BE IN CONTROL OF YOUR DOG
Getting this right is fundamental to you, your family and your dog or dogs having a good life together.
Let me start by saying that I do not believe that all dogs are out to dominate their owners and be leader. I do think that some dogs look to control things in their immediate environment that are of importance to them "a resource", things that they individually see as valuable to themselves (attention, food, exercise toys etc), and that this behaviour is driven by that particular dogs genes, early learning and the environments that they grew up and learnt in. These controlling behaviours are often seen by the uninformed as dominant behaviour, and this is in most cases not the truth.
Dogs are social animals (genetic), most thrive in a well ordered family where they know the ground rules (just like their wild cousins, wolves), and they will happily allow you to be the one to call the shots and follow your lead if you go about it properly. Physically trying to dominate your dog is not the way to do it, teaching and training your dog is the way to go, they need to be taught what is acceptable behaviour in our human world.
This teaching and training needs to take place from day one as a pup, so, if you are looking to take on an a new adult dog that already has serious issues and you are a new or inexperienced owner then don’t take them on, see (/picking-the-right-adult-dog-for-me). At the end of this section I will cover some ways to help your position with an adult dog that comes into the household. I will try not to use the "D" word (dominance) too much as this is a bone of contention with many canine professionals and in some contexts gives of a harsh view. I have my own personal views on this and you can read about it in the canine hierachy section that I will be adding shortly.
I will go over exactly how "to be in control " later in this section but will try to explain how the dog actually sees things first. Many owners will exercise their dog when the dog asks, will feed the dog when they ask, let the dog out when they ask (not a problem obviously if your well socialised/behaved dog is one that lets you know it needs a toilet) and so on. All of these things are allowing the dog to be the decision maker, and all these instances involving food, exercise, garden time, play etc are of high importance to a dog and you are letting him/her be the one calling the shots, you are also rewarding them for their actions by letting them do what they want, this may well lead to problems in other areas too.
For sure there are some dogs out there that through intimidating behaviour, growling and biting will try to influence what other dogs and indeed people do in their immediate environment, they have learnt that aggression is good, it gets them what they want, even to the extent of influencing the movements of others, this is true dominance behaviour/aggression and if you have a dog like this then professional help will be required and in some cases with early learning or genetics the outlook must be guarded. Luckily there are not many dogs out there like this.
I am not saying you have to be a tyrant here (and you should never be so) for many dogs do control some of the above and still have OK lives with their owners in all other respects, what I am saying is that preferably from day one you need to ensure that most things (not all) take place when you want them too not when your pup or dog wants them too, its as simple as that, and it will lead to a more harmonious existence for all. This is in effect your ground rules and you need to be fair, firm, calm and above all consistent when implementing them, this will be a good start for you, though there will still be much more to do as well. What I would add is that at any time you should not go over the top with controlling resources, especially with an older dog that previously had some "nice things" in it's life that you are now about to change as this is in effect punishment, in this situation the help of a professional behaviourist is required. Of course if your dog brings a toy to you to play or asks for affection then give it.
If you think about it you as the owner are in control of everything that is of the highest importance (resource) to a dog, that is, Food (what, when, how), Exercise (where, when, how), Sleep (where, when), Rest (on/off furniture etc), Toys/play (what, when,how), Attention from you and your family, and if you handle all these situations correctly it will help your new friend see you as the one to listen to.
How to be the one in control, the puppy:-
The first thing we should do is highlight a few things that will help you in your quest to be seen as the one to listen to, so you can have a happy and fulfilled time with your new friend. What follows is by no means harsh but simple things that to us might seem like nothing but to a dog are quite important in their decision making.
If possible, when bringing any new pup or dog into the house, I highly reccomend having a DAP adapter (adaptil) in use two weeks beforehand until two weeks after, to help you out.
What I would like to say here, and you can be read about in more detail in the canine hierachy section, is that sometimes with puppies and adult dogs they will seem to not be listening to you, this is almost always not that they are trying to be dominant over the owner, but that they are more interested in something else in the immediate environment, especially if that behaviour is being driven by a genetic drive, like the prey drive for instance; they will be driven by this and other strong drives to satisfy the genetic urge that is propelling them, and the good feeling that they get after doing it makes the behaviour self-rewarding to them. You will probably have seen and may yourself experience a dog busy following a scent nose to the ground ignoring an irate owner bellowing across a field. If this does happen, hard though I know it is you should praise them when they eventually do return, hopefully this will not happen too often if you follow the advice available. All the following is looking at a puppy not an adult dog coming into your family.
