Effective Leadership: the way to a happy pack

This article first appeared in Dogs Life magazine and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Karin Larsen Bridge, part owner of Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney - a dog training school specializing in positive training classes for pet dogs. She is a Delta Accredited Canine Good Citizen (TM) Instructor and writes and lectures frequently on dogs and dog related issues such as positive training methods, behavioural problems and responsible pet ownership.

Dogs naturally live in a pack with each member having a special role to play. The alpha or lead dog and bitch are the ones who are best at hunting, protecting and nurturing the most young pups into adulthood. A successful, pack is functional and peaceful.

When a dog comes into our human pack, it should be easy for us to assume the leade role - after all we control not only access to food, water and shelter but to a large extent exploration, exercise and social interaction as well. Good leaders are not only good providers however, they are:

  • kind (practice mutual respect)
  • confident (able to keep their dog safe in all situations)
  • understanding (not have unrealistic expectations)
  • knowledgeable (provide structure and education )
  • reliable
  • consistent and
  • fair

It is your job to earn the respect of your dog - not  through physical domination or confrontation but by quiet, consistent demonstrations that you are in control of his environment and that all good things in life come through you.The following steps will help you to be an effective leader of the pack.

Step 1: Have a plan.

Many owners say they want their dog to be 'good' - but 'good' is not a behaviour.

Provide structure for your dog by planning exactly what you would like him to do in everyday situations and have all the family stick to it! For example when visitors arrive are you happy if your dog keeps all four feet on the ground, would you prefer a sit or would you prefer your dog to stay on a mat in the kitchen? Once you have decided on the exact behaviour you want you can start to reward your dog for steps in the right direction. Be specific, be consistent and be patient.

Step 2:

Living is Learning
Your dog is learning from you every time you are together, not just when you are having a training session.

In all your interactions with your dog be conscious of rewarding the things you like and ignoring the things you don't like. Things that you reward will happen more and more often. Don't forget to reward quiet, passive behaviours such as lying quietly and sitting. Use all the rewards you are likely to give your dog anyway - such as part of his dinner, your attention, praise, cuddles or games but only provide them immediately following good behaviour.

For behaviours that you wish to discourage, take away rewards. This could be as simple as looking away or stopping a game, to a minute of 'time out' in another room.

Step 3:

Nothing in life is free
Insist your dog says 'please 'with a sit (or any other behaviour you have trained) for anything he wants such as coming inside, going outside, having leash put on, waiting for dinner or playing with a toy.

Let your dog learn that you control the consequences of his behaviour. A polite sit dog gets his dinner delivered ,jump up and the food bowl moves away. Your dog is learning that he can control what happens to him by co-operating with you, this is empowering for both you and your dog .

Step 4:

To have and to hold Your dog needs to learn that you have the right to restrain and hold him. This will be necessary for effective grooming and easy vet checks as well as being a great way to reinforce your role as leader.

Handling and restraint should be associated with good times, massage, treats and positive attention. Please, do not use physical force or fear. You want to teach your dog that all humans male or female, young or old, weak or strong have the right to gently hold and handle him.This is an exercise in trust and acceptance and may one day save your dog's life.

Step 5:

What's yours is mine too! Make a practice of regularly taking toys and chewies from your dog, looking at them and either giving them straight back or swapping them for something better.

This is a safer way to teach your dog it's OK to share than trying to use power tactics to persuade him to give up a bone or toy .The aim is to form a positive association between people and possessions so that the approach of any human big or small is good news for your dog.

Step 6:

Every game has rules
Games can be a great way to have fun with your dog and to reward him for good behaviourbut there are some definite do's and dont's.


√ Teach your dog to retrieve. Bringing toys back to you is a great way to reinforce your leadership position, especially if you wait for a 'sit ' before throwing the toy again.

√ Keep possession oftoys you play with together like balls or tug ropes and only bring them out when you feel like playing. Toys are effective rewards and shouldn't be given away for nothing. Remember all good things in life come through you!

√ Teach your dog an 'on' and 'off' switch by interrupting games every minute or so with a sit or a down. This is especially true for games of tug. Teach your dog to 'let go' on a cue such as 'enough'. Stand still as you do so and look totally uninterested in continuing the game. As soon as your dog lets go either reward with a treat or invite to play again with your 'on' cue such as 'playtime'. Now you are able to use play as a reward for quiet behaviour which gives you excellent control of your dog and the games you play together.

