As I was preparing this morning to drive to my wife’s clinic to give her a hand with an animal, I looked down at my faithful friend, Bonnie, and saw that “don’t leave me” look in her eyes. She always knows the difference between me going outside to do something and me preparing to leave for an extended period of time. There’s something significant enough in my posture or preparations that she keys in on. Later, as we’re riding down the road together she gave me the “Is it OK if I sit in the front seat?” look that she does when no one else is riding with us. I nodded OK and she happily curled up in the front passenger seat, put her head on her paws in front of the warm vents, and closed her eyes contentedly.
That got me thinking about writing this blog post. I get told all the time how happy my dogs seem to be, how well-mannered they are in public, how friendly they are with others. Compliments flow around them constantly, stirred in the air by their ever-swishing tails. Sometimes they look up as if to say “see, even these people think I’m great,so you should buy me something while we’re here. How about that 2×4? I can chew on that for a week!”
I’m not Cesar Milan, and I’m certainly not a professional trainer, but I’ve had dogs since almost the day I was born. My father trained them most of my life, and I’ve trained them as long as I’ve had them. During that time I’ve learned a few things that might or might not already be in books, but I thought I’d throw it out here for those who wanted to know. I don’t do a lot of things well, but one thing I can do better than most is train a good dog. Now, let’s see if I can put some of these things down on paper, err… ether.
Dogs and Children – Behavioral Analysis.
The first thing to know about a dog is that they aren’t kids. You can love them like your children and teach them like your children, but they don’t think like children. Children can be solitary, or they can be in groups. They can be older or younger than their siblings. Regardless of how many you have, we always teach our kids that everyone is equal. No one is the boss of anyone else, and no one is better than anyone else. This is a fundamental mistake when dealing with dogs people make all the time. In the dog world, no one is equal, and trying to teach them that they should be is unnatural to the dog and will only frustrate you in the long run.
Why? It’s really rather simple. Though we’ve bred them down into our own pretty sub-species groups over the years, we’ve never managed to rewire their brains, nor should we attempt to. Regardless of how much we anthromorphise them, they still possess and are guided by canine instinct. Canine instinct also includes an ingrained desire for order, pecking order to be precise.
Every family of dogs has a pecking order, and every time a new dog (or a new human) comes into contact with another dog or established group of dogs, that pecking order is revised. Don’t discourage this. It’s their way of making sense of things around them. If they know where they stand with each other and with the humans in their life, they are much less stressed and much happier overall.
Humans do things for a variety of reasons – because our parents expect us to, because society expects us to, because it’s “right”, because it’s fun, because it will earn us a promotion, because it will earn us a gift or reward, etc. The reasons are almost without limit, and not always rational.
Dogs do things for two reasons, and only two reasons, and they are always completely rational:
- It’s fun – they enjoy it.
- Because they respect/fear their superiors.
That’s it. Don’t be confused about the fact that I mixed fear and respect. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Back to their social order – to understand what I just said. Dogs do things for fun, just like we do. They chase a ball, play with each other, run around the yard, stalk the family cat, dig a hole in the garden, lay by the fire and bask in the heat, etc. They enjoy these things, so they naturally do them.
The only other reason dogs innately do things is because their pack leader demands it of them. Much like horses, every dog is either higher on the food chain or lower on the food chain than every other dog they encounter. No two dogs consider themselves equals. At the very best, you will find some that consider themselves first among equals, which is what most family-pet dogs tend to believe. There is always an “alpha” in the pack and contrary to popular belief, it’s not always a male. My dogs are led by an alpha female, even when males are present in her pack.
If you don’t believe me, look for examples in your own dogs. Don’t say anything to them and don’t let them know you’re paying attention to them. Just watch them and look for signs of who the boss is. In every pack of dogs (even if it’s only two of them) there is a leader. It’s harder to spot the leader than it is to determine the followers. Their behaviors are easier to read, more submissive. The submissive dog will
- Roll over and offer their belly to the dominant one when playing in the yard. (This is ultimate submission.)
- Drop the ball and let the other one have it. (This isn’t sharing. This is giving the boss what they’re asking for.)
- Let the other dog take over their food bowl.
- Move from the comfy spot when the other dog walks to it.
- Look at the other dog more often, to check for cues that they aren’t in trouble with the boss.
- Drop their tail when the other dog acts in a commanding manner.
- Lower their head to the other dog and look at the ground or away.
