Leader of the pack

Leader of the pack (ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/NATALIA SDOBNIKOVA)

Q: How can I establish "alpha" status with my strong-willed Siberian Husky?

A: Excellent question -- and the perfect opportunity to clear up misconceptions about dog behavior. As pack animals by nature, dogs see the world in terms of leaders and followers: Somebody's gotta be the boss here! That's why early training is so important. When puppies learn basic obedience commands and good manners, they understand that humans are the leaders of their new pack.

Even as puppies, however, some dogs are more assertive than others. And many dog owners make the mistake of not taking early training seriously. Combine those two factors, and you can end up with a willful dog who thinks he rules the roost. Whether your pet is a puppy or an older dog with established misbehaviors, our friend Howard Weinstein of Day-One Dog Training (www.dayonedogtraining.com) tells us the solution is pretty much the same: “Take positive steps to build or reconfigure a relationship that puts the humans back in the driver’s seat.”

How would you go about doing that? Most trainers say being the “alpha” does not mean physical domination -- it means being the one who controls valued resources and sets the agenda. “For decades,” Weinstein says, “dog owners believed and many trainers reinforced the notion that you have to physically force your dog into submission in order to be in charge. That led to painful and even cruel techniques involving the abuse of choke and prong collars, shock collars, even something known as the ‘alpha roll,’ which is flipping a dog onto his back and forcibly holding him down until he surrenders. The problem with all of these strategies is that dogs are the ones with a mouthful of sharp teeth -- and they will use them if they feel fearful or physically threatened.”   


Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

Or, as Dr. Nicholas Dodman (program director of the Animal Behavior Department at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine) puts it: Violence begets violence. “Hard-line methods can produce the goods, but at the price of mutual understanding and real respect,” Dodman writes in his book “Dogs Behaving Badly.”

Even the renowned Monks of New Skete in upstate New York -- long known for their expert dog breeding and training, especially with German shepherds -- have moved past such confrontational methods as the alpha roll and discourage its use.

Fortunately, much has been learned about dog psychology and behavior in the last 20 years that makes those harsh, unsophisticated methods obsolete. Dodman recommends starting with a few basic concepts:

1. If your puppy or older dog doesn’t already know seven or eight basic obedience commands, teach those using positive reinforcement, either on your own or with the help of a qualified trainer.

2. Avoid confrontation. Every confrontation invites an assertive or aggressive response. It takes two to argue. Unless it’s life or death, walk away.

3. “No free lunch” -- your dog has to earn literally everything he values and wants from you (except going out to relieve himself). How? By following an obedience command you’ve specifically asked him to do. For instance, requiring a dog to sit before serving his bowl full of food. Even petting must be earned.

4. Establish these new rules, and make sure everyone who interacts with your dog follows them consistently.

“I’ve been a trainer for almost 15 years, and I’ve had my own dogs for 30,” Weinstein adds, “and I’ve never found a more effective or fun method than clicker training. It can work wonders with dogs of any age.”

You can find out more about clicker training at www.clickertraining.com, and Weinstein and many other area trainers can show you how to teach your stubborn husky the good manners that can transform almost any dog into a great family pet.

David Tayman, D.V.M., has practiced veterinary medicine in Howard County since 1974. E-mail questions to Dr. Tayman at David.Tayman@vcahospitals.com.