Whether you raise a dog from puppyhood or adopt a dog during its teen or senior years, all dogs require a confident leader in their home with their people. If a dog—particularly a new dog or a rescue dog that is living in a home for the first time—does not sense a leader among its humans, then the dog will try to assert itself as leader of its new pack. This is why it's important for you to understand how to be your dog's confident leader or 'alpha'.
Why Don't You Want Your Dog to be the Alpha in the House?
When a dog asserts itself as leader, or alpha, in a houseful of humans, it usually leads to unwanted behavior problems and even biting that could likely have been avoided. The solution relies entirely on the human taking the time to observe and understand the new member of the family, setting expectations and boundaries that allow the dog to learn and adapt.: By doing so, you and your dog learn to communicate and you become a confident, consistent, and compassionate leader for the new canine family member.
Do You Understand What Your Dog Wants and Needs?
We have to remember that a dog’s essential nature is inherited from its wolf brethren. Dogs live in a social hierarchy with a definite and ranking members of a pack. Each pack member has a role. Dogs learn the roles by observing each other’s body language, listening to vocalizations, and picking up on scent, among other methods of canine communication.
In living with humans, dogs have learned to adapt their instinctual communication style. They have learned to transfer these instincts to understanding human behavior. (We think dogs would make great psychologists!)
Dogs living with humans will use scent, observation of body language, and listening to your tone of voice to assess your emotional state and identify what role you hold in the pack. They use their own reasoning skills to figure out what all of this means for their wellbeing.
In other words, your dog is studying you to figure out if you are a threat (“will human hurt me”) or way to secure the resources it needs, such as food and water, but also belonging.
What You Must Communicate to Your Dog
Dogs are keen observers of human behavior and it “speaks” volumes to them:
Your body language must exude confidence, not uncertainty. When you are confident the dog identifies you has a leader of its new pack.
When interacting with your dog, your body language needs to be consistent so your dog knows it can rely on you in different situations.
Your vocal commands and body language must be firm, but also caring and compassionate so your dog knows she can trust you. Any other tone of voice can be interpreted as threatening. This is why dogs may cower when you yell at them. A fearful dog can bit just as easily as a dog that is protecting its territory or resources.
Interactions with a New Dog
In the first several weeks with your new dog, you and every member of your family need to be consistent in how you interact. It is these interactions that help the dog feel safe. It is very important to practice these patterns regularly.
When a dog knows that it can expect each family member to treat it as well as any other family member, the dog can relax. This is a crucial point because, as you may have observed already, dogs tend to interact differently with different members of the family.
For example, younger children will cry, throw tantrums, and play in ways that are different from the older family members. Younger children also are less likely to be able to interpret the dog’s body language—language that may indicate “leave me alone” or “don’t do that.” You may also see that dogs play differently with children. It’s important to establish to the dog that children are members of the family “pack” but the kids not are not the dog’s puppies or siblings.
Getting back to the basics of family interactions with the new dog: When interacting with a new dog in your home, from day one you want everyone in the home to be consistent with these types of interactions:
approaching the dog slowly and gently
approaching on the dog’s level from the front, not the side or from behind
not leaning over the dog or touching sensitive areas (tail, head)
using loose leash training around the house
not taunting the dog
not backing a dog into a corner, which will evoke a fear response in the dog
not startling a sleeping/resting dog, which could be seen as a threat by the dog
not getting angry for mistakes the dog makes—he or she needs time to learn
You will want to study your dog’s body language as much as he or she is studying you.
If the dog is backing away from you, he wants space and you need to give that to him. He should have a crate, mat, or other safe space to himself.
Dogs Thrive on Consistency in the Home
If you don’t have a daily routine for the dog, you need to create one.
Dogs are creatures of habit. They look to you to know when it is okay to engage in a certain way. The initial few weeks a new dog is in your home is a time to establish consistency in routine. Otherwise, you are doing to find a lot of mess in the home and perhaps alot of damage as a result of the dog’s frustration and confusion.
Over time, most dogs more easily adapt to changes in your schedule. This is because of the trust that has been established through previous leadership, compassion, and consistency in caring for them. They may need a few days, even a week, to get settled in, but they’ll be able to do so without much stress.
How to be a Confident & Compassionate Leader for Your Dog?
Confident leadership means not showing confusion or uncertainty when the dog makes a mistake in the home, barks incessantly, or displays problematic behaviors. In fact, most behaviors considered problematic by owners happen for a reason. It is the dog’s way of communicating with you. A confident leader tries to figure out what the behavior means and correct for it so it does not happen again. They do this without yelling, threatening or otherwise scaring, or punishing the dog; that is, they respond with with compassion.
Read books about training your dog (see Resources below)
Train your dog. Each day have a 15 minute reward-based training session with your dog.
Learn about the breed (or breeds) of your dog.
Make sure every family uses the same verbal commands and hand signals. If one person uses “come” and another persons uses “here” the dog won’t understand what to do.
Give your dog LESS freedom in the home, and have him earn more house privileges as time goes by. On the other hand, if you don’t every want a dog on the furniture, don’t let her on some times, but not others; or on one chair but not another chair. The dog cannot discern these differences.
Use tether training with your dog. Wherever you go around the house, the dog follows (except for the rooms you don’t want the dog going into).
Don’t repeat yourself. Having to repeat yourself just teaches the dog not to listen. The dog gets one chance: If you give a command and she doesn’t obey, follow through with what you expected. If you gave the “sit” command and the dog does not sit, you will need to gently move the dog into position. This is something you can learn in training classes. When your dog obeyed, reward with a treat and loving ear rub.
There is so much to learn about your new dog and for them to learn about you, too. When done with compassion, consistency, and confident leadership this process can lead to a beautiful bond between you and your canine companion.
Maran’s Illustrated Guide to Dog Training (Book)
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