How to Establish Leadership Over a Dog, Without Being a Meanie Pants

To set your pup up for training success, you must first establish leadership over the dog, says this behaviorist. And no shock collars!

Establish leadership over dog
Establish leadership over a dog, sans the shock collar!

If your dog does not perform a simple sit-stay, there could be an underlying issue that isn’t being addressed.

When the role of the leader is not determined or is inadvertently handed over to the dog, it could be the cause behind many behavior problems that the dog is having or difficultly experienced during training.

Before any behavioral adjustment or successful training can be expected, you need to establish leadership over the dog in order to set the dog up for success.

Around 30 years ago, canine behaviorists discovered that dogs had a hierarchy system within their pack. This discovery led trainers to believe that they could secure their position at the top of the pecking order by demonstrating control over the dog through physical dominance.

This method of training included techniques like the alpha roll-over, scruff shake and shocking the dog into submission by using a shock collar. Ouch! (See “The Rise and Fall of Cesar Millan, The Dog Whiperer.”)

However, recent studies have found that dogs tend to avoid confrontation and communicate with one another primarily through body language. When a dog owner acts as leader of the pack, he or she demonstrates non-confrontational behaviors while acting confident, dependable and very consistent.

Establish Leadership Over the Dog

Dog owners who need to implement leadership exercises in the relationship with their dog may find themselves frustrated with how their dog relates to them.

Common behaviors that dogs exhibit when they are in need of this type of restructuring:

While canines may exhibit these types of annoying behaviors, many owners do not realize that they are reinforcing how their pets act.

Some common things owners do that enforce the mindset that the dog is in charge:

  • Allowing the dog to be on beds and furniture
  • Offering an overflowing food bowl
  • Giving unearned possessions (toys, bones and treats)
  • Giving unearned or demanded attention and petting

If these are behaviors that you see in your dog, you can easily change the pecking order within your “pack” without touching your dog or acting aggressively. Below are three ways to establish leadership over a dog in a way your pet can understand.

Maintain control over a dog

1. “No Free Lunch” Policy

This policy allows the dog to receive things that he likes (attention, treats, petting) only after complying with a known, simple obedience cue. Some people use obedience commands only when the dog is about to or already has done something wrong. They offer everything the dog enjoys for “free.”

I suggest incorporating this “No Free Lunch” policy into your daily activities by requiring that the dog listen and obey before he receives enjoyable things; you become the leader.

2. Controlled Meals

Dogs should not be fed an overflowing food bowl that is always available at any period in their lifetime (unless they are lactating). Otherwise, you not only allow them to be in charge of the food, but you increase the chance of an overweight, unhealthy dog.

Dogs older than 6 months can be fed twice daily. To find out how much your dog should be eating, look at the label on the back of the dog food bag.

When demonstrating leadership during a meal time, ask the dog to sit, and hold the food bowl over his head. When he does sit, say “Good!” and slowly lower the bowl. If the dog gets up, give a “no reward marker” like “Eh-eh” or “Nope,” and quickly raise the bowl up again.

By staying consistent with this practice, you will teach him that if he wants to eat, he must remain calm and obedient. As the dog improves on this behavior, introduce a release cue like “Okay!” before he is allowed to eat his food. Also, the dog must finish his food in one sitting. If he leaves the food, pick it up until the next scheduled feeding time.

3. Doorway Management

Something as simple as who goes through the doorway first could show the dog who is the leader of the household.

If your dog crowds you at the door, make an imaginary line about 5 inches before the threshold of the door. With the door closed, ask your dog for a sit-stay and say “Good” when he complies. Slowly open the door and watch to see if he gets up. If he starts to get up, quickly shut the door and give a “no reward marker.” Continue to do this until you have the door fully open as the dog waits for a release cue like “Okay!”

When consistent with this exercise, you can show your dog that you control the doorway and his freedom. This exercise also highly reduces the chance of your dog bolting out of the doorway, which increases his safety.

When implementing the above exercises, you can also assist the restructuring by acting like a leader.

Established leaders always:

  • Stay calm and in control
  • Eat first
  • Assume higher ground (beds, couches, chairs)
  • Do not offer free attention or treats
  • Assign resting spots for their pack mates (your dog)
  • Set the pace and direction when walking

When living with a dog, you must establish calmly and assertively who is the leader and maintain your status. If the dog is not clearly shown who is in charge, he may assume he is the leader, which could become chaotic quickly. All relationship exercises should be worked on simultaneously for best results.

Reference:; photos: State Farm (top) and Lee Cannon/Flickr

Clarissa Fallis

View posts by Clarissa Fallis
Clarissa Fallis is a canine behaviorist and trainer from Upstate New York. She has attended Bergin University of Canine Studies, State University of New York at Cobleskill and Animal Behavior College. She is competent in training all breeds and ages of dogs, though she prefers hounds because of the challenge they present.

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