√ Quit play immediately if your dog seems to be getting over excited or if teeth should touch human flesh (even accidentally).

√ Encourage children to play suitable games by the rules with the dog and supervise as necessary.

√ Make sure you and your children spend lots of quiet time with your dog as well as play time.


X Don't: Play any wrestling games with your dog.This will only convince your dog that you are another dog and can be treated as such. It will do nothing to teach your dog respect for humans in general. This rule applies to adults, teenagers and children. Many dogs have been labelled 'aggressive' due to inappropriate play in puppy hood.

X Don't : Allow your dog to bite/wrestle/tug directly on human skin - all play should be directed onto toys.

X Don't: Allow games of chasing. Chasing after your dog will only convince him that he can direct the games and can't be caught! Allowing your dog to chase you or your children encourages nipping and biting.

X Don't: Allow young children to play with any dog unsupervised.

Step 7:

 Schools in! Teaching your dog to follow a few basic commands is a great way to reinforce your position as leader and gives you a chance to practice compliance on a regular basis.

If possible, children should also be allowed to train with the dog (under supervision) so that the dog learns that these little people are also above them in the pack hierarchy. There are four important exercises all dogs should know.

1. Settle. Following on from the handling and restraint exercise above, teach your dog to 'settle' quietly in the house. Assuming your dogs need for exercise and play have been met, bring your dog into the home and reward him regularly for settling in his special place. This can be your dog's confinement area, in a crate, on a mat, or tied next to your chair.

Your dog needs to know that, as leader you are able to gently insist on quiet times and that good thing happen to puppies who co-operate.

2. Sit and/or down. Teach your dog to sit and to down by luring him into position with a small treat. Drop the lure and move your hand in exactly the same way then reward from the other hand. Soon your dog will recognize your hand signals for these behaviours.

3. Come. Dogs who have learned to trust and feel safe with their leaders should happily come when called. Teach your dog from the start that coming to you will always be a good choice.

4. Walk nicely on lead. Dogs don't have to walk perfectly by your side to respect you as the leader but by the same token they ought not to drag you from pillar to post.

If your dog has learnt to accept restraint, he should quickly accept the restraint imposed by a leash. The next step is to make it clear to your dog that you decide which direction you are going to move. Change direction frequently and only move forward when there is no tension on the leash.

Step 8:

Honour Pack Rules

Dogs have their own set of rules to show who is higher up the pack hierarchy and many behaviourists have recommended we implement the same rules into our human pack.

Top Leaders have control of the best sleeping/rest areas. Avoid letting your dog occupy elevated positions around the house such as your bed, furniture, lap or shoulders unless you have specifically given permission first; this is one of the many privileges that must be earned.  Leaders have right of passage. Don't allow your dog to push ahead of you through doorways - this is simply good manners.

Open and shut the door quickly until your dog steps back, that's your cue to walk through ahead. Soon it will become second nature for your dog to follow behind. Similarly, if your dog is lying in a hallway or narrow passage, ask him to move don't walk around him. Leaders own the best toys - all interactive toys are YOURS, the dog only has a chance to play with them when you say so, and must give them up when you have had enough.

Dominance an overrated catch-phrase!

Dominance is a term that defines a relationship between two individuals, but is often incorrectly used to denote a general personality trait.

Usually when someone describes a dog as 'dominant' they mean the dog is outgoing, confident, pushy or perhaps even out of control.

No one would deny that puppies come with a great variety of personalities, some more easy going than others - just like people do - but they will only dominate a relationship if you let them.

Entire breeds have been labelled as 'dominant' when in fact you will find pushy and timid dogs in every breed and in every litter.

Dominance has also been equated with aggression when in fact many submissive dogs will act aggressively out of fear. And many dogs labelled dominant may rarely resort to aggression as they are confident and secure with who they are in the world.

One of the problems with using 'dominant' as a label is that it is used as an excuse for harsh training methods or no training at all. Don't get hung up on labels - just as apples are obedient to the laws of gravity, dogs are obedient to the laws of learning.

Good leaders are good teachers. Dogs know how to live in a dog pack but they need to learn how to live in a human pack.

We have different codes of conduct and firm ideas about polite behaviour. A good leader is above all a good teacher, providing structure and learning opportunities to help a dog integrate into our human world.

By implementing the steps above, even the rowdiest dog will soon learn that doing the things you want is the best way to get the things he wants - a win/win win situation for all.