All of these are cues that the dog is acknowledging the dominance of the other. The dominant dog doesn’t always do anything about it – sometimes they just rest easy in the knowledge that they’re in charge, and go on about their business. Other times they’ll take the ball and then drop it a moment later and walk away, just because they’re the boss.
Don’t discourage these behaviors. These are natural to a dog and you can’t change them without confusing the animal’s natural instinct for order.
Why it Matters – Where You Fit In
Knowing all these signs helps you understand the pecking order of the dogs around you. It also makes training the dogs easier, but not for the reasons you might think. If you train the dominant dog that you’re in charge, the submissive dogs automatically put you higher than their pack leader, letting you assume complete control of the pack. They learn that they have a pack leader when you’re not around, but when you come around – Whoa… here’s a creature even our pack leader respects. They are automatically inclined to respect/fear you.
You are NOT ever your dog’s best friend, even though he or she may be yours. You are either above them in their chain, or you are below them. There are a hundred small things you can do to train your dogs that you are the boss, and few of them involve beating. I’m not against spanking a dog when they do something wrong. In nature, they’d get mauled by their pack leader, sometimes seriously injured. In the family they instead get a swift smack on the rump followed by a “no.” But there are other ways you can train your dogs that can lessen the times you need to do this or even remove these instances altogether if you understand how they think.
So here are a few dog facts.
- The pack leader sleeps on the highest ground, always.
- The pack leader tends to eat on higher ground, when possible.
- The pack leader eats first.
- The pack leader walks in front.
- The pack leader let’s others know when it’s OK for them to do something.
- The pack leader constantly reinforces their authority, and never lets anything slide, ever.
Knowing these things can make your life a WHOLE lot easier if you know how to put them to use. Let’s take a few of those facts and put them into perspective inside your family pecking order.
You sit on the couch or chair and the dog sits on the floor.
This puts you physically over them, and is a signal that you’re the boss. It’s a non-aggressive tactic that you can follow all the time. Can the dog lie with you on the couch from time to time? Sure. You sit up and let the dog lie down. Don’t lie down with them on equal footing all the time. You’re higher than them and they understand that means you’re in charge. Ever notice how a dog will put his head in your lap and look up at you? Basically to him or her, they just put their head in a guillotine and gave you the ripcord. That is a sign of complete submissiveness. They acknowledge you’re in charge and want your affection for recognizing this.
Feed them AFTER you feed yourself.
It might sound dumb, but to them it means something. The leader of their pack always eats first when nature permits. You eat your meal first, and you let them eat when you’re done, or at least after you’ve started. If they eat before you do, then they get confused about who’s superior and who’s not.
You go first, they go second.
This is one humans mess up all the time. They open the door and the dogs runs in the house. Congratulations – you just made yourself the butler. People do this one all the time because it’s a pain to try not to trip over the dog as you carry your groceries inside, especially with small dogs that easily get underfoot.
Start making them sit and wait. Open the door and walk through it. Then hold the door and tell them to come in. Now you own the moment, and the room. You “let” them in. To them, it’s a whole different meaning.
Don’t EVER let anything slide.
A pack leader will NEVER let a dog lower in their social order get away with something. It indicates to the other dogs that maybe it’s time for a new pack leader because the old one is weak.
Always praise and always punish consistently, but be consistent about it both for the good and the bad. Don’t let them get away with rummaging through the trash can or you’ll always find yourself cleaning up the yard for the rest of their lives.
Punishment doesn’t have to be harsh. Make them go sit or lay in a specific place, not where they want to. Point to a corner or spot on the floor and make them stay there for five minutes. Pay attention and don’t let them wander away from it until you tell them it’s OK. Once it’s OK, be kind and attentive for a moment. Pat them on the head and remind them they did good; they pleased their pack leader.
You’ll know this one worked when they start giving you the “I just did something wrong” look and they go lie in a corner with their head down. They probably just got into a trash-can and you just haven’t seen it yet. Maybe they just chewed up a sock. They’re testing you and testing their boundaries. Sometimes they’re caught up in something and then only belatedly realize “Uh oh. This is bad.” They know punishment is coming. Anytime I let my dogs into the shop and they immediately slink over to a spot out of my eyesight and put their heads on the floor I know SOMETHING has been messed up somewhere. Dogs are bad liars and constant reinforcement of both good and bad behavior helps you know when something bad has happened.
Introducing a new dog – the pecking order.
It drives me nuts when company comes over to visit, especially if they’re staying for more than a few hours, and then tries to keep their dogs and mine separated. People do this all the time and all it accomplishes is to delay the inevitable. Eventually these dogs are going to get to know each other. Every moment you delay this from happening causes confusion for them.
