Jeffrey Vogl, DVM
Ask the Veterinarian
5:06 AM EDT, March 20, 2012
One of my favorite movies, Never Cry Wolf, where a naive researcher studies the impact a pack of wolves has on the caribou herd, exemplifies exactly how relationships with our domesticated dogs should go in our homes. In one scene the alpha wolf of the pack urinates on the intruding human's tent in the arctic tundra, sending him a message of whose turf this is. To respond to this indignation the researcher returns the favor, marking the wolves’ den. In the real wild this would be seen as quite a challenge and likely a fight would ensue to determine who the real alpha is. Rarely in the wild do these fights take place because of the wonderful social order in a pack of wolves.
Very early on, wolf pups are taught to respect the dominant individuals, which keeps the peace and allow the pack to work together. When young individuals grow older they may try to challenge the leader's authority. Usually the younger will be quickly put back in his place, could be run out of the pack, or if the leader is failing, may take over the alpha role assuring the strength and security and continuation of the pack.
I am sure all of you have witnessed the way our dogs mark the bushes, trees and of course the poor fire hydrants on walks or playtime at the parks. I am medically mystified at how it is remotely possible for Remi, our English bulldog, to "empty" his bladder at the beginning of our walk, and then hit every single vertical object with a squirt of urine as if he can make it on demand. If I let him, our walks around the block would take over an hour. Similar to wolves, this is the way our dogs express dominance over the previous pup that put down his/her calling card.
Whether we like it or not, we are looked at by our dogs as a pack. They have spent millions of years refining the art of living in a pack and we are not going to change that. We must provide the social order for our dogs so they will not have the anxiety, stress and turbulence of a pack with weak or no leadership. Humans still reap the rewards of strong leadership in business, sports, and sometimes even in politics. There is a book titled The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete which is outstanding at laying the foundation for having a balanced, happy, and well-behaved pet.
There are numerous ways that a dog will exhibit signs of alpha confusion, including obvious things like biting, growling, not listening to commands, and food or treat aggression. Remember, all humans in a household should be dominant over the dog. More subtle signs include bolting through an open door, jumping up on people, unreasonable barking and difficulty while leash walking. By the way, cooking a four-course meal, lightly seasoned, cut to appropriate bite size, with a setting at the table for your dog, does not exude a “you are in charge” aura. It simply means that you have been outsmarted by a very wise and cunning individual. Unlike most humans, dogs are much more relaxed when there is an obvious leader taking charge.
So what do we do to instill this sense of confidence in the pack? Start small, baby steps. When you have a very young puppy I like to recommend laying him on his back on your lap, looking up at you. Hold him there rather firmly. If he relaxes, then you relax and soothe and pet his belly. If he struggles (and he will) you firm up your hold on him until he calms. Only then do you stroke and soothe him. You can do this many times a day for a minute or two, quitting only when the puppy is calm. Before you know it, your dog will just lie on your lap with no holding at all. It is also critical to massage your pup’s paws and ears as well as handle his mouth every day as a puppy. These are some of the pet peeves of dogs and you will desensitize them early on, as well as showing your dominance.
The critical window of time that an owner has for developing a puppy who will listen is between the age of 13 weeks and 17 weeks. If you do not assert yourself by this time, you will be destined to have to work much harder on training, which will also be confusing for your puppy, because this means you have sent mixed signals. It is very important to realize that dogs have approximately one second retention time to associate a correction with an act. You must correct your dog in the act, not even a few seconds later. It is a fallacy that a dog “knows he did wrong” when he leaves a “present” in the room or trashes the house with the garbage can. He is reading your body language in a nanosecond and knows you are angry, not why you are angry. That’s millions of years of evolution teaching him how to do that.
Biting is probably the most common symbol of challenging an owner as puppies develop. This is normal in the litter to find their pecking order. In fact, if you watch a litter of puppies, you can actually see dominant ones doing most of the biting. (don’t pick that one). However, in a pack of wolves if a puppy bites a dominant individual there is a swift and dramatic correction. Likewise, since we are supposed to be dominant, there must be an immediate no-bite allowed policy. There are many methods you can use to curb biting behavior in puppies. I imitate the method other dogs use on each other. I bite back harder. I offer my hand to a biting pup. When he bites on it, I take my thumbnail and pinch his lip, gums or tongue, hard. After three whines I release and offer my hand again. Either he will bite you again – in which case I will pinch harder and longer – or he will turn his head away from your hand, meaning he gets it (we give them huge praise immediately).
This works incredibly well to assert dominance, sometimes in just a matter of seconds. It should be like anyone touching a red hot stove, you tend to take notice. Remember, dogs don’t hold grudges like people do. They will love you just as much after you correct them as if it never happened.
Be careful of games that encourage growling like tug-o-war. Though they are fun, it can be confusing to a dog because it is a game of who is dominant. This is especially true for alpha breeds or an alpha individual. Some trainers will use devices to help with training like the Gentle Leader system, prong collars (which by the way are safer for the necks of dogs than choke collars), or electronic collars (e-collar). All of these have their place when used properly. I had a trainer help me with e-collars on three of our dogs and they are not the cruel, tortuous thing that you may think. It provides corrections from a distance that just gets their attention. It distracts them from an act that they are involved in and that’s all. You can try it on yourself to feel what it is like, never your child, and never, ever your spouse or you will see who is alpha wolf.
Now when it comes to spouses, never ever try any of these techniques at home. Let there be no mistake, all people are equal and there is no true alpha wolf in a happy home. I am going to walk Remi now, I mean after I take out the recycling.
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