviour. Dogs in the rear of the pack are often anxious, but do respond well to feeling protected by a calm assertive human pack leader. Dogs who are natural front runners respond best to calm assertive leadership. In a human and dog pack, the humans should always be the pack leaders. In order to fill this role you need to provide protection (calm assertive energy, food and shelter) and direction (rules and boundaries). Emotions pack leaders don’t show - GUILT, FEAR, PITY, EMBARRASSMENT, SHAME, FRUSTRATION OR ANGER. If you show these emotions your dog will see you as weak. Dogs live in the moment, not the past.

Reactive Dog + Emotional Human = Explosive Situation

Reactive Dog + Calm Assertive Human = Non-Reactive Situation

Calm Submissive Body Language

  • Ears Back

  • Calm Eyes

  • Still tail and body

  • Relaxed, not tense stance or shaking body

  • Panting is okay if the rest of body is relaxed, not anxious panting or sticking tongue out/licking

  • Sitting (all four paws on the ground) or lying down

  • Head down

    To learn to read your dogs body language it helps to do your homework by watching as many episodes as you can of Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisper. Another good watch is a lecture by Cesar Millan on YouTube posted by Panagiotis Milas – posted with a photo of Cesar and a chihuahua, duration - 47:17. In my opinion Cesar Millan has been a great pioneer in dog psychology. His methods are simple yet effective, and work with not against nature. Cesar has been born as the ultimate dominant pack leader. He can work with any dog and achieve pack leadership status. But just like dogs people are born with different energy levels and relative dominance. You can work on increasing your projected energy and pack leadership skills, but remember we aren't all as dominant as Cesar! You should be aware of this and take safety precautions accordingly. Stick to working with your own dog. Always check in with other dog owners concerning the temperament of their dog before approaching too closely. Use a muzzle when appropriate, and possibly invest in a TRAINING dog coat to make other dog owners aware of your objectives. You can't feel embarrassed whilst out with your dog, and you also don't want fellow dog walkers to be nervous around your dog if they are wearing a muzzle. If you are honest about your intentions you will find most dog owners very willing to help.

    How to Achieve a Calm Submissive State

    To get your dog in a calm submissive state you need to dominate them. You need to move towards them with your shoulders up and standing proud. You are claiming their space as your own, and forcing them to submit to you. This is a natural process. Your dog will try to dominate you by facing you, when they turn their head away this is a good sign. They might start to shake, before eventually submitting and relaxing. You need to make sure you have enough time to follow through, and not leave them before they have reached calm submission. A dog will go through fight or flight, followed by avoidance, before finally achieving submission. The brain can be re-programmed to react calmly in trigger situation, dogs live in the now not in the past. To snap the brain out of its excited state you can touch your dog firmly, but not too hard with your hand or foot. You never want to cause your dog pain as this will increase their anxiety or excitement. At the same time as using the touch make a noise (Ceaser uses a “shh” noise) but any firm noise will do. Your energy is conveyed even in your voice. When you want obedience you need a firm voice, followed by a pause. You don’t want to give lots of commands one after the other as your dog will just get confused. Less is more! You can use a high excited voice if you want to get your dog excited, but to praise a dog for reaching a calm submissive state (and keep them in that state) only stroke them without any verbal praise. If you give affection, be it verbal or through touch, and your dog isn't calm you are simply reinforcing unwanted behaviour through mis-timed affection. Correctly timed affection through stroking alone is very effective. Over time you can lose the firm touch of a correction, and just use the noise as your dog will associate it with stopping unwanted behaviour and calming down. The timing of the touch is very important, you need to give it before the dog reaches fever pitch to prevent the unwanted behaviour. If your dog has reached a high level of excitement corrections will be less effective. Prevention is better than cure. You can learn to read your dogs’ body language, and to perfect the timing of your corrections. Repetition, lots of practise and patience are required.

Rules and Boundaries

Often in more developed countries dogs are treated like children, but with no boundaries or limitations. As with children this will lead to unwanted behaviour. Well behaved children have boundaries, just as any well behaved and balanced dog does. Remember to get your dog into a calm submissive state before you attempt ANY activity be it walking; feeding; meeting and greeting /leaving - your dog should always be calm before proceeding.

Four Areas to Focus on – the Ripple Effect

If you want to be a good pack leader, you need to focus on controlling the four areas that are important in the dog world. Going out hunting as a pack, or going for a walk with your human/dog pack; food and possessions (toys or household items); meetings/greetings and departures; and finally territory - the house and garden belong to you….the pack leader. Even if you don’t have any issues in certain areas, it’s still important to evaluate them all, and remind your dog who’s in charge 100% of the time. A ripple effect will occur. Dominate all the four areas and any unwanted behaviour can be fixed faster by an effective pack leader. Focus on the areas you don’t have problems with first, to help establish your leadership before moving onto problem areas. If you can conquer all four areas you will have earned your dogs trust and respect (love is already a given), and form a closer pack bond with them.

