Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Be a Leader for Your Dog

A fiery debate at a blog called fugly horse of the day got me thinking about why there are so many problems with animals. In particular, why are so many dogs put in a position where euthanasia seems to be a viable option for behavior issues?

To find the answer to this question, we need look no further than the mirror. The problem is us and its time for dog owners to take responsibility and say the buck stops here.

I've come to this conclusion under some influence by Cesar Millan and others. Owning horses as well as dogs, I've gotten heavily involved in natural horsemanship training. One thing that is clear from natural horsemanship is that you need to become a leader for your horse, and you need to communicate with your horse using his own language. The same is true for dogs, and this is exactly what Cesar Millan is teaching. If you're looking for a happy, successful relationship with your dog, having him around the house and hoping for the best ain't going to cut it. You need to become a leader for your dog. And like natural horsemanship teaches, "dog whispering" is about speaking to your dog in his own language.

Let's take an example. A poster mentioned that a child rang the doorbell one day, and her dog burst forth and bit the child. This is a tragic situation to be sure. On impulse, you would probably say the dog should be put down, and that's exactly what happened. The owner of the dog reports being mystified as to why the dog did what he did. But is it really that mysterious?

The dog was following his gut instinct-which is to protect the household. That is not mysterious behavior. The question we need to ask then, is why did the dog decide to inappropriately bite a child, who is not a real threat? The answer in many, if not most cases is that the dog felt it had to act because the owner was not in a leadership position as far as the dog was concerned. Without an alpha dog in the household, the dog felt insecure and assumed the leadership position on his own. So he did what came natural to him, he saw a stranger at the door and proceeded to defend the household.

I want to make it clear I am speaking in general terms here-I never met the particular dog in question and wasn't there, so can't address that specific dog and owner. That dog might have been truly insane with euthanasia as the only reasonable option. With that as a given, what I am doing is addressing the situation in general and what is usually at play in most cases.

So how can we work to minimize the chances that our dogs will attack at will when someone rings the doorbell, especially a child? What a dog owner needs to do is actively assume the leadership position in the pack. A dog would rather not be the leader. The fact is he is going to look to you to be the leader and will only exhibit aggressive behavior like that when is failing to see you acting as the alpha.

There is nothing mysterious, new agey, or flaky about dog whispering or natural horsemanship. Maybe what's mysterious is that Cesar Millan figured all of this stuff out on his own, but the truth is you can learn it too. All dog whispering is about is taking a new view on dog ownership. Some suggestions:

  • Read, read, and read again. Study every book on dog behavior (and yes, wolf behavior) so that you understand why dogs behave the way they do.
  • You might spoil your grandkids or your 3 year old nephew, but don't view your dog as a child that should be spoiled. When it comes to the dog, start viewing the household in terms of a dog pack.
  • You assume the leadership position of the pack. Read dog whispering books and watch dog training videos to learn how to do this.
  • Don't neglect basic obedience training. Your dog should be an expert at sit, stay, down, down-stay, and come commands.
That last point might be as important as any other. If your dog is well trained at down-stay, you can put him in a down-stay when the doorbell rings-and he is going to stay in that position until you tell him otherwise. That is the hallmark of a well trained dog. Don't make any excuses. If my dog can't do that-its my fault and nobody else's, and the dog doesn't need to be put down. I need to invest more time and energy into training the dog. Euthanasia should only be a last resort for behaviorial problems. Start putting energy into training your dogs properly today.

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