Creating a healthy pack is essential for having one or more happy, balanced and well behaved dogs. It doesn’t matter if you have one dog or 20, a pack is the foundation upon which to build all of your training, discipline and family.
For a dog, the pack is everything. This is how it is in nature and if you can allow this in your home, your life with your dogs will be much happier and more peaceful. In the wild, a pack member doesn’t do anything without the approval of the alpha, the pack leader. They eat when the leader tells them to, they sleep where the alpha tells them to. They give full consideration to the alpha and are totally dedicated and totally respect their leader.
The first lesson in observing a pack is that they follow out of respect, not fear. The alpha doesn’t hurt the pack members. He may, at times, remind them that he is the leader, but he never maliciously hurts a member of his pack, even when reprimanding them. To bring this lesson home with you: never hit or hurt your dog. This will create fear of you, not respect… and dogs tend to bite and respond with aggression when they are afraid. There are other ways to get through to your dog without hurting them: a loud, stern voice; a quick and unexpected touch to distract them; even a growl and snarl of disapproval from you. Don’t push it. When they stop the unwanted behavior, stop the reprimand immediately. This will actually create a bond of trust in your dog for you as their leader. This is the most important aspect of creating a healthy pack and a respectful, well behaved dog and a great first step with your companion.
I get asked by a lot of people about being able to trust their dogs. This is the biggest thing in the world when it comes to creating trust! Just like with humans: if you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything. It doesn’t matter if you are starting with a new puppy or an old rescue, a new member of your household or working out problems with an older member of your home, TRUST IS ESSENTIAL TO BUILD AND MAINTAIN. This comes from first teaching them to respect you as the pack leader, even if the pack is just you and your dog, or you and your family and a kennel of 50 dogs. Once they see you taking the reins as leader, the respect and trust will quickly follow. They will defer to your judgement in all things, like whether or not to try to attack, when to go through doorways, and how to do the tricks you want them to do. Training will be much smoother when you have established yourself as leader of their healthy and balanced pack.
The second lesson we observe in a healthy pack is hierarchy. The pack leader does not pick the pack hierarchy beyond establishing their position as leader. Trying to do so will only create confusion in the ranks! Generally, the older and more calm dogs will naturally fall into a high position in the pack while the younger, more rambunctious pups will be lower in the pack. This provides a healthy hierarchy because now the older, more calm and experienced dogs are in the position to help the younger pups learn their life lessons. If a squabble gets out of hand, the alpha will step in and break it up but generally speaking, he lets the other pack members figure out their own position. He doesn’t allow fighting in the ranks and he doesn’t allow any other dominate behavior, like scent marking or humping. Such things will elicit a swift and short reprimand. You should mirror this in your pack to establish a healthy hierarchy. Stepping in to break up squabbles and to stop dominate behavior will reinforce your own position as their leader and the more you have to do it now, the less you will have to do it in the future.
The last big lesson we learn from observing a pack is: the alpha goes first in all matters. ALL MATTERS. As the alpha in your pack, you should eat first, then allow your pack to eat (even if you pretend to eat). You should pass through the door to outside first, then allow them through. You should walk in front, even if by one step. This comes naturally to a dog with respect for you and once you have established that respect and trust, training for everything else comes easily and naturally. Reinforce this leadership daily when you put down food for them, when you go out for walks, etc. This is easy to reinforce and makes the biggest impact overall. If you have other members of the family, all humans should go before the dogs. This shows the canine pack that the human pack are ALL alphas and they will begin to defer to your entire family as if they were you.
It is especially important to not show favoritism between dogs. Sure, Rocky might be your favorite but that doesn’t mean he should get fed, walked out cuddled first! Doing so will only confuse the rest of the pack and put it in Rocky’s head that you want him to be alpha next. In nature, the pack leader will sometimes pick their successor when they feel the end approaching, and will “groom them for alpha” by creating a “me first, you second, then everyone else” situation. This can create a lot of in-fighting in the pack but in a wild setting, allows the alpha the chance to see that their chosen successor has a bit of a leg up when the time comes. This is one aspect that were shouldn’t mirror at home because it will create confusion in your pack. They will display dominance behaviors, they will fight and will eventually stop treating you with respect. They could even eventually buck up to you, vying for alpha position after they feel they have been groomed for it long enough. I see this type of situation all to often and usually caused by advice from well meaning, yet inexperienced trainers who don’t understand the psychology behind a healthy pack.
Remember, there is a reason behind everything your dogs do and once you can understand the nature of a canine, teaching them becomes easy!