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Pack Structure

Many things are written regarding the hierarchy of dominance and submission, the fundamental aspects of the dog pack. Many people are left thinking that the environment they offer has to be a cross between boot camp and an inhumane prison in order for the dogs to understand that the people in their life are dominant.

So prior to offering suggestions on effective tools for building a happy pack, we probably need to discuss the differences in how dogs view their home life and address the questions that the previous paragraph might raise.

Dogs, wild dogs particularly, will establish a den but in contrast to people they are relatively willing to move. They need to stay where the food is, falling in love with a great view or location or floor plan isn’t practical to survival. As such, your dog considers him/herself “home” when they are around you. Utilizing this point of view is an incredibly valuable training tool since it can help signal encouragement and confidence in new situations or mild correction (unless they are a bit neurotic) if you should walk away. It also means that the defining point of your pack has less to do with what room you put the dog in or whether or not they are allowed on the furniture than many would think. This issues that arise from things like being allowed on the furniture come not from the geography (are they on the couch), rather it is an offshoot of who had the authority to allow it. Because that Pekingese on the bed determined he could be on the bed and no one had a right to question it, he now growls when disturbed, for example. Keeping this in mind will go a long way toward helping you assess what you are communicating to your dog in a given situation.

Now, think of your favorite authority or parental figure. They could have been you own parents or someone else’s, a coach, teacher or even a character in a book or in a movie. Odds are, they were greatly enthusiastic of the efforts and accomplishments of the children and other people around them. Their ability to discern that support and guidance might be needed did not distract them from those occasions that required a stern enforcer of fundamental rules. Otherwise, because of their confidence and general regard for others, they didn’t find it necessary to regularly insist on every nuance of their authority. If someone clearly worked around the rules, however, they were quick to re-establish the importance of those rules.

In much the same way, you will see a confident alpha dog be quite agreeable to behaviors of other, more “subordinate” dogs in the pack during times of play or when the pack is happy and well established. There is nothing like watching the alpha allow a young juvenile to take a toy from their mouth to put much of what has been written about submission/dominance on its ear.

Additionally, and this seems clearly a helpful survival tool for wild dogs, you will see the pack defer to different members as the alpha on given situations. Much as you might defer to one or another person at work depending on the question at hand. If someone is clearly skilled in one area or another, it strengthens the pack (or team) in addressing questions appropriately to them rather than relying exclusively upon the ideas of someone who isn’t as knowledgeable.

So after reading all this, you might be thinking, gee, sounds like a parent! Well, yes, a good parent. Within most happy families there are rules of what you must do, be honest and respectful; and rules that can be bent on occasion, like staying up late; but even then, those rules that can be bent are only done with the approval of a parent.

This requires the determination of the home you want to have and the type of “parent” you want to be. Offering those firm and fast rules or the structure and techniques you want to use is difficult. Add to the mix, that you might bring home a confident, strong-willed puppy or an independent, poorly mannered juvenile or a puppy with a very soft temperament lacking in assurance and socialization and the question of correct handling becomes much more challenging.

Assessing your puppy is something that is difficult to do. While an experienced trainer or breeder can work with a puppy and offer some insights, the fact is that puppy’s change a lot and constantly. Today’s confident, take on the world puppy, can be fearful and overwhelmed tomorrow. Consider adopting a juvenile and while they won’t be as quick to vary their outlook, they likely will have a history that you won’t be aware of, which can create more mystery in some of their behavioral responses. Don’t despair, however, dogs are far more forgiving than people. They respond well to consistent handling and can live their lives without looking back and blaming their mothers!

The first thing, upon bringing your new pet home (which is the beginning of establishing your pack) is to resist the urge to create a lot of freedom. Privileges, being loose in the house, unsupervised, are things that must be earned. Just as you were not allowed to drive the car when you were 3, your dog needs you to protect them from physical and emotional dangers. Physical dangers would include getting out the door and being hit by a car, or jumping out a window or chewing an electrical cord, emotional dangers would include destroying your shoes or failing to understand housetraining, since issues like those would eventually result in most people either losing their temper or getting rid of the dog (or both). Close supervision is critical. Actually, close supervision is imperative and not an point of discussion. If you can’t offer close supervision in the first few months, don’t even bring the dog home.

During those moments that close supervision is not available, a crate is an excellent choice. From the dog’s point of view (and in this regard I think we should defer to their preference), it is far superior to being put in the laundry room, bathroom, kitchen, basement, garage, etc. By being crated, they can be in areas of the house that family are in, learn the routine and be a part of the pack. The crate provides them with a safe, secure means of doing this since they can’t get in trouble while in the crate. Crate training is not difficult but not within the scope of this article and will be covered elsewhere.

In addition to crate training, a regular routine is valuable. Taking the dog out first thing upon awaking. Choosing when they eat and sticking to it with some consistency, initiating play time and naps, all help establish the pack structure since you are clearly the one determining the routine. Early in your relationship, ending play time by putting up toys and chew bones, is invaluable in teaching your dog that you can control these items but that it’s not the end of the world. The toys and chewies will return. For many types of dogs, this lesson is critical and without it they can become possessive which can even lead to potential aggression, if, as adults, they feel they need to defend their position on the matter.

If you prefer that your dog has some “borderline” behaviors, jumping up on you as a greeting, being on the furniture, or any of a host of others, it is best to create the on/off switch. Teach your pet that the behavior is acceptable when requested by you. This is another very clear signal of your alpha position. In training this, you simply need to be consistent in offering a command and reinforcement if they choose to initiate the behavior unasked. For the dog on the couch, simply say “off”, and get them off the couch. Minimize the chances that they will think you are creating a new game, by keeping your voice flat, the eye contact minimal and the “correction” (removing them from the couch) simple (just take them by the collar and get them off and on the floor then ignore). Be prepared to do it a few times to help get the message in. If you wish to make it into a game, add the “on” command. Say on, and tap the couch, then off and whether you need
to help them with that part or not, you can praise when they are back on the floor.

It is important, as much as possible, for all members of the pack (spouses, children, others in the household) to participate in consistent handling of the dog. Otherwise, the dog may determine that some members of the family are not dominant to him/her. This is often the case when a dog that is generally great around people will nip or growl at a small child. By having others involved with the crating, and other aspects mentioned in this article, the dog learns very early that this wonderful new environment offers many opportunities for guidance and learning appropriate behavior.

To sum it up, this trainer generally recommends the use of a crate, solid and regular structured routine, earning of privileges, rule structure (those which cannot be broken versus those that can be bent) and creation of an on/off rule for helping to communicate and establish the hierarchy in your pack. Certainly other additional or alternative approaches could be more appropriate for specific dogs. You are enthusiastically encouraged to find a trainer/behaviorist that you feel good about and seek their guidance in all aspects of creating a fabulous companion for you and your community.