Cheryl May's Questions and Answers

Alpha Dog Tries to Fill Leadership Vacuum

Q. Why is it important to be a strong leader for my dog? - IP

A. All dogs need a strong leader. If they are shy and timid, a strong leader will reassure them because they know their owner has any situation well in hand. If they are dominant and pushy, a strong leader will help them be good canine citizens.

Strong-willed dogs will step into the teensiest leadership vacuum that they perceive. I always recommend the Nothing in Life is Free program for pushy dogs. It can't hurt and nearly always helps. Some people have a great deal of difficulty making their dog work for everything it gets - but this program works and the dog is never physically harmed - just emotionally put in his place. People who believe their dog is a little person in a fur coat won't do the NILIF program and their dogs suffer as a result. Job Michael Evans described a similarly effective program in his book, "People, Pooches and Problems."

Dogs with aggressive tendencies - whether toward people or other dogs - need a very aware owner. The owner must take charge before the dog has time to think about being aggressive. I am always concerned about dog-to-dog aggression. Too many people take this issue too lightly in my opinion. Dogs don't have to like every other dog they meet, but they should tolerate other dogs, just as humans tolerate other people they don't like. Dog owners who manage their dogs effectively - making sure that their dog doesn't get in another dog's face - will be most successful at preventing problems with dog aggression. Too many people are totally oblivious of what is going on at the other end of the lead. They start chatting with others and meanwhile, their dog is getting in another dog's face, or even growling at another dog. When the owner of the other dog says something to them they are shocked and surprised.

Some dog owners say they are surprised when their dog shows aggression toward another dog or toward a person. Usually this is a surprise because they were not watching their dog for signs of problems. It is important to handle aggression incidents carefully to avoid making them worse in the future. One owner punished his dog for curling his lip and growling at people, but didn't work to solve the problem behind the aggression. The result was a dog who didn't warn before he bit. It took a behaviorist quite a bit of effort to rehabilitate this dog so he was no longer dangerous. William Campbell has some excellent resources on his Web site. He has quite a few books as well and you might look at them at the library before making a purchase decision. My favorite Campbell technique is his "jolly routine" -- talking happy to the dog before the dog notices whatever it is that triggers the dog's aggression - a child/other dog/whatever. The owner must be super-vigilant at all times. This is NOT an easy thing to do, but it is far preferable to having your dog bite a person or attack another dog.

I also recommend "Culture Clash" by Jean Donaldson and "Think Dog" or virtually any book on behavior by John Fisher.

If a dog with a problem currently sleeps in the bedroom, he needs to move out NOW. It's one thing for a sweetie to sleep in the bedroom or on the bed. Dogs with even the slightest aggressive tendencies need to sleep elsewhere - preferably on a lower level of the home than the owner's bedroom. This may seem harsh because most dogs do just fine sleeping in the bedroom, but a dog with dominant tendencies should be relocated ASAP.

Large dogs are powerful and most people realize they can do a lot of damage so quickly. But small dogs, biting in the "right" location - such as on the face - can do harm repaired only through painful and emotionally scarring surgery. We simply can't take this lightly, no matter the size of the dog.

If you have a problem dog and are not doing obedience with it, I urge you to start. A good solid "sit-stay" will help with many problems. Obedience training also helps establish the owner in a leadership position. The dog needs to know that his leader is in charge so he can relax.

We need to be strong, benevolent leaders. This isn't achieved with physical means - it is a mental game. Harsh methods will only make matters worse.

Here's an idea that might help with food issues between dogs that are expected to play together. You need at least two people, but more are fine. Each person needs a baggie full of great treats. Go to a fenced-in area such as a ball field or enclosed tennis courts. Stand about 30 feet apart and take turns calling the dogs to you. At first, it is necessary to have the dogs sit. You could either give the first treat to the dog who sits first, or decide who should be alpha between the two of them and feed the alpha first. Having the dogs sit before feeding lessens the chances of one dog nipping at the other and reinforces the idea that self control will earn a treat.

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