For a pup that has it in its behaviour to try it on with you, height is an extra factor in expressing their status (in a dogs eyes), so to start with you really want to NOT allow them on the furniture and especially your bed. I would like to add here that my dog does indeed get on the furniture, and often my bed, but I have no behaviour issues with him (as should be the case, ha ha ), but as a new owner of a puppy I would recommend you keep them off the furniture to start with. While on the furniture subject if you have nice furniture and don't want it chewed you have to supply suitable doggie chews instead, especially when teething. There are many on the market, whatever you chose don't just leave them scattered around the house as they will soon mean nothing to your dog as they are so easily available whenever they feel like it. Keep the chews/toys in a cupboard or box out of the way so when you introduce one its a big thing, your pup will love this and you can big up the chew/toy each time.
The main rule here is to put your pups food down for 10-15 mins max then take it up whether eaten or not, if it is eaten take up when finished. They will soon learn that this is the way it will be, and eat when its put down. If you put food down and leave it down so the pup (and indeed adult dog) can come along when ever it fancies to eat you are putting the dog in charge of one of its most important resources, it may also lead to a dog becoming a “fussy” eater. The fact that you put the food down is not as important as when you take it up and therefore control feeding times.
It would also be good practice to ask for a sit (after they have been taught one) before putting the food down, sitting is a position of deference (sub-missive) for a dog so when they sit they are deferring to you, this is not in anyway harsh but a good tool to help you in your standing, when your pup/dog is older you can wean this practice out. If you have children you can sometimes get them to feed the dog too as this will higher their importance in the dogs eyes.
A friends youngest child was being continually harassed by the young family spaniel, none of the rest of the family was affected, I advised them simply to let the child do all the feeding of the dog asking for a sit beforehand, the dogs behaviour towards the child improved almost over night; changing a dogs diet or feeding regime can profoundly affect a dogs behaviour (so be careful).
From early on you can occasionally interact in your pups eating time, by this I mean approaching and putting something extra special in the bowl while they are eating, let them know you are coming though, do not sneak up on them, don’t do it every time, just now and then, always put or add something much better to their dish, this lets them know that your approach to the food bowl is indeed a good thing, as they get older you can just do it occasionally. Just to add here we are talking about puppies from early on, be careful with an older dog in case you have unwittingly taken on a food guarding dog, (read /picking-the-right-adult-dog-for-me and all the following), if problems already exist get professional help if you want to do something about it. Some puppies due to a bad start or being taken too early or too late from the litter may have food guarding issues already, hopefully you have read the finding the right pup and this is not the case but if you have then seek professional help ASP, every case has to be looked at individually as you may have other issues going on too.
A new pup needs plenty of this for mental stimulation, exercise and bond building but try to make it that most of the time you start and finish these sessions (not all). If your pup is badgering you to play try ignoring them and the second they seem to lose interest and quieten down you turn round and initiate a play session, it is then on your terms, after your desired play time end it with a “that’s it “ or any short phrase you want so they know its finished on your terms. Don’t get into the habit of chasing your pup to get things of them that you have asked for (again here that you have asked for), as this sows the seeds for other problems, if they wont give a toy up just walk quietly away, finish the session, chances are they will bring it to you anyway and you can restart the session on your terms. Just watch to make sure a disgruntled pup does not start to destroy and eat the said ball or toy which may require later medical intervention, if this looks like the case you have to take whatever it is off them and break contact. Tug of war with a toy is fine as long as it dose not become too intense/aggressive and you can let them win sometimes. Of course it will be fine to sometimes have a play with your pup when they ask you too. Make it all fun!
Some rough play (not too rough though) is OK but don’t let your pup get into an aggressive frame of mind, if you do this on a regular basis then they will associate this roughness with OK play and this could cause you problems later with yourselves and other dogs. If things get too carried away finish the session and walk away, give a argh ! Or No ! Nothing else then walk away, your pup needs to associate the too rough play with meaning the ending of a play session.
