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Every mammal has a social structure-especially those that live in groups. Packs are the social structure that dogs understand, and every pack requires a leader who can accommodate the pack's complex decision-making requirements, such as food, entertainment, shelter and how the pack spends time together. To best meet a dog's needs, the dog should feel part of safe and fulfilling pack.
Every dog requires order, consistency and a healthy social structure. The absence of structure creates stress in dogs. In fact, most of dogs' problem behaviors can be traced to humans wanting the structure the pack to be different from the structure the dog wants. If the pack is not structured properly according to the dog, he will make changes to improve the situation.
For instance, when a dog feels he must tell his owner when he needs to be fed, he asks for food and his owner feeds him. This can lead to begging and manipulating. The owner should instead feed the dog at a standard time and ignore the dog when he begs-demonstrating that the owner is the decision-maker when it comes to how food is managed.
Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule about how to be an effective leader for your dog. You have to first understand who your dog is and what he needs. Some dogs need more order. Some need more love, caring and guidance. Some need more exercise and stimulation.
Perhaps your dog is a working breed. He is a tenacious, hard-working canine who requires stimulation (entertainment) and a strong leader. Your dog's brain moves fast, sorting out problems and creating solutions. If he doesn't feel your leadership is adequate, he will resolve issues for himself.
If yours is a timid dog, he needs to understand that you are not a threat-that it is safe for him to trust and bond with you. Tough love is not part of the equation with this dog.
This is why it is often the dog that determines which leadership style you should have. A common mistake of owners is to pattern their leadership behavior after what worked with a previous dog. Each dog has different needs, requiring that you recalibrate your leadership style to each individual dog.
Communication is another issue. Your dog might know you are the leader, but he might not agree with the choices you make. He cannot explain the situation in words-instead, he shows you with behavioral patterns and body language.
As a social animal, you have the skills to read body language and infer the feelings and motives behind it. Stop your brain. Just be quiet and look at your dog. He is telling you something. Don't fixate on the details of the problem-that is, on what form the problem takes. Focus instead on the function of the problem.
Confident gestures-jumping up, biting and barking-are a good example. If owners do not show calm, consistent leadership in a way their dogs, as canines, understand, the dogs may try to step into the leadership role and get their owners to respond to them.
As your dog's leader, assess the payoff for your dog when a behavior pattern arises. Help him understand the situation better to make a choice that aligns more with what you want. If your dog is the one who chooses, you don't have a basis from which to fix problem behaviors.
All dogs need a balance of love, trust and respect. Different owners show these emotions in different ways, and different dogs need these emotions in different amounts. Solving that equation with your dog will lead to the most fulfilling relationship for both of you.