Ever been around someone who is fantastic with dogs?
- They come over to someone’s house and the rowdy dog jumps on everyone but them?
- They can walk a super-energetic dog down the street the first time they try?
- Dogs in general pay attention to them and act calm around them?
As a dog trainer, I regularly go to my clients’ homes and hear things like, “They are always so calm when you are here,” or “We need a poster of you or a piece of your clothing so they’ll be like this when you leave!”
I often assure clients that I do believe they are struggling with behavior problems that the dog doesn’t do while I’m around and that the dog isn’t always so calm.
It’s not the way I dress or some kind of magic that causes these dogs to be calm around me. It’s body language, consistency and training — all of which are things you can learn, too.
Often the root of the behavior problems is a lack of leadership, trust or respect. When I provide leadership to the dog, the problem goes away while I’m there. My job is usually showing my clients how to earn their dog’s respect as well.
Keep reading, because in this article on how to establish leadership over a dog, I’ll share lots of advice on topics like:
- Is it OK to say no to my dog?
- The importance of boundaries and obedience
- Consistency in your training
- Working for life rewards
- When to hire help
Is it OK to Say No to My Dog?
I often get asked if it’s OK to tell your dog no.
Well, yes, absolutely.
Dogs need 2 types of information in training:
- They need to be taught what not to do.
- And they need to be taught what they should do.
If you leave out 1 of these 2 things, training can become more stressful for your dog and harder for you.
Imagine starting a new job where the person training you tells you only when you do something right, and never points out mistakes or teaches you what not to do.
It might be a nice atmosphere at first, but soon your work would start to suffer because of all the mistakes you make — which would probably start to frustrate you and could even get you fired.
Now imagine that at that same job, the person training you tells you only when you do something wrong — maybe in an angry tone of voice. But they never teach you what to do instead to perform the job correctly.
That wouldn’t be a very fun place to work, would it?
It would also take you a lot longer to learn your job when you’re never being told what’s correct.
The point is, dogs need boundaries. They need to be told “No,” “Wrong,” or “Uh-uh.” They also need to be told “Yes!” or “Good” or to hear a clicker when they get something right.
When you do tell your dog no, what’s most effective is saying it in a calm, confident tone of voice — not an angry or loud voice.
Teach your dog what you expect of them. Don’t keep your household rules a secret and expect your dog to know them magically.
- If something is off-limits, calmly tell your dog so.
- If your dog does something you like, let them know!
How to Establish Leadership Over a Dog: Boundaries and Obedience
A solid foundation of boundaries and obedience in your home can go a long way to earning your dog’s respect.
The commands you teach and the way you teach them can make a huge difference.
Here are some especially good commands to help you respectfully establish leadership over your dog:
- Out: This means leave the room. It’s a great command to deal with pushiness or begging. See my article “How to Teach a Dog the “Out” Command.”
- Leave it: This command is very useful with mouthing and chewing. It’s one of the basic commands your dog should know.
- Heel: If you’re struggling with behavior problems related to a lack of respect or anxiety, a structured “heel” is vital. For a structured “heel,” the dog walks slightly behind your leg and is focused on following you the entire walk instead of watching other things.
- Down: This is a submissive position, a great way for your pup to practice calmness and self-control. I teach “down” step-by-step here.
- Place: Similarly, “place” is a great command to practice for 1–2 hours at a time in the house. A long “place” command can teach your dog impulse control and how to cope with anxiety, as well as calmness and respect. It’s also a great command to manage behavior problems like pushiness around guests. I teach “place” as trick #2 in my list of 12 fun tricks to teach your dog.
- Thresholds: Teaching dogs not to rush through thresholds and to let people pass through first can help establish awareness of people’s personal space, keep everyone a little safer (especially at outside exits), increase impulse control and establish respect. Dogs tend to understand body language and personal space. By asking your dog to respect your personal space, you are establishing leadership over the dog.
