Copyright © 2005
May only be used or reprinted with the authors consent.

On the weekend  27-28 sept. 2003  I spent some of the most exciting and instructive days, I have ever had.

It was all about leadership dogs/human. Our instuctor was Gitte Seabourne, a very qualified and exciting person. She is a professional sheepsherder, and works with her dogs, 3 border collies.

She started by telling us, that the foundation of which to build a companionship with our dogs, is based on respect.  Respect can not be demanded, but only earned.  The dogs will only respect you as their leader, if you prove yourself worthy.

Dogs communicate through signals. Some so faint, they are sometimes hard for the human eye to catch. But they are there. The dogs are masters in catching the signals. And it is up to you, if you want to be your dog’s leader, to learn, observe and react to your dog’s signals, however faint. He has no other way of talking to you.

Start by learning the different signals. Learn their meaning and learn to see them. Get to know your dog, observe if he sends strong or less obvious signals. And remember, this is a lifelong process. The dog will forever test your leadership. Over and over again. Just like humans have presidential elections every once in a while, where new leaders are elected and we can discard of those, we think not good enough, the dog will test you for your ability to be a good leader over and over, and if you are found unworthy, the dog will take over, and put itself in the drivers-seat so to speak. The dog will only accept you as leader, as long as you are worthy.

Dogs try to avoid conflicts. They don’t want the fight.

These are submissive signals, conflict solving – “I don’t want to fight with you”.

Looking away – “let’s be friends” -  “let’s not start a war”

Blinking the eyes

Chewing sounds – smacking of lips

Licking around the mouth

Turning head away

Yawning – this is also relaxing and stress-avoiding

Give space – walk in a curve

Slow movements

Go between – a very strong signal, only high ranking animals with great authority go between.

Playbow (bending down in front legs, like stretching)

Freeze (standstill)

Turning side of body or back to “intruder”

Sit/Lay down.

Lowering of ears

Lowering of tail

When you want to be leader for your dog, look at him right now. What is normal in your home at this moment?  Who greets guests first when they come, you or the dog? Who walks first out of the door when you want to go for a walk, you or your dog?  Who jumps first into the car when you take a ride, you or your dog? And who is first out of the car? Who go first through the door when you go from one room to another, you or your dog? Does your dog sleep with you in your bed, and who gets in it first? Sitting in the sofa, and your dog nudges your arm for a pat, do you pat him at once?  And does the dog jump up on the sofa before you?

If you can answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, then be sure, your dog thinks himself in full control of your house and family. Your dog does not find you a competent leader.  But it is deeply buried in all dogs, big or small, that in order for the pack (your family) to survive, there must be a strong leader, and if nobody else is doing the job, then he will do it, to the best of his abilities.  But he doesn’t want the responsibility. The world today is so complicated and confusing, he cannot solve all problems. He doesn’t want the job, but nobody else is doing it, and it must be done. It’s a matter of survival.

From now on, send your dog signals that you are leader and in charge. Alpha-signals. Make sure, your dog is always behind you. When you go for a walk, when you go to another room, when you get into the car and out again.

Start by taking a walk. When putting on the leash, if the dog is very excited, ignore him, turn your side to him, look away. When he calms down, try again to put on the leash. Ignore again if he is excited. Try to put on leash again. If he is excited again, place leash on table, turn away from dog. Take leash again when he is calm, and eventually you can put leash on dog without a lot of stress. Ignore all bad behaviour. DO NOT scold or yell at dog. Turn away instead.

Now the leash is on dog, and you go towards the door. Block the way of the dog physically with your body, so he cannot pass and get in front of you. Put a leg out, and block his way. Go through the door first. If the dog tries to go first, cut him off, and block his way with your leg.

Start walking, where is the dog? If he is out in full length of the leash, stand still. Take a few steps backwards, until the dog is behind you.

Start walking again. If the dog’s nose goes in front of your knee, stop, and block his way again. Maybe take a few steps backwards to get him behind you. On the first trip, you will not get very far. Maybe only a few meters.  But soon it will be clear to your dog that he is not getting anywhere unless he lets you lead, and he is behind.

Timing is essential. Do not wait until the dog is out in full length of the line before you stop and bring him back. That way you are only teaching him to come back when he is out in full length of the leash. He must be blocked at the right moment, as soon as the nose goes passed your knee.

Be very consequent. If he still does it for the fiftieth time, correct him for the fiftieth time. Consequence and timing. Never never never jerk the line. If you do that, you can start all over. Imagine the leash is a rubber band and go on from there.

“Old fashioned” obedience is based on teaching the dog things, that are not natural for him.  Heel, sit, lie down and so on. It takes some time for the dog to understand what you want it to do, but it can be done.

Leadership is all about training your dog to be a enjoyable companion, using signals, the dog was born to understand.

We must look at the way a pack of wolves communicate with one another in order to understand the complexity of doggy-communication. The hunt must succeed in order for the pack to survive, we must follow our leader. All initiative comes from the leader. No, our dogs are no longer wolves, but they still have all the same instincts, and ways of percieving the world. All dogs want to have a strong leader to guide them. And if no such is available, they take the role of leader on themselves.

