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How to Be a Good Pack Leader with Leadership Exercises

Updated on April 2, 2012
Does Your Dog Look Up to You?
Does Your Dog Look Up to You?

Being a Pack Leader the Simple & Gentle Way

Oftentimes when people think of having leadership over their dogs, they think of forceful ways to exert dominance. But being a good pack leader does not require force. There are some very simple leadership exercises you can do with your dog so that he automatically looks to you for direction. Leadership by being dependable and consistent will have much better results than the forceful dominance methods.

Wolf Leaders Lead, not Bully.
Wolf Leaders Lead, not Bully.

Why Physical Dominance May Not Work

Using force could work. But it could also have the opposite effect. Sometimes forceful activities, such as the alpha roll-over, scruff shake, and threatening stares, can make some dogs react aggressively in return. His reactive behavior could in turn cause you to be even more aggressive and it could progress to a dangerous point for both you and your dog.

Think about the ancestor of the dog, the wolf. Although dogs are generations away from wolf behavior, there are some behaviors which are still relatively similar. The alpha wolf may exert aggressive behavior towards other pack members, but it is something they only do as a last resort. As a strong pack leader, the alpha wolf is not a bully. He/she cares for the pack by leading the hunt, finding resting places, fighting off intruders, and generally looking out for the pack's well-being.

A Leaderless Dog May Growl or Bite to Get His Way.
A Leaderless Dog May Growl or Bite to Get His Way.

What Happens if You're not a Good Pack Leader?

By not being a good pack leader, your dog may feel that he has to fill this role. Dogs without good leaders are generally more on guard. They tend to bark more frequently and may be overly protective and aggressive when it comes to strangers, other dogs, or their own possessions. They are pushy when it comes to getting what they want, whether it is food, treats, or even petting. They may even growl or bite. They can also be difficult to handle when it comes to bath time or nail clipping.

By allowing your dog to be in the leader position, you could be inviting unpleasant behavior issues. You could also be stressing your dog because he feels he has to be the protector.

Practicing Basic Obedience Training is a Good Way to Establish Leadership and Build a Bond.
Practicing Basic Obedience Training is a Good Way to Establish Leadership and Build a Bond.

Simple Things You Can Do to Establish Leadership

General Obedience
General obedience training is an absolute must. With obedience training, your dog learns the rewards of listening to you. Use positive reinforcement for basic training and negative punishment for bad behaviors. Negative punishment simply means taking away something your dog wants. It does not mean physical force. For example, if your dog jumps on you for attention turn around and ignore him. You are taking away your attention in order to discourage a bad behavior. If your dog chews something he is not supposed to, take it away and give him something he is allowed to chew on. You can be firm by saying "no" or "eh-eh" but physical punishment is not needed.

Don't Give in to Begging.
Don't Give in to Begging.

Leaders Eat First
Leaders eat first. If it is time for a family dinner, do not feed your dog at the same time and don't feed him from the table. For more training information on how to teach your dog not to beg, check out this article, "Teaching Your Dog Not to Beg While You are Eating". It is not cruel to have your dog wait for his meal. Your dog will not unduly suffer. By feeding your dog immediately after the family eats, you are setting pack order. And by feeding him regularly every day, he trusts that he will get fed.

This means no free-feeding your dog. Your dog eats at his specified mealtime only. And when he is done eating the bowl is picked up. Not only does this help with leadership, but it also helps prevent obesity.

Will Work for Food
Feeding time should always come after 'work'. I don't mean you should make him bring in the sheep or pick up all his toys. Simple commands will suffice. Make your dog sit and stay while you fill his bowl. You should be able to calmly fill and set down his food without him jumping all over you. Once the bowl is in place, give the release command. The video below is of me filling my dogs' bowls. Notice how calmly they wait.

This working for food applies for treats as well. Always make your dog sit or do a special trick before you give him a treat. If you give your dog treats without making him work for it, he will not be as enthusiastic about training time. In his mind, he can get treats at any time so why bother?

Working for food does not mean you shouldn't feed your dog if he doesn't obey. If you are having trouble, do the simplest command possible.

Doggy Dinner Time Demonstration

Sephi and Maya on their Dog Bed.
Sephi and Maya on their Dog Bed.

Designated Sleeping Areas
Until leadership is establish, your dog should not be allowed on the furniture or bed. I know how difficult that can be. But you can break this rule later once your dog understands you are the leader. Even if your dog will be allowed on the furniture, it is important that they have their own private sleeping space. Give him his own crate with a blanket or give him his own dog bed.

Designate Off-Limit Areas and Boundaries
If there are certain parts of the house you do not want your dog to go, you can teach him to stay out. Close the door or use a baby gate, especially when you are not home. When you are home, you can go in the off-limit areas but tell your dog "no" or "eh-eh" in a firm voice when he tries to come in too.

Other boundaries include keeping your dog off the counters in the kitchen or not chewing on things he is not supposed to. You must be firm and consistent. It helps to teach him the leave-it command. When you are not home, it helps to confine your dog in his crate. Most dogs do very well in crates but if you are concerned about leaving him in one all day, ask a neighbor or hire a pet sitter to stop by to let him out for a bit.

Maya Allows Me to Touch Her Feet and Clip Her Nails.
Maya Allows Me to Touch Her Feet and Clip Her Nails.

It is All About You
You decide when you want to pet or play with your dog. Don't let your dog be insistent for either. If he is shoving his nose in your hand or dropping a toy at your feet and barking, ignore him. It can be frustrating for you but by giving in you are teaching your dog the bad behavior of pushing or barking to get what he wants.

Also, since you are the leader, you decide where you want to go and when. This is especially important when taking your dog for a walk. It is also important for when you first go outside. You should always make it a point that you go through the door first. Make your dog sit and stay while you go out, then give him the release command so he can follow. Going where you want to go and when also means that you don't step around your dog when he is lying in the way. My dogs do this in the kitchen all the time. They are not begging, but they are patiently waiting for me to drop something. This can be especially inconvenient if they happen to be lying in front of the refrigerator. If your dog is in the way whether it is in the hall or in the kitchen, make him move. You don't have to be forceful. Just nudge him a bit. Use a firm voice and say 'move'.

You also decide when to comb your dog's hair, cut his nails, brush his teeth, or clean his ears. Your dog should allow you to do all of these things without growling and especially without biting. This can take practice, especially with a very young dog. Be patient but firm. Don't stop doing it just because your puppy won't stop wiggling around. If you do, you are teaching him that by being difficult, he can make you stop. Consult a professional dog trainer for help if needed.

Once Leadership is Established, it is Okay to Allow Your Dog on the Furniture if You Want.
Once Leadership is Established, it is Okay to Allow Your Dog on the Furniture if You Want.

The most important thing to remember is that leaders always stay calm, in control, and are consistent. Some of these leadership exercises can be relaxed once your dog sees you as a leader without challenge. By all means, if you want your dog on the furniture, allow him on the furniture. But allow him at your invite only – at least at first. Perhaps later, you can designate a specific sleeping area on the furniture, such as his own chair. Free-feeding can also be okay, especially if your dog is a slow eater. But special treats should always be withheld until they sit or do a trick. These are not hard and fast rules and not all of them have to be followed exactly. Every dog is different and some dogs may need more rules than others.

A Dog with a Good Leader is a Happy Dog.
A Dog with a Good Leader is a Happy Dog.

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