Good manners begin at home

Posted: Friday, May 07, 2004

Doggie Do'sBy Elton Engstrom

Do you wish your canine companion had better manners? Would you like a bit more control without dampening your dog's enthusiasm and zest for life? Before we talk about ways to accomplish this, please take this short quiz and tally your total.

1. I feed my dog

a. after I've eaten

b. before I've eaten

c. it growls or snaps at me if I try to pet it or take its bowl away

2. My dog sleeps on

a. its own bed on the floor

b. the bed with me or one of the kids

c. on the bed, and it growls or snaps at me when I try to move it off

3. When I open a door, the first one through it is

a. me

b. the dog

c. the dog as it trips or knocks me over.

4. Who carries away the ball or toy at the end of a play period?

a. I do

b. the dog

c. the dog growls or snaps at me when I try to take it away

5. The dog is lying across the floor, blocking your passage down the hallway. Who moves out of the way?

a. The dog

b. I do as I step around it

c. The dog growls at me, and I back up

If most of your answers are A's, congratulations! You understand how to be the alpha pack leader in your family, and your dog naturally respects and obeys you.

If most of your answers are B's, your dog may regard itself as alpha leader and you as subservient. Why should it obey you?

If most of your answers are C's, it's important for you to learn how to manage a dominant, potentially aggressive, dog before it becomes a serious problem for you and the community. Call the Gastineau Humane Society and ask for a list of local animal behaviorists/trainers with whom you can work to improve the situation.

So what is an alpha leader and how do you become one?

Canines are pack animals, with firmly established social hierarchies. Within their family group, or pack, there will be an alpha leader to which others are subservient. If a dog sees no human taking the alpha role in the family, it will attempt to fill it. In mild cases, this is the dog that jumps on people unbidden, bowls you over as it jumps out of the car, or runs off and won't come back. In serious cases, this is the dog that thinks the bed, food bowl or toy is theirs and snaps, growls or bites to tell you they're boss. These problems are often a management issue. It's up to you to know how to consistently, firmly and gently establish your alpha presence in the pack. The following are some suggestions:

Eating: Alphas eat first. Feed your dog after you and your family have eaten.

Sleeping: Alphas have the best resting places. If you allow your dog to sleep on the bed with you, it may interpret this as equality in status. You can allow your dog to sleep in the bedroom, but if your dog is exhibiting signs of wanting to take over the alpha position, it should not be allowed on the bed.

Doors: Is your dog the first out the door of the house, your bedroom, your vehicle, your gate? Teach your dog to sit and wait until you, the alpha, have passed through. Then invite the dog to follow. You may need to use a leash until your dog learns the expected behavior.

Playtime: An alpha leader determines rules of a game. Does your dog throw its toy at your feet and bark at you until you pick it up and throw it? Does it decide the game is over by retreating behind a piece of furniture or the farthest corner of the yard with its goodie? Guess who's the leader here! If you want to remain alpha to your dog, you must control the game by deciding when to initiate games and when to remove an item from play.

Territory: Your dog should yield its space to you. If it doesn't, slightly nudge it with your toe to remind it to move as you transit the area.

Remember these five easy rules as alpha leader in your household. You 1) eat first; 2) rule the sleeping area; 3) go through any openings first; 4) begin and end play sessions; and 5) expect your dog to move out of your way.

These concepts are based on Terry Ryan's booklet "Take the Lead," available at for $3. Ms. Ryan is a nationally renown dog trainer and teaches canine behavior at Washington State University.

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