Continue sending alpha-signals at home, everywhere, all the time. Your dog will understand you immediately! He was born to understand.

Some of the things you can do to send alpha signals are:

Take all responsibility

Provide food – eat first

Keep dog behind you, always make him come last in/out

Ignore all unwanted behaviour

Take initiative

Take dogs favourite spot for yourself

Direct stare

I started using alpha-signals the same evening, as Gitte instructed us, and I could see a change in my dogs, 2 girls, within 5 minutes!  Who are you, and what have you done to our sweet Mom???!! But we can see you are a strong leader, and we will follow you!!”

Food is an extremely strong signal. Who ever can provide food, is leader. And the leader has first right to all food. It doesn’t matter when the dog eats, as long it is made clear, that the alpha has taken what it wants, and permission is given for the dog to eat. When feeding your dog, hide a biscuit or something in your hand, take the food bowl, and show the dog that your are taking some food from it’s bowl and eating it (the biscuit in your hand). Now let the dog have it’s food. The dog will see it as leftovers from the alpha. Remove bowl after about 10 minutes. Never have food available for the dog always. Whoever can provide food, is leader.

The leader takes all initiative. If your dog takes initiative, ignore it. Do not let the dog make any decisions. One thing, I think we all have tried at some time or another, is nudging. I have often sat on my sofa, and Mini has nudged my arm. She has put her nose under my elbow and jerked her head to get me to pat her. And what have I done?? Yes, every time, I have started patting her!  What she was really telling me, was, “if I am the boss here, then pat me now! I have the initiative”. Remember, the dog will test your leadership constantly!

Yesterday she did it again. Nudged my arm for me to pat her. I turned my side to her. She nudged again. Now I turned my back to her. Then she lay her head down again.  And then I turned back and patted her. She got the message. The initiative was mine, not hers, I will pat her when I want to, not when she wants to.

When your dog sends you conflict solving signals, respect it. The dog needs some space around it. When a dog turns its head away, it is trying to tell you, that it feels threatened and does not want the conflict. Respect that, and turn away yourself. Give the dog his space. Do not go over to a dog to talk with it, take the initiative and call the dog over to you, send signals to invite him in, and then talk to him.

Ignore an overeager dog, trying hard to get your attention. If the dog is jumping up and down you, turn your back. When the dog has calmed down, turn back, and “invite” the dog in, using conflict solving signals. Blink your eyes, lick your lips, smack your lips, turn head slightly. All this tells the dog it is OK to move in now.  The initiative has been yours, not his. When a pack of dogs or wolves return from a hunt, the alpha will walk into the pack without glancing left or right. He ignores all. He carries his head and tail high, and members of the pack only come to him when invited. It is his right.   Not one member of the pack has any doubt of who is in charge and who is the leader.

Ignore your dog when you come home from work. Alphas ignore the pack. Wait several minutes before you invite him in for contact.  Do the same, if you go from one room to another in the house. The dog should only get contact, when invited in.

It is OK  to let the dog sleep in your bed, when he is invited. Never let the dog get in the bed first, be sure he does not come before you let him. A pack of dogs/wolves sleep together, but the leader decides who gets to sleep close.

Does your dog ever lie in the middle of the doorway, where it knows you will be coming through? Do you ever step over him, or go around him? What do you think he is telling you?? Exactly! “I am boss here, you must go around in order to go past me!” Mini often lies just where she knows I will go, all the time. I mean, she used to. No more. When I get to where she is lying, in the middle of the doorway, I look her directly in the eyes, turn my front  towards her, and that is enough to get her to move. If you have a more difficult case than Mini, put your toes under the dog, and nudge/push him away. It is your right as leader to go everywhere without obstruction. 

Just like there are conflict solving signals, there are also signals for confrontation and threat. These are:

Standing bent over dog

Front turned towards dog

Stepping in front of

Starring – Direct glance

Showing teeth

Snarling  - growling  (this is a warning)

Fast movements

Upright ears

High tail

Raised hair on back

Short corners of the mouth

If a dog uses these signals excessively, and several at a time, it indicates that the dog is insecure. Barking, jumping up and down, raising hair on back, showing teeth all at the same time, means the dog is in over his head, and he is calling (the barking) for his pack to come and help him. The guarddog barking insanely and jumping all around is not as dangerous as the guarddog, who is quiet. Be aware of him.

Notice how many of the signals that are confrontational for dogs, are the exact opposite for humans. How do 2 humans greet one another? Face to face (front to front), showing their teeth (smiling), direct eye contact, getting close (hugging). All these things are signs of great threat to a dog.

We can use many of the confrontational signals to let our dogs know if their behaviour is unwanted. 

Gitte had us working in the field, letting strange dogs meet one another. A few of them started growling, when a strange dog approached. At once the handler placed him/herself sideways between the dogs, blocking their view.  The strange dog walked in a larger bow (giving space -  conflict-solving)  around the dog. The handler was all the way standing sideways between the two dogs, blocking the view.