The number one transgression is bringing the guest’s dog inside and putting yours outside. Consider it like a kingdom; because that’s what it is to the dogs. You’re the king and this new little rat was just granted the pleasure of your company for the afternoon while the other faithful servants were shut out of the house. This is one of the fastest ways to make your own dogs misbehave and show their displeasure. It will also encourage them to take it out on the new dog the first opportunity they have. Dogs can become very sullen very quickly when they feel they’ve been replaced by another dog in your eyes.
Like it or not, your dogs are going to establish their own order and the faster you get it over with the faster you can enjoy your human company without worrying about the dogs hurting one another. (This doesn’t apply to people who have dogs trained to guard territory or prevent intrusion. We’re talking about pets here.)
In my house, I am the pack leader. OK well that only works between me and the dogs, because I’m well aware my wife only lets me have the illusion of control, but you know what I mean. When I walk into the yard the dogs know the boss has entered the arena. If you’re the pack leader, then it’s very easy to introduce a new dog. YOU bring them out into the yard, or the house, or wherever the other dogs are. Only you do this. Don’t bring the family, and don’t bring the owner of the new dog. Only you! You are the pack leader and you are introducing a new member to your pack. If the owner of the other dogs comes out you’ve muddied the issue. Now there are two pack leaders introducing dogs to both packs. This breeds confusion in the dogs and is likely to start a fight.
Go outside with the new dog, squat down and pet him for a moment or two, and keep hold of their collar while the sniffing and initial barking goes on. If your dogs are well trained enough to know not to dare bite you, then they wont risk accidentally doing so because you’re close to the new dog. (Don’t let an uncollared dog loose in your yard in the beginning because if something DOES happen you have no way to grab them and pull them back.)
Bring your dogs in. Call them and pet them all, giving attention to the new dog as well as your own dogs. Throw a ball for them for a minute or two. You spending five minutes now can forever affix the dynamic these dogs are going to have.
Show all of YOUR dogs some extra affection before you leave them alone, even if it’s just a pat on the head. Don’t give them treats and leave the new dog out. If you give treats, give them all treats, but give your dogs theirs first, beginning with the alpha.
Hang out for a moment and watch them to be sure they’re going to play well together. It doesn’t matter what size the dog is. I do this with tiny dogs in my yard all the time. My catahoula could bite that dog in half, but they know I’m the leader and I’ve OK’d this dog into the property, so because they respect ME, they will attempt to be nice first and see if that works.
Let them bark and play. New dogs do this a lot when introduced to a pack. After a few moments they’ll bark, chase, play-fight, and get along. There is NOTHING WRONG with play fighting. This is a friendly way they test each other and establish their pecking order. It helps that they also generally enjoy it and it tires them out, which is always good too! Men do this all the time and it has the same effect. If another male comes over, we’re constantly flexing, playing harder than we do when other men aren’t around, are usually more crude, and a host of other traits our spouses hate. If you’re a woman, you KNOW you roll your eyes every time you husband tries to “man-up” when some other husband appears. It’s our natural genetic instinct to establish our own dominance in our kingdom. It happens in every animal species in nature for the most part.
If you are consistent with all the behaviors above, training your dog, or any dog, is much easier. Don’t start training until some of these things we mentioned previously have become habit. Then again, no age is too young as long as the puppy can understand you and know your meaning. Work with “sit” first. If you can get them to sit, then they obviously know an instruction when they hear one and they’re old enough to start on other things.
Much like husbands, dogs have short attention spans. “Take out the trash” is ok, but if you say “take out the trash, grab my purse from the car, and check the mailbox while you’re at it,” you’re most likely going to get two out of three, right? The same applies with dogs.
Dogs are accustomed to hearing your voice and nine times out of ten you aren’t talking to them. They get used to tuning you out. Giving short-phrase commands makes it easy for them to know when you’re talking to them, and to remember what the command is.Prefacing is with their name every time helps a LOT when you want to train multiple dogs to do the same thing. It’s taken me a long time to re-train myself once I had more that one dog, but it’s great now. When it’s time to feed them, I utter a strong “SIT” and all three sit down and wait. Now, after practice, I can say “Bonnie, Sit” and she will sit down while the other two remain standing. Take it from me, it’s easier to start this early on.