  1. The Walk – Dogs that walk in front of their owners consider themselves to be the pack leaders, this puts pressure on them to control situations. If you want an emotionally unbalanced dog to enjoy their walk, you can take this pressure off them by becoming the dominant pack leader. You need to get back to basics, before you put the lead on your dog needs to be calm submissive. Get them to sit to help achieve this. Don’t leave the house with an excited dog and expect to have a calm walk. Always leave the house first with your dog following through any entrance ways, this applies when out on a walk and going down a narrow path…always be in front with your dog in a follower position. Being calm also applies when you drive to go for a walk, make sure your dog is in the right state of mind before they get into or out of the car. Slip leads high up on the neck are most effective, or for more powerful or high energy dogs these leads can be made into a halter to make it easier to master the walk . On the walk you are aiming to have your dog walk on a relaxed lead next to you, with no tension in your body or arms. Slow abdominal breathing may help you to relax, and thinking about something that makes you happy will distract your brain. You need to walk with confidence, and not react physically or mentally to situations. You need to claim your space, and not move away from oncoming obstacles or dogs. The only exception being it you read on oncoming dogs body language to be too excited or aggressive, then it's a good idea to give some space. If your dog starts edging in front of you give a correction to the side with the lead at the same time make your noise. Touch can be used with your leg or foot, but never hard. You are just creating a sensation to snap your dog out of their excited state. If your dog is reactive, make sure you position yourself between your dog and on-coming dogs, and try putting your dog slightly behind you in a follower position. As you learn to read your dogs body language e.g. ears pricked up in excitement, you will be able to predict their reactions, control them and have confidence in any situation you encounter on a walk. Thus building trust between you and your dog.

  2. Food and Possessions – The pack leader decides who gets how much food, and shares it out. This makes it fine for you to share your food with your dog, but only when they are calm submissive and not manipulating you into giving it to them - you have to stay strong and ignore those pleading eyes! Remember if a dog gets you to do something then they are being the pack leader. In the wild dogs earn their food by waiting and hunting. You should only feed your dog after making them wait with the bowl on a bench or table until they are calm submissive. It might be easier and more natural for your dog to achieve this after a walk as the walk represents the hunt. If your dog refuses food, or carries it away they are feeling unsure and tense. As pack leader you need to make them feel protected, and making them wait for their food until they are calm helps with this. There should be no food aggression amongst pack members, all the rules are set by the pack leader. If your dog shows any food aggression they are demonstrating that they think they are the pack leader. You should be able to take your dogs food away and they won’t react. If they react you need to use your dominant energy and move towards them, never away, to claim the food. You have to be relaxed and confident to try this, wearing tough gloves is a good way to achieve this and to keep you from getting injured. A pack leader will stay calm and assertive, and move forwards even if they have been bitten. A dog which bites in this situation is only following their instincts, this doesn’t make them a bad dog. This exercise will help you to see your dog as a dog, and not humanise them. By using our own psychology on our pets we aren’t respecting their identity in the animal kingdom. Once they have gone through an explosion of energy, often followed by shaking, they will be calm submissive towards you. When your dog reaches this state you can reward them with affection through relaxed stroking, verbal praise is unnecessary. Your dogs’ toys, or any possession in the house your dog may decide to play with should also be able to be taken away by the pack leader with no signs of aggression. To remove an object from your dogs’ mouth you simply need to hold it still and claim it. Your dog will release it and walk away. If you move the object around, your dog will think it is a game and get excited and start a tug of war.

  3. Meetings and Departures – Meeting and greeting other dogs and humans is a key time for showing who is dominant. A pack leader will be silent, make no eye contact, and won’t touch another pack member when meeting them. This is why with unbalanced, reactive dogs you need to ask visitors to ignore them when they first come into your house. Just as you should also ignore your dog when returning home. To reinforce good behaviour only when your dog is calm submissive should you or any visitors stroke them. Most people when they greet a dog immediately humanise them, and will start talking to them like a little child, petting them and generally approaching with excited energy. This is showing submissive behaviour and will garner no respect from the dog, instead reinforcing bad habits such as jumping. Shouting in anger at a jumping dog will only increase the energy of the situation and show weakness. A dogs’ best sense is their sense of smell. They will use this first when meeting someone, they don’t need you to get too close to start the process of saying hello. When you depart from your house you should also ignore your dog, and make sure they are in a calm submissive state when you leave. If you leave your dog in an emotional state they are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.

