This Whole Pack Leader Thing

dog looking up at man pixabayIf you hear a whistling sound, it’s the steam coming out of my ears because I’ve just heard yet another person state that someone else’s dogs wouldn’t have aggression issues if only that person were a stronger pack leader. Gah! Okay. Deep breaths. Let me backtrack. I was at the park this morning with my dogs when I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in some time. I like her and her dogs, and we stood there catching up as our dogs romped happily. When she asked what I’ve been writing lately and I responded that I’d put out a book called Keeping the Peace, which is about dogs fighting in the home, she looked perplexed. “But,” she said, “that’s just a matter of being a strong pack leader. Dogs won’t fight if they have one.” Here’s the thing: she’s partly right, in that it is important that dogs have someone who teaches them the rules and enforces them in a kind, fair way. It’s important too that when dogs are unsure of something that they can look to their person for direction, and that when they’re starting to do something they shouldn’t, their person can intervene. However. That doesn’t mean that having even the best of human leaders in the home guarantees that dogs won’t have aggression issues.

This reminds me of the man who walks his nice, sweet Lab around our local park in the mornings. Fortunately for him, his dog is friendly with other dogs and people. But he truly believes that if any dog has aggression issues with other dogs he encounters, it’s entirely the owner’s fault, period; and that a dog who snarls and lunges at passing dogs can be “rehabilitated” simply by walking him right up to other dogs (regardless of how dog-reactive those dogs are) and letting them meet, and not allowing the dog to react aggressively. Do that enough, and the problem is solved, thanks to strong pack leadership. Yeah. That goes well…until it doesn’t. Again, while being a good leader is important, it’s not the be-all and end-all to solving all canine behavior problems.

Although children and dogs are obviously two different species, family dynamics and psychology do have some things in common. A parent who lets their kids run wild with very few rules and boundaries is likely to have less control over them than one who establishes house rules and enforces behavioral expectations. In all the homes I’ve visited over the years to train dogs, there was a strong correlation between how much control the owner had over her kids and how much control she had over her dogs. But does being a responsible parent and strong leader guarantee that a kid isn’t going to fight with other kids? Does it mean the kid will like most other kids he meets? And should he be expected to like and get along with every one of them? Of course not, and we can’t expect it from our dogs, either. Sure, we should train them and yes, we absolutely should teach them our house rules and how we expect them to behave. And there should be fair, non-violent but effective consequences should they choose not to comply. Those things can go a long way in raising well-behaved dogs. But the fact is that dogs, like people, simply do not like everyone they meet. A dog might like most dogs, but absolutely loathe the other dog who lives in the home. Or, perhaps the dogs get along some of the time but then get into horrific fights in specific situations. Of course, I believe much if that is solvable (hence the book); but simply being a strong pack leader is not going to fix everything on its own. Our television culture has ensured that many owners have heard about the importance of being a strong pack leader and, to an extent, that’s useful. But on the flip side, it’s damaging in many cases to put the entire burden of blame on the owner (along with the resulting guilt if the problem isn’t solved), and to believe that canine behavior issues, which are inherently complex, can be solved with strong leadership alone.
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10 Responses to This Whole Pack Leader Thing

  1. E.S. says:

    Ugh. There was an ad for Greenfield puppies underneath your article. You can’t control the ads that are on your page?

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi E.S., thanks for bringing this to my attention. When I view my blog, I don’t see the ads, and I hadn’t realized they were showing up on visitors’ pages. I’ve just upgraded my plan, so they shouldn’t be there any longer. Please let me know if you do see one. And I hope you got more out of the blog post than that. 😉

  2. Heather Skelly says:

    As a trainer I get very concerned when new clients tell me about all the work they’re doing to establish themselves as the alpha or pack leader in the house. I can usually educate them and instruct them to just focus on being the head of the household who provides all the good resources along with appropriate boundaries and behavior expectations. But just a simple Google search reveals how many people still buy into dominance theory and still spew that misinformation.

  3. E.S. says:

    Oh I did. I got a lot out of your post. I just didn’t think that you would agree with the Greenfields puppies ads

  4. Deb McGrath says:

    Informative and relevant to the real world where our dogs live, and much like their human counterparts, don’t always get along. I have found that clear boundaries, along with consistent, appropriate, and fair consequences go a very long way to preventing poor behavior, while in most cases eliciting positive behaviors. But, as you have stated, there are no guarantees that these proactive methods, whether they are used in the classroom, the home, or the outside world, will work for all, all of the time. Living beings aren’t programmed robots, whether they are our children, our pets, or our students.

  5. Mel Hughes says:

    I have an 8-year-old Sheltie with leash aggression toward other dogs. He’s been that way since I got him six years ago and I can’t seem to stop him. He’s nicely mannered with other dogs at the park when he’s off leash–just when he’s on that he goes into permanent bark mode and won’t stop. I’ve tried distracting him, turning him away, and on the advice of one trainer even stepped on his foot whenever he exploded, but with little luck. I had him in obedience class and every single week he was disruptive and even the trainers couldn’t do much with him. Any ideas?

  6. Casper O' Hane says:

    My dog sleeps on my bed, gets food toys every day, gets to sniff and play on walks rather than walking like a robot by my side, I’m her personal ball and frisbee thrower… yep, by the traditional trainer definition, she’s the “pack leader” in this situation. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because 1. cuddles in bed are the best and 2. in reality, my dog has to make compromises to coexist with me just like I do for her, probably more compromises than I do, and I really do try to meet her halfway because she’s added so much to my life and gosh darnit, I love the big goose.

  7. I used to live in a small town where we met a lot of dogs. My dog always was one of these who wanted to meet and play with all the ones we met and we trained a lot so that she would’t lunge at other dogs. We made good progress in the beginning when I tried to distract her with treats but then it got worse again. And one day I realized that my praising and attempts to distract her caused a lot of stress for her. So I stopped with that and only when she walked by the other dog without too much excitement she got some treats. Now she is much calmer… and I am not that stressed either. 😊
    However, there are 4 dogs in town that she apparently doesn’t like and I try to avoid close encounters because then she would lunge forward. But it took a long time for me to simply accept that my dog doesn’t like ALL other dogs.
    But as you wrote, I do not like all people I meet. Why should my dog like all dogs she meets?

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