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Establishing Positive Leadership With Family Dogs

Pepper, a 3 year old, 8 pound, spayed female dog was a center of attraction for Keith and Joan W. and their two children, ages 6 and 9. However, Pepper had learned to control the family by barking to get extra attention and control people to get her own way by growling and biting. Pepper would obey Keith and sometimes Joan, but Joan and the children were afraid of Pepper because she had a tendency to growl or bite when they tried to control her. Scolding and frequent use of “no” would help, but did not change the dominant behavior for long.

Friends and relatives advised them to “get rid of Pepper.” The final straw came when Pepper bit a little boy who was visiting. Although the family had mixed emotions, frustration at being unable to cope and grief for loss of their pet, Keith took Pepper to be euthanized.

This was a sad case because the family did not realize Pepper was expressing a natural need to establish a hierarchy and enforce her dominance, by growling and biting. The family did not know how to express their leadership to Pepper. Most dogs need people who will act as leaders or else the dog will try to be the leader.

Natural behavior – Veterinarians and staff are in an ideal position to teach people that dogs and many other animals have an instinctive need to establish a dominance hierarchy when two or more animals live together or even meet in travel, work or play. For example, when two dogs meet in the park, their first behavior is to establish a hierarchy of leadership, a dominant and subordinate relationship between the dogs. This may be established quickly, as they approach each other, by eye contact and body posture, or may require more sniffing and mounting to establish a leader. Dominant-subordinate relationships are usually established so quickly and easily – often by eye contact alone – that people fail to recognize that the dogs have agreed to such a relationship. And some owners object when their dog is subordinate to another dog. Owners must learn that it is natural for dogs and other animals to need and want a hierarchy to live peacefully in a group. Chickens need the hierarchy of the well-known “pecking order”.

Even the most lovable dogs will try to establish a hierarchy-pecking order – with people, just as they will with dogs in their pack. This includes the people they live with, “their pack” as well as visitors and people they meet away from home. Men are often “top dog” because dogs instinctively respond to a larger size and deeper voice – dogs raise their hackles to look as big as possible and try to growl in a deep and threatening voice to establish their own dominance with other dogs and sometimes with people. Since women and children are usually smaller in stature and have voices in a higher register, dogs may treat them as subordinate. For example, in the family described above, Pepper obeyed Keith most quickly and reliably, but she responded to Joan less quickly and infrequently obeyed the children.

In other families, the woman may be number one or number two, while the dog is number three in the pecking order, followed by the children who may be considered subordinate. Dogs often fail to obey children they consider subordinate and may growl or nip to control children’s actions such as coming near food or a favorite chew toy or extending a hand to pet a dog. That is why children, particularly little boys, are bitten more often than adults. But, these same dogs will not growl nor resist giving up food or a toy to people – men, women or children in the family – when the dog has learned that the rewards of responding eagerly to all people as leaders of the pack are greater than the dog’s natural desire to be “top dog”.

People should be leaders – Growling, nipping, biting, excessive barking, jumping, marking with urine, guarding food or toys, mouthing and chewing on people by puppies, not coming when called, pulling out of control on a leash and other assertive actions toward people, especially children, are not acceptable behaviors. It is natural for dogs to want to please and respond to leaders in the pack. With appropriate body language, desirable rewards and effective, humane control, people can easily assume dominance and leadership with most dogs to provide a stable hierarchy and improve human animal bonds with the family dog.

People, including children, need to be leaders of the dog in the family (dog’s pack). Family dogs should obey quickly, respond eagerly to please people and be attentive and affectionate companions. Millions of loved pets lose their lives because people do not understand how to modify or deal with natural, but dominant, pet behaviors that are unacceptable. Helping people establish positive leadership to prevent many behavior-related deaths should be a priority of preventive medicine if we, as veterinarians, believe our mission is to help pets live longer and healthier lives.

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