Keep it Short
“Get out of the kitchen” is about as long a command as you’d ever want to give a dog. Truthfully, they knew what you said the moment you said “out” because they’ve heard it so many times. So just say “out” instead. They’ll know what you mean.
Every command you give your dogs should be accompanied with a relative hand gesture. Consider your own lives, especially if you have children. How many times have you been on the phone with someone and not wanted to say something, so instead you gesture for the kids to get out of the kitchen so you can hear the person on the phone? Instead you just point “OUT” and the kids get it, right? It’s the same with dogs. You don’t have to use complicated gestures. If fact the easier the better. Some of mine are as follows:
- Sit – accompanied with an open-palm facing the dog.
- Down (as in Lay Down) - finger pointed towards the floor in front of them, like you’re pointing to the ground at THEIR feet, not yours.
- Come Lay HERE – finger pointed at the ground to my right, right beside my feet.
- Back Up – Point at a spot just over their head and gesture forward.
- Shake – Extent your hand, palm up, in front of the leg you want them to shake with. Move it to the other leg if you want them to shake with the other paw.
- “OK” or “Go” – Snap your fingers. I use this one when feeding. Regardless of what I say, they know to remain sitting away from the bowl until I snap my fingers. Then it’s time to eat. This works while playing fetch too. If I tell them to sit and stay, then throw the ball, the snapping sound is the key to go fetch. It’s easy to do. If you can’t snap, clap your hands instead.
- “Hush” – Just like with a person – finger over your lips with a shushing sound.
If you spend a significant amount of time coupling your gestures with your spoken word, it only takes a short period before they will respond to the hand-command only. Suppose you’re talking to a friend and the dog is begging for your attention. Rather than stop talking, address the dog, and then resuming my conversation, I can just keep talking and place my palm out and they immediately know I’ve acknowledged their request, denied it, and told them to sit. They sit and hush while I finish talking. Then I ruffle their fur for a moment, or scratch behind an ear once I’m done talking, to thank them for doing as they were told.
I do this for safety of my dog as well as safety for my family. Suppose someone broke in our home in the middle of the night. My dogs would normally bark, yip, claw at the door, and possibly get one of my family shot or hurt. Now they look to me first. I gesture “Sit” and “Stay” and “hush” while I pad out of the room with a loaded shotgun. Then, if I wanted to let them loose on the stranger, I could.
What if I wasn’t able to defend myself? Let’s say I’m out walking in the woods and a bear or wolf wanders nearby – I want them to immediately shut up and drop to the ground and not make a sound, for my own safety as well as theirs. Just the acts of saying “shhhh” could be enough to get my into a jam. A silent hand-command is safer for me and for the dogs. Once the danger passes, we can quietly get up and walk the other way
Teaching dogs NOT to do things
This probably goes against what some trainers would tell you, but personally I’ve found it easiest to prevent a dog from doing something I don’t like by teaching them to DO IT when I want them to. My catahoula, Piper, has always loved to jump up on people. Some people don’t mind but others might be extremely off-put by it, and her claws are like razor blades. These things could could cut concrete. I FINALLY managed to stop it by teaching her to actually jump up on me, but only when when commanded. Now, if I want her to jump up and place her feet on my belt, I take both hands and pat my chest in a “come here” gesture. Then she knows it’s ok to come up.
When strangers come up in the yard now, she immediately drops her chest down, ready to leap up and give you affection, but she waits for you to give the command. If you don’t know the command, or don’t give it, she simply doesn’t do it. You can tell she still wants to, but she doesn’t because she hasn’t been permitted.
Once I had mastered that, after she jumps up, I started moving those razor sharp claws to my waist line instead of my chest, so her paws rest on my belt-line. I don’t want my shirts ruined by dirt or shredded by her wolverine-claws. A few months later, she automatically places her paws gently in the right place most all the time now.
Barking – It DOES serve a purpose.
I very much dislike it when people yell at my dogs for barking. Dogs don’t EVER bark for no reason. They have a reason, but you might not know what it is. With a little practice you can learn the difference between their two main barks. The first is “Hey, I want your attention” and they’re either barking at you to come play with them or they’re barking at their pack-mate to get them to play. The other bark is “Something isn’t right.” Their senses are much more acute than yours, especially their auditory and olfactory senses. They can hear small sounds two to three-hundred feet away. They can smell things sometimes in excess of three miles away. Just because you don’t know what it is, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant to them.