  4. Territory – The house and garden should be the pack leaders’ territory, and that should be the human member. To claim doorways, gates and windows you need to block your dog whilst moving towards them when they are excited and barking. Always move towards your dog, be firm and have confident body language e.g. hands on hips. Finish the exercise by petting your dog the split second after they have reached calm submission. You can time your corrections so that your dog understands you are claiming the area. You need to give a correction when your dog displays any unwanted behaviour. Pack leaders don’t negotiate, they give orders that are followed through. In this way you can stop your dog nuisance barking, and also claim a doorway when someone comes to visit. Initially with visitors you might need to put a lead on your dog, only letting them off the lead when they are 100% calm. Lead your dog away from the door in retreat to give space and a welcome to the visitor. Only allow your dog freedom off the lead once they are in calm submission. If they get excited again put them back on the lead, leave it trailing on the floor and stand on it if they make an excited move towards your visitor. There should be an invisible line that you won’t allow your dog to cross. You need to claim the space around a visitor, and apply corrections if your dog crosses this boundary. It’s good to practise desensitising your dog to the sound of someone knocking on the door. Do continuous knocking, giving corrections until your dog is calm submissive…only then do you reward this behaviour with affection. Its fine for your dog to share your sofa or bed, but it has to be on your terms i.e. you invite them up into your territory.

    Love, Trust and Respect

    To truly bond with your dog you need to have a relationship that includes love, trust and respect...not just love. This will enable you both to feel more balanced. It is natural for dogs to be followers, by becoming a pack leader you are imitating nature. If your dog doesn’t respect you this can manifest in various behavioural issues including inconsistent recall; aggression or unhealthy obsessions and nuisance barking. Lack of trust can also lead to aggression as your dog feels you can’t protect them, and they take over the role as protector. Dogs who won’t eat, or who are nervous eaters are demonstrating their distrust of you. Dogs will only eat if they feel secure. Dogs see us as energy and activities. To gain your dogs trust and respect you need to ALWAYS project calm assertive energy, and demonstrate you are the pack leader. This can be beneficial for our mental health, as well as your dogs, and this balance can be transferred to other areas of your life. An unbalanced dog, like an unbalanced human is an unhappy dog. We are the only species on the planet who follow unbalanced pack leaders! Your dog will be confused by an unbalanced pack leader, and will only follow you in the parts of your life where you are demonstrating pack leadership. You don’t need to forget the dog lover part of you, you can still have a good cuddle on the sofa and shower your dog with affection when they are in a calm submissive state. You can also show your dog love through activities such as playing fetch or taking them on an extra walk. This is the kind of love your dog will really appreciate.


  • Make sure you dog has enough exercise for their breed/age.

  • Always be the pack leader on a walk – no flexi leads. Only let your dog off the lead when you trust them i.e. when you have become the pack leader. If they need more exercise find a way to achieve this e.g. back pack, bike, roller blades, scooter (you can even get electric bikes and scooters!) or throwing a ball. Always lead through any small gaps/paths.

  • Make your dog wait when you are feeding them, they only get fed when they are calm submissive or walking away disinterested from the food.

  • Ignore your dog when meeting them, and leaving them.

  • Never show emotion, always remain calm assertive (deep breaths). Showing emotion such as anger or frustration will hinder progress and make your energy weak.

  • Correct any unwanted behaviour, never do anything your dog gets you to do – you make all the decisions.

  • Don’t leave an exercise unfinished or on a negative note. A good example of this is if out on a walk your dog reacts negatively to another dog, don’t walk away with that as the lasting memory for you both. Approach the owner of the other dog, explain you are trying to socialise your dog and ask if it’s okay if they put their dog on a lead and walk with you until your dog is relaxed. Always make sure both dogs are on the lead, and a safe distance away until you read your dogs body language as calm submissive – only then can you let them interact, smelling first. If you have a powerful breed of dog who is reactive use a muzzle.

  • Before completing any task make sure your dog is in a calm submissive state.

  • Timing is everything for corrections (firm touch and nosie) and rewards (reward calm submissive behaviour with quiet affection).

  • Dogs only respect calm assertive energy, showing emotion such as anger or frustration will hinder progress and make your energy weak.

  • Always move forward towards your dog…never away.

  • Follow through, make sure you have time to complete the exercise.

  • If you feel UNSURE don’t do it, you have to be confidant to succeed.

  • Live in the moment, don’t think about past experiences, project calm confident energy.

  • Positive mental energy, imagine in your mind what you want to happen….and make it happen.

  • Consistency, repetition and patience.

The techniques described in this article should only be tried at your and your dogs own risk. Tough gloves and a muzzle might be necessary, especially when dealing with the more powerful breeds. You need to be able to feel calm In all situations….always think about the safety of everybody involved ….including other dogs. I run private courses from my home in North Yorkshire to teach these techniques. Thanks, Nicky.

*Copyright – N.Nakalevu 2018.


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