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Best Behavior: Who's Leading Whom?

Excerpt from The Good Dog Library: Best Behavior by Dr. Nicholas D. Dodman

Most dogs are quite content to let the owner be the pack leader. But, a dog with dominant tendencies might attempt a "coup" if it perceives a lack of human leadership—for example, if the owner lets it get away with not obeying commands. "The dog might then think, "This group needs a leader, so I'll be it," says Dr. Flannigan.

If your dog refuses to obey commands, behaves protectively toward food or resting places, or—more seriously—growls at or nips family members, you may have a dominance problem on your hands. Consider implementing a "no free lunch" policy where your dog must work for everything—food, toys, even attention. Before permitting the dog to eat, issue a "sit" or "lie down" command. If your dog does not comply, don't feed him or her; simply walk away.

Physically or verbally punishing a dominant dog is unwise because the animal will view such behavior as a direct challenge and may react aggressively. Instead, take a less confrontational approach. For starters, keep your dog off your bed. Dogs allowed to sleep on their owner's bed sometimes view the privilege as proof of exalted status and try to take further advantage. Demote your dog to a comfortable bed—on the floor.

To reassert your leadership with an overly dominant dog, give the dog food, access to the outdoors, and attention only after a command is obeyed. Be patient: relegating a dominant dog to middle-rank status relative to you can take about two months. And be careful: some dominant dogs are very aggressive, so you may need help from an animal behaviorist.

For more tips on improving your dog’s behavior, purchase Best Behavior from Tufts Good Dog Library of Your Dog.