You are their pack leader, so when they bark, they’re notifying YOU that something is wrong in your domain. Don’t just arbitrarily yell at them to shut up. They’re trying to warn you. My dogs have learned the difference between all of our cars, cars that are driving by, and cars that park in our driveway that aren’t ours. On the first two, they don’t bark anymore because they know who’s who, but if a car pulls in my driveway and stops, they immediately bark to let me know what’s going on.
Rather than yell, go see who it is, take the dog with you, get within visual sight of the person or vehicle, and then pat them on the head and say “Thanks. Good dog. Now, hush. Friend!” They will learn that “friend” means this person is OK and over time won’t bark at that person when they arrive.
Acknowledging the “friend” is another way of training them that you want them to continue to distinguish people for you. If I don’t say “friend” when you arrive, chances are my cute little aussie and catahoula will continue to bark indefinitely at you. And if you were foolish to open the back gate to my house, you’d learn why that little 50 pound dog is often used to herd mean 2,000 pound cattle. If they can take down and herd a bull, your two-hundred pound-self is not a challenge to them.
Don’t let them train YOU!
My last piece of advice on dogs, is not to let them train you. Dogs can be very easily trained to follow a schedule, but so can humans. Every morning, my dogs know food is coming. Easy enough, right? Don’t let them demand the food schedule. Whenever you feed them, make them sit back and wait while you prepare the bowl. Put it on the floor and leave it there for a few moments and don’t let them have it until they look at you and get the “ok” signal. Mine is snapping my fingers. That means OK, time to eat.
Every night, at about 9:30 or so, they start to indicate it’s time for them to go to bed. If the bedroom door is open, they will each go to their bed and curl up. If not, they’ll walk back down the hall, look at us as if we’re to blame for them not possessing opposable thumbs, and one of us will generally get up and open the door for them. Everything in-between is easy too if you train them instead of letting them train you.
If I want to take them to the store, I say “Go for a ride” and pose is as a question to the specific dog. “Bonnie, want to go for a ride?” If I don’t want them to go, I just don’t say anything and they don’t try to jump in the Jeep. If I call Bonnie, but not Piper, then Piper knows she’s not coming along and the issue is settled.
If you have a dog that barks to be let in, or to be let out, the absolute worst thing you can do is to give them what they want. They just learned that by aggravating you they get what they want. Now, they’re likely to never stop it and you’ll have a heck of a time breaking them of it.
Instead, if you know the dog wants to go out, but he’s barking and refuses to stop, you go to punishment mode. That doesn’t mean beat the dog. Instead, say “no,” make them sit in a spot you designate for a few minutes, and THEN let them out. It shows them that they’re on YOUR time-table, not vice versa. You’re the boss and they can do it, but only because it pleases you, not because they’re in charge. It takes only a few months of this before they learn to go to the door and look back at you to “ask” to go out, rather than demanding it. If you aren’t paying attention to them, they’ll sometimes whine a little or make a quiet whimper. This is their way of saying “I know I’m not supposed to bark, but I really would like to go out if it’s OK with you.”
This is especially important when the dogs are wanting to come INSIDE, rather than outside. If I’ve put them outside, it was most likely for a reason, so the last thing I want them doing is coming to the door and barking non-stop until I relent and let them in. It reinforces bad behavior.
Timidity Will Ruin Training
I have one of those loud voices that’s deep and carries for miles whether I want it to or not. Dogs respond well to that. My friend, Jay, loves our dogs but they know they have him completely whipped when it comes to play time. The difference is in our command structure. I have trained my dogs that it’s play time when I say it’s play time. They have trained Jay that it’s playtime whenever he’s here… forever… until THEY get tired of it.
I give commands. Jay offers negotiations. It’s all in the inflection, and it’s especially important if you have kids as well. Kids don’t often have the “command-voice” necessary to train a dog. If you say, “Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit” in that sing-song voice, my dogs do nothing but look at you like you’re messed up. If you look at them and say “SIT” with some authority, they drop to the ground. Inflection and tone of voice have a lot to do with how they respond to you. If you start training a dog, don’t let the kids “help out” until you know they can do it properly. Otherwise, they’ll just mess up the training and the words will become meaningless to the dogs.
If you aren’t their natural pack-leader, a little extra crispness to your voice will often convince them that even though you aren’t THEIR leader, you’re certainly a leader they’d better listen to until they figure out exactly where you fit into this pack.
OK… enough for now. I started this as a quick little introduction for people who might want to know how to get more out of their faithful companions, and instead it’s become a five page narrative. Sigh… verbosity has never been something I’ve been known to be lacking in.
Have a good day y’all!