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Speaking of Dogs: Love is not enough

Dog trainers talk about the importance of providing good leadership and structure for pet dogs.  Unfortunately, the public is most familiar with terms such as “alpha” and “show him who is boss.”

But we love dogs; we love their goofy personalities, their willingness to play at the drop of a hat. It’s almost magical how much they love us in return!

So when dog owners hear, “You need to be a good leader to your dog,” many folks’ eyes glaze over: I have to be structured in every aspect of my life.  just want to love my dog.  I don’t want to dominate him.

Great.  Love your dog.  By all means, give him everything: attention, quality food, toys and romps in woods.  Do it all, please.

Just keep in mind that dogs, by nature, are pack animals.  And in the successful canine pack, the leader controls all resources: food, games, choice resting areas, toys, attention and grooming, entrances and exits.

The family dog retains his ancestral notion of hierarchy and craves order and leadership in his modern human/canine pack.  Without a clear leader, some dogs are left to assume they must take charge of our complicated lives.

As trainers, we’ve seen what happens when people ignore nature, and the result can be heartbreaking – for both dogs and humans.

The following is a true story about a dog that was relinquished to a shelter after his owner realized the large mixed breed was “too much for her.”

She’d “rescued” him as a filthy, skinny, flea-ridden puppy from some kids in front of a grocery store. She felt so sorry for him, and due to his humble beginnings, she was determined to make his life perfect.

Worried that he’d be lonely, she brought him up to sleep on her bed the first night and provided him with a steady parade of gourmet offerings, along with a full bowl of kibble at his disposal 24 hours a day. He once snapped at her when she tried to put her hand in the bowl while he was eating. She was shocked and assumed  he’d had to fight for food in his previous home. She decided to never upset him again.

House-training was a problem, but she ignored suggestions to crate train him.  She felt it was cruel to lock him in a cage and instead, installed a doggie door so he could go outside whenever needed.  Though he still had accidents in the house, he loved that doggie door!

She provided him with lots of toys: pig ears, rawhide chews, squeaky toys.  She noticed he’d get very still if she approached him when he had a toy.  Later, she thought she heard him growling. “He mutters to himself,” she said.

He “didn’t like the leash” and seemed frightened out on the sidewalk.  It was cruel to make him do something he didn’t want to do, so she stopped trying to take him for walks. Without excursions off the property, his world was small and the house became his kingdom. There were no rules or boundaries, and soon he began to take charge. He still slept on her bed, but would growl whenever she disturbed him. If she got up to go to the bathroom in the night, he would often growl as she got back into bed.

“He grumbles like a little old man if I wake him up,” she told her friends.

One night he bit her on the arm when she accidentally nudged him in her sleep. The bite broke the skin, even though she was under the covers.

“It was my own fault for bugging him,” she said.  “He really is a very sweet dog.”

Another night she awoke to deep, serious growls.  He was staring at her, showing his teeth, apparently wanting her to relinquish the pillow. After that, she decided it was easier to sleep on the couch.

He was 1-and-a-half years old when she had house guests over a holiday weekend.  Suddenly his kingdom was invaded!  He refused to allow the guests in the kitchen where his food was kept, he wouldn’t let anyone walk down the hall, he even guarded the bathroom.  It got so bad that the guests actually had to go to the bathroom in the backyard!
Her friends were frightened and persuaded her to take him to the shelter before he hurt someone.  She loved him so much and once at the shelter, decided she couldn’t leave him there and would try to take some advice on training.
She was shown some punitive measures that would “show him who was boss.”  She was given a demonstration on how to use a choke chain and give sharp leash corrections, how to force him down on the ground to demonstrate her high rank, how to “knee him in the chest” if he blocked her way through doors or jumped on her.

She took him home, filled with hope. A week later, she was back at the shelter, in tears.  She told the staff that when she tried to exert her alpha status, the dog became aggressive and had started putting his paws up on her shoulders and growling in her face.  He was worse than ever, and now she was really afraid of him.
Heartbroken, she released her beloved dog to the shelter. Once in the kennel, he cowered at the back of his run and growled at all passersby. The shelter was at capacity, and there simply was no time or space to try and rehabilitate him.  After two days, he was put to sleep.

How did a dog that was loved so completely end up dying homeless and terrified at an animal shelter?
In the next few articles, we’ll examine what went wrong and how this unfortunate scenario could have been prevented.

Editor’s note: This a best-of column that was originally published March 12, 2008.

Carla Jackson is a professional pet dog trainer and owner of Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training, behavior consultations, puppy socialization and day training. You can find Jackson Ranch on Facebook, visit the Jackson Ranch website, or call (530)365-3800.