- Wait: This is another great basic command to practice at thresholds, before meeting other dogs or people, and at feeding times. “Wait” teaches the dog to ask permission and learn impulse control before they do something.
- Crate manners: Teaching crate manners is important for managing behavior problems, keeping dogs safe, teaching self-soothing, and encouraging self-entertainment and calmness. Crate manners include going into the crate calmly, staying in a locked crate calmly, not exiting unless given permission and even waiting inside the crate with the door open.
Dogs are smarter than we often give them credit for.
If you aren’t consistent with the rules in your home or don’t follow through when you give a command, it doesn’t take a dog long to figure out that you aren’t going to enforce that rule or command.
This is why establishing leadership over a dog is also about being consistent.
If you are consistent with following through on things and enforcing rules, you can give a command calmly and your dog will know you mean what you say.
Consistency is about respect, but it’s also about trust:
- Can your dog trust you to be consistent and act on your words and enforce the boundaries you create?
- Are you a dependable person to them?
Consistently Following Through With Commands
When you’re teaching a dog obedience, it’s important to spend time teaching what a command means. Usually we do this with lure reward training, and it should be fun for the dog.
Once your dog knows the command, has worked up to obeying the command around distractions, and you have phased out the use of regular food rewards, it’s time to focus on following through.
If you tell your dog to come and they don’t, what do you do?
If your answer is to get better treats, you will find yourself constantly carrying better and better food — trying to compete with other dogs, squirrels and people in your dog’s environment. Instead, follow through with the commands you give.
Here’s an example:
- If your dog avoids you when you call them around distractions, go to them and clip a long training lead on them.
- Release them back to what they were doing before, call them to you again, and if they ignore your command, calmly reel them in with the long leash and have them sit in front of you before releasing them back to what they were doing before.
- Repeat calling them and releasing them several times until they come 5 times in a row without having to be reeled in.
- Then end the training session that day on this good note.
Following through does not have to look like yelling, yanking them off the ground with a leash or intimidating them with large shows of force.
Usually, all you’ll need are:
- A small, clearly understood consequence
- And patience
Practicing commands with consistent follow-through helps your dog know what to expect, makes things less frustrating and tense between you and them, and helps them develop impulse control and calmness.
What are the rules in your household?
Whatever your rules are, make sure they are consistent:
- If the dog isn’t allowed on the sofa, then don’t turn a blind eye to them climbing onto it when you want to snuggle with them. Instead, sit on the floor with them to snuggle for a minute.
- If you don’t want your dog barking out the window, then stop the behavior right away rather than letting them bark for 5–10 minutes and then intervening.
- If you don’t want the dog chewing on your things, don’t give them an old sock or stuffed animal to chew on. Those items look just like your other socks to your dog.
Different people have different household rules for their dogs.
As long as your rules (or lack of them) aren’t leading to behavior problems, safety issues or relationship problems, then you can choose whatever rules you want — just be consistent with those rules.
Working for Life Rewards
If you’re wondering “How do I establish leadership over my dog” because there is already a power struggle in your household, then having the dog work for life rewards can help turn things around without a lot of confrontation.
To do this, tell your dog to do a command they know, such as “sit” or “down,” before you give them something they want. This program is also known as the “no free lunch” method.
Consider having your dog work for these life rewards:
- Petting and affection: Ask for a “down” or “sit” first, and don’t tolerate nudging, pawing, barking and climbing into your lap uninvited.
- Meals: “Wait” is a convenient command to use at mealtimes.
- Walks and going outside: Sitting calmly, waiting at thresholds before leaving your home, and heeling during the walk to earn forward movement are all good things to practice.
- Toys and play: Incorporate obedience into your game, such as sitting before each ball toss, and don’t tolerate your pet demanding that you throw a toy for them.
- Anything else your dog wants: If it’s something your dog enjoys as part of their day and you can control their access to it, then have them perform a command before giving it to them.
When to Hire Help to Establish Leadership Over Your Dog
A lot of aggression is related to a lack of trust and respect, and even when it isn’t, it can often be improved by establishing leadership. Still, there are times when you may need to call in help to do so safely and effectively.