If your pup bites you too hard in play or at any other time you need to let them know this is unacceptable and that it was too hard, this is called bite inhibition. If you got your pup from a good source then they should already have learnt some of this from play with littermates and telling off from mum before you took them; you have to carry this on.
How we do this is when they have nipped you too hard give a loud aarrgghhh ! Pup should stop and look at you and you walk away breaking of contact, don’t say anything else, and you have to do this immediately after the too hard nip, not many seconds later, but straight after as dogs live in the moment; they need to associate the hard nip with the arrrgghhh (you have hurt me) and the breaking of contact (a consequence of their actions). Obviously we don't want to frighten the pup to death so just make it loud enough to do the job, to stop them in their tracks and pay attention. Do this from the earliest signs of too hard nipping so it doesn't become a serious problem.
Make sure all of your family follows the rules when playing with pup, if say the husband (often happens) plays very roughly with the pup then the pup will not know what’s right or wrong and mistakes will occur with the kids or wife getting nipped too hard with their little needle teeth. If this is not sorted early on it's not so funny later on when the dog has bigger teeth and more powerful jaws.
Handling your pup/dog:-
From the earliest time possible it is good practice to handle your pup, by that I mean look at their teeth, put your fingers in their mouths, handle the feet and between the paws, clear eye discharge from below the eyes, grooming them etc. Obviously don't try putting your hand down your pups throat as soon as you first get them through the door, it will freak them out, and may give them avoidance issues. They need time to settle in and they will be nervous at first so introduce this later when they have had time to settle and become bolder, sometimes you can make it part of play, not all the time though, this will help you later with things like giving medication later, grooming and trips to the vets for examination etc (see /taking-your-dog-to-the-vets). At any time when you are handling your pup make sure they are enjoying it, make it a jolly affair with regular praise, treats and toys, give them good associations to being handled, not bad ones.
If you are having real problems with a biting, aggressive, unruly pup then get some professional help as soon as possible. The following chapter looks at the older dog coming into your home.
The older dog:-
Hopefully you have read the “/picking-the-right-adult-dog-for-me ” section already and you are not bringing home a problem dog; if not then have a look first.
As above for the pup your feeding routine wants to be ask for a sit (if they will do one) put it down for 10-15 mins, take it up, or if eaten take it up. You can approach sometimes and toss something extra special in their bowl as they are eating, let them know you are approaching don't sneak up on them, this assumes you do not already have a food guarding dog, if you have taken on a food guarding dog without knowing it, professional advice/help will be needed as there is probably other issues involved too.
Likewise with a pup play sessions should be started and finished by you most of the time (not all), regularly stroke and handle your dog if they are OK with it (they should be), regularly ask them to sit for you before giving them things like food, treats, toys, even attention by you. When you return after a time away say hello to the dog when you are ready not when they ask, even if it is only a few seconds after return and taking your coat off. If you want to give them some food from your dinner put it in their bowl and give it to them after you have finished eating. Try to ignore any obvious attention seeking/control of resources behaviour like barking constantly for a chew or attention from you, if you give it not only are you reinforcing the behaviour by giving a reward for it but you might (with some dogs) also be adding to the I'm the leader mentality of the dog. Reward any behaviour you do like or want to carry on, make the reward salient (good) enough to do the job, not just a kibble of their dry food. Have fun too though, interact with your dog when playing and walking. All of the above paragraph is just a few things to hopefully help you out when a new older dog first comes into your home.
If you already have an older that gets fed your dinner under the table, tells you when to go out, asks for his dinner and you go and get it, and you really don't have any other behavioural problems, then carry on as you are. If you are having problems get a professional in to help you if you want to do something about it.
All of the above are simple measures you can take to help your new friend see you as the one to listen to, the one that brings good things and is in control. If you were to have serious hierarchical, resource guarding, aggression or other issues (hopefully not as you should have read the /picking-the-right-adult-dog-for-me /picking-the-right-puppy-for-me sections and others), then professional help from a vet (to look for clinical issues first) and then a qualified/experienced behaviourist will be required.
For other related topics take a look at /how-dogs-learn or /how-dogs-communicate
Why not take a look at my new book - Elmer no ordinary wolf, a realistic novel about a wolf called Elmer, his family and their life. My hope is that you will learn much about wolves and mother nature, and that you will come to understand why man first thought to domesticate these amazing social animals to give us our best friend, the dog.
copyright 2013-22 Paul lindley