Dogs are pack animals by nature and if you don’t assume the role of leader, they will. But there are three simple exercises you can start using right away that will help you to establish leadership and give your dog the opportunity to relax into a stable state of mind. They are: “Humans First, Dogs Follow,” “The Stable Crate of Mind,” and finally, “Food Bowl Etiquette.” Each exercise is simple but requires patience, consistency, and repetition. Also keep in mind that dogs feed off of our energy so if you are anxious or nervous going into these exercises, your pup will sense that and react accordingly…
Humans First, Dogs Follow
When passing thru doorways with your pup, traveling up and down stairwells, in and out of gates, or even when stopped at street corners, crosswalks, or for the neighborly chat while out walking, remember: humans go first, doggies follow! Why is this so important? Because out in the wild, dogs will use their physical bodies to display leadership. The pack leader will literally nudge out, ahead of the pack, and either nip or growl when another pup gets out of line. Dogs are pack animals and there is only room for one leader. If you allow your dog to rush ahead of you ever, you’re effectively marking them the leader and robbing them of their opportunity to be calm and secure. You are stealing their stable state of mind.
So your exercise is to put into action this mantra. You can use any doorway, gate, or stairwell in your home to practice. Remember, dogs are a territorial species; therefore, you will want to “own” the space with your body by standing in front of the door. Pretending they have a bubble around them and you have one around you, go to open the door. If your hound rushes in excitement, gently tap back the “bubble”. You can use your body to close the territory off or a gentle tap with your foot to their chest to back them up. You will continue to do this delicate dance until the dog’s psyche snaps into the calm stable mindset and follows you rather than you follow him or her out the door. If your dog ends up just sitting at the open door, give it time. Refrain from saying “Lets Go!” or “Come On!” which could snap the dog back into an excited mindset. It may take several tries! The more you work on this action in your home and on walks, the more you reaffirm to your dog who the pack leader is. And if they believe that you are indeed the pack leader, they can relax into a calm, stable mindset and even into a better pup!
The Stable Crate of Mind
If you are crate training for the first time or have been for a while now, be mindful of your dog’s demeanor when they exit their crate. You want them to be in a calm, stable state before you allow them to pass from their dwelling. This may seem like an incidental detail but it’s fundamental to a dog’s mindset. That action of rushing out of the crate in an excitable mindset is actually being rewarded by you (getting out of crate=reward). Over time, this consistent reward encourages them to live in that excitable, super high energy state. Allowing it to happen, especially if they are pawing at the crate door, puts your dog in full control of the situation.
SO, before you do anything, wait for your dog to relax. Be careful not to make eye contact with your dog or speak in high pitch frequencies as that can generate unwanted, excitable energy. In fact, it’s best to remain quiet and simply exude your own calm energy. Ignore any barking, pawing, or whining (all displays of frustration) by simply standing in front of the crate or walking away. Only when your dog is calm and quiet, do you reach to open the crate door. If your dog rushes forward, close the door and try again. It may take several minutes, and many tries but as you practice this, it will become the routine not only with the crate, but with all gates and doorways.
Food Bowl Etiquette
Food is the number one reward for animals. In the wild, the alpha controls the food and thereby sets up the hierarchy of eating within the pack. Your job as the pack leader is to assume this role and teach your dog what is and is not acceptable. Your dog should always be in a calm, stable state before you place their food in front of them. If you notice over excitement, whining, barking, or other signs of agitation then placing the food down in front of them would only serve as a reward for that unstable behavior! Take the time to improve this event by placing the food down, territorially take it over by standing in front of it and play zone defense. If your pup rushes the bowl simply tap them back with foot. Only when you’ve commanded their calm, stable attention, then you can simply walk away from the food bowl. No words needed! If you practice this at every feeding, it will soon become routine and your dog will attribute good behavior with the highest reward. I also don’t recommend leaving food out for dogs to graze on as this goes against their nature and gives your dog more control. If they aren’t interested in their food, it’s possible they don’t like it, it upsets their stomach in some way or simply are not hungry. Perhaps try switching up the food to find something they take to, consider adding a scoop of unsweetened 100% organic pumpkin purée or just wait till next feeding.