It’s generally a good idea to hire professional help if:
- Your dog has a bite history, especially one where they have drawn blood, bitten multiple times or bitten in more dangerous locations, like the face or neck.
- You feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to do the training yourself.
- The behavior is complex enough that you need access to resources you don’t have, such as multiple knowledgeable people to help with counter-conditioning and socializing your dog; multiple dogs to desensitize your dog around; or facilities where training practice can be set up in a safe, more effective way.
- Your dog is extremely fearful, aggressive or not making progress without professional help.
- You have the financial means to hire someone and would prefer professional help, rather than tackling it on your own.
A professional trainer’s job is to teach your dog how to behave, educate you on how to interact with your dog, and provide the resources during training to make both of those things possible.
Once the training is over, or during the training process if your dog is not being boarded, then it’s your turn to establish leadership over the dog (with your trainer’s help and instruction).
A good dog trainer can do a lot to help that process — but you’re the one who lives with your dog every day, so it’s up to you to maintain the training.
What to Look For in a Trainer
When you’re looking for a trainer or behaviorist, ask questions.
Not all trainers are experienced with aggression, fear, behavior problems or certain methods of training.
A wonderful basic obedience class instructor may not be the person who can help you with your resource-guarding or dog-reactive pup, and a basic obedience class would not be the place to tackle those needs, even if that trainer is also very experienced with aggression.
You need a private trainer with the right experience, a board and train program geared toward behavior issues, or a class specifically designed to help with the problem behavior you are struggling with.
Ask questions to see if this is the right fit for you and your pup:
- What is their experience with aggression?
- Have they worked with the type or types of aggression your dog is exhibiting? Some trainers have experience only with fear-based aggression and no other types of aggression.
- What methods and forms of training do they use?
- Can they provide client referrals or reviews from those who had similar issues as you?
In the video below, dog trainer Ken Steepe discusses why establishing leadership over a dog has nothing to do with “alpha rolls” and “pack leaders.” Rather, it’s about setting your dog up to make the right choices:
Final Thoughts on Establishing Leadership Over a Dog
To sum up this article, establishing leadership can bring numerous benefits:
- Reduce stress and frustration for both you and your dog
- Decrease many unwanted behavior problems
- Increase calmness, respect and trust in your dog
- Help begin to address aggression
- Help anxious and fearful dogs feel secure
It’s OK to tell your dog no — but it’s just as important, and often even more important, to also let your dog know when they are doing something right.
When establishing leadership, you don’t have to sound angry or loud. A calm, confident tone of voice tends to be more effective. Fair, clear consequences may be needed when your dog is disobedient, but there is normally no need for rough punishments.
Remember to follow through with your commands and maintain rules consistently.
And, again, there may be times when you’ll want to seek professional help. We now live in an era where help is easily available for dog training by Skype or phone.
- Mandel, Kimberly B., CPDT-KA. “Establishing Boundaries, Routines and Predictable Schedules.” Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC. 2017. http://kimberlymandel.com/articles/canine-behavorial-wellness-part-1/.
- Hervel, Aryn. “Give Me Some Space! Teach Your Dog to Back Off.” American Kennel Club. Sept. 18, 2015. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/teach-dog-back-off/.
- Stillwell, Victoria. “Lure Reward Training.” Positively.com. https://positively.com/dog-training/methods-equipment/training-methods/lure-reward-training/.
- Reisen, Jan. “How to Create House Rules for Your New Puppy.” American Kennel Club. July 27, 2016. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-create-house-rules-for-your-new-puppy/.
- Camerini, Lauren, CPDT-KA. “Life Rewards: The Peaceful Dog’s Secret to Having a Reliable and Well-Trained Dog.” The Peaceful Dog. July 30, 2013. http://thepeacefuldog.com/life-rewards-the-peaceful-dogs-secret-to-having-a-reliable-and-well-trained-dog/.