I had a problem with one of my girls, she growled at another bitch, who was passing. At once I stood in between the two, sideways, blocking their view. It was not enough, Dodo kept on growling. Now I turned my front towards her. Still quiet growling. I now bent over her, giving a low grumble. At once she was quiet, that was enough. She turned her head away and licked her mouth. That was her signal that she had understood my message, and she had backed off. At once I turned away and backed off. The other bitch could pass, now with no further notice from Dodo.

Signals should be enhanced, step by step. If a soft signal is not enough, build up the signals, and use a stronger.

Remember, dogs live in the moment. They have no feeling of time. Reward must come immediately, not even 1 second too late. Do not bear a grudge against your dog, he doesn’t know what it is. Start again if he does something wrong. Learn his language, he can’t learn yours.

Do not accept an “almost” obedient dog. If you ask your dog to do something, do not accept, that he only does it half. This will only teach him, that he doesn’t have to do what you want him to do. But on the other hand, do not ask him to do something, which is not possible for him. Do not demand more, than he is capable of. Do not present him with problems, he cannot solve.

If your dog has done something good, be aware of how you reward him. If you bend down and pat him on the farthest side of his body, you are actually leaning over him, and this is threatening to him. And why “punish” him for a good deed? Instead, go down in your knees, and pat him on the side of his body, that is closest to you. Turn your head slightly away, tell him he is a good boy.

When guests arrive, how does your dog react? Does he bark like crazy? And how do you react? Do you shout at him, and tell him to shut up?

What is really happening in this situation? The dog gives alarm, a threat is nearing the home, he signals that by barking. This is OK. It is his job to help protect the pack (the family) by alerting the alpha, some one is coming!. When you shout at him, what are you telling him???  Bark louder, you are right, there is a threat to our pack!!  The dog barks louder. You yell at him even louder: SHUT UP you stupid dog!!! What does the dog hear?? Bark louder, the threat is very near now!!  Your anger and excitement tells the dog the situation is very threatening. The dog feels, that you are no longer in control of the situation, and he puts himself in charge now. He is now the leader and has the responsibility.  So now he barks like crazy to protect HIS pack, and make the intruder go away.

How should this situation be handled?

It is OK for the dog to react when someone is nearing. He must help protect the house, the territory. But when he has given the alarm, then relieve him of any further responsibility. From now on, you are in charge. Signal him by turning your side towards him and let him know, you are now in charge. If the side is not enough, turn your front towards him and step forward in his direction, look him in the eyes. You are in charge, and he no longer has any responsibility for the “threat” arriving to the house. He can calm down. Your dog should not receive your guests, do it yourself, and then bring them in to the dog. It is you, and not your dig, who decides what people and animals are  safe to greet.

Dogs home alone are some times a problem. They destroy everything within reach. Many people have tried to come home to a house, where all furniture is completely chewed to small pieces. Some punish the dog, which is completely useless. You cannot punish a dog for something done earlier. He has no way of understanding it.

Some think the dog is bored. This is not the case.

What is really happening? Why is the dog so frustrated?  If the family is asked, they almost always have no idea of doggy language, and dominant/submissive signals. This is a family without leadership, and therefore the dog has placed himself as leader, as a normal dog does.

What is going on in this dogs mind? The family seems very unorganised, and the dog has put himself in an alpha position, he is in charge of this pack. He has the responsibility to provide food and security. What then happens in the morning, when the family goes away for work? The dog is left behind!! This dog sees himself as the alpha, and now he is completely without any way to provide security for his pack. He gets greatly frustrated, and tries everything to get to them. He rips everything in sight to threads.

Scolding this dog will not have any effect. Sending him alpha-signals, making him aware of his place within the family as a submissive member, will relieve him of his responsibility, and make him calm down. In the wild, when the grown wolves/dogs go hunting, the young pups wait calmly at home for their return, this is normal behaviour.

The dog, who steals food from the table, does so, because he thinks he has the right to do so.  Do not give him the opportunity. Whoever can provide food, is leader. Never leave the dogs feeding nowl with leftovers from his meal on the floor. Remove all food after he has eaten. Always.

Here are some rules to live by, if you want to be a good leader for your dog:

1.      Get to know your dog. Learn his signals and think like a dog.

2.      Learn to use the signals in this article. He will understand.

3.      Get to know the strong and weaker sides of you dog.

4.      Never ask more of him, than he can give. If your dog trusts you to never demand more than he can give, he will do anything you ask of him, for you, and for himself.

5.      Dogs have a need to develop and mature, and to have their self-confidence confirmed. 

6.      Never let your dog be alone in a situation, he cannot handle.

7.      Give him time to adjust to new things and learning.

8.      Learn your dog’s needs for exercise and motivation. Know the characteristics  of the breed.

9.      Never bear a grudge, The dog does not know what it is, and will not understand.

10. Dogs live in the moment, they have no perception of time. Only praise at the moment, he is doing something right, and scold in the same second, he is doing something wrong. Never 2 seconds later.

11. Be consequent.  Always, always always.

Oh, I don’t have any more time now, Mini is nudging me and wants me to give her a pat, so I must go and do so!!!  ;o)