House of Dog Training

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So you want to be a Pack Leader?

Written by ©2015 Astrid Tryon, CPDT-KSA

What kind of relationship do you want with your dog? Do you want to be the benevolent leader that your dog looks up to and respects, or do you want to be a leader that your dog obeys because he is afraid of you? Think back to your school days. Did you respect and look up to the teacher that was strict yet fair or to the teacher that threatened you with detention and gave you extra homework for passing a note in class?

You have probably heard the phrases “you need to be the leader of your pack” or “nothing in life is free”. Those two concepts in recent years have become almost taboo in the dog training world. At the very least they are becoming very outdated. Why? They are tainted by a faulty pack and dominance theory, but that is a whole other article.

In a nutshell: Today we know that “A wolf pack is a cohesive family unit consisting of the adult parents and their offspring …” ( the terms alpha male and alpha female have been replaced with ‘breeding pair’ or simply ‘parents’. Furthermore dogs are not directly descendent from wolves just as humans do not directly descent from chimpanzees. Therefore comparisons between wolf behavior and dog behavior will always be flawed. Studies of ‘wild’ or feral dogs in Romania have shown that they do not form packs, but only brief relationships (Jean Donaldson 2009). Dr. Ian Dunbar describes them as “loose, transitory associations”. “Since even wolves organize themselves into family units, we can aspire to be not dominant pack members but good parents instead. Loving caretakers and dedicated teachers of our dependent dogs”. (Sdao)

Does this mean that there are no rules and no consequences when using positive reinforcement? No – quite the opposite. Contrary to popular belief, dogs want rules and want somebody to tell them what to do. If they don’t have that – especially if it is an insecure dog already – they start making their own decisions and usually those are bad, because they don’t know any better. It is all about establishing boundaries for your dog. Ken Ramirez defines dog training as “teaching a dog to live as a dog in a human world and learning the rules”. Really it is just communicating effectively with your dog. After all, they come from a world where it is ok to say hello by sniffing somebody’s butt or to scavenge for food. How are they supposed to know that humans frown upon such behavior and do not like it when the trashcan is dumped and its contents are littered all over the house. Imagine yourself being dropped into a culture that is entirely foreign to you, where you don’t speak the language, and you don’t know the customs. How do you find out what is appropriate behavior when you can’t communicate?

What does that mean for our relationship with dogs? “Good leaders spend their energy thoughtfully arranging the learner’s environment to promote good behavior, proactively planning to avoid problems and steering clear of interventions that create fear and avoidance.” (Sdao) That means we reinforce behaviors we like and would like to see again and ignore and/or prevent reinforcement of behaviors we don’t like and would like to be extinguished.

One way of achieving this is the use of the Premack Principles. In the 1960s Dr. David Premack came up with the principle that a “high probablility behavior reinforces a low probability behavior”. For example: For a dog that loves walks, going for a walk (highly probable) would reinforce the behavior of sitting to clip the leash on (less probable). “Dr. Premack’s pioneering insight is that an animal’s behavior is reinforced whenever the consequence of that behavior [sitting] is that that the animal gets to engage in an activity he would freely choose to do at that moment. [walk]” (Sdao). The beauty of positive reinforcement training is that reinforcement does not have to be a thing (treat) but can also be access to a preferred activity. And the Premack Principle is so amazing, because it “is like gravity, it’s in effect all the time.” (Sdao)

I know what you’re thinking – that sounds like we are back to “nothing in life is free”. The dog should do something every time he wants something. I myself like chocolate way too much to only have it as a dessert. Sometimes I want to eat a piece ‘just because’. So I am opting for a ‘limited NILF’ – I call it “pick your battles”. Remember you are teaching your dog the rules appropriate for living with a human. You come up with your rules and enforce them. While jumping up at your friends’ faces to greet them may not be appropriate, you may be ok with Buffy jumping up to ‘dance’ with you. You might enjoy snuggling on the couch, but Buffy can’t just jump up, you have to invite her (yet another family may not allow their dogs on the couch at all). Buffy paws and claws you for attention while you are watching a movie; while you don’t mind petting her ‘just because’, the scratching is not ok, so she’ll have to have all feet on the floor, or stop pawing you for at least 3 seconds, before you touch her. “NILF is to control. In the long run communication trumps control.” (Sdao)

The easiest way to communicate with your dog is to allow them to make choices without coercion. “Our role is to notice more of those choices, inform the dog when he’s chosen correctly and reward the dog so he’ll be more likely to choose that way in the future.” (Sdao). Our Reward Toolbox contains the Premack Principles, toys, food (after his basic physical needs are met) and, of course, treats. In addition you can designate some foods (or other reinforces) that are never free and ‘earned only’. “They are the heavy hitters on the reinforcement line-up.” (Sdao)

Give your dog the credit he deserves. They are very capable of figuring things out. Set your rules and give your dog the opportunity to figure them out by offering you behaviors. Be a loving leader who teaches your dog right from wrong (by human standards) by offering guidance not force. Be that teacher you admired and respected in school and become the person your dog already thinks you are.


Ken Ramirez – Keynote address APDT Conference 2013
Kathy Sdao – Plenty in Life is Free
Dr. Ian Dunbar
Jean Donaldson

Dr. David Premack

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