Follow simple tips to become leader of the pack
Food and rewards are powerful reinforcers to teaching your dog who's boss. Dog trainers Mark Peters and Rosemarie Tang share some insights into becoming leader of the pack.
'Eating before the dog is to communicate to it in dog language. [You can] establish natural pack hierarchy by having the leader and ranking pack members [family members] eat first,' explains Peters, a Welshman who runs dog training, pet-sitting and pet-relocation services at Wish You Were Here.
'It's not about just eating before the dog. It's about showing the dog that the alpha dog [the dog owner] or alpha pair have eaten before it. It should understand that all humans are above it in the pack so having different people feed it is important. But they must eat before they give the dog its food.'
The practice, says Peters, is called gesture eating, originally coined by author Jan Fennell of The Dog Listener.
By giving dog owners first priority to eat, this display shows the rest of the pack, or your dog in the house, that the humans are unequivocally the leaders.
'[In the wild] pack members would not approach or challenge the pack leader or challenge while it ate,' says Peters. 'The dogs would watch from a distance, so you should not give any eye contact or talk to your dog while you take your time eating your food.'
Dog trainer Tang at Animal Behaviour Veterinary Practice says eating before the dog isn't a major determinant of establishing your rank in the dog's social hierarchy.
'We assume the rank is maintained by physical strength and dominance. Eating before the dog doesn't really put you in a higher ranking,' asserts Tang, who has been a San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-certified dog trainer and behaviour counsellor since 2000.
'To be the top dog [in the home], people assume you have to be dominant and more aggressive, but in a true hierarchy, you don't have to be dominant. A true top dog will more likely share its toys, bones or sleeping place.'
When showing who is boss, it's best to share the responsibility with all the family members. As humans control everything a domestic dog receives: food, walking, playtime and attention, humans are by default the boss, says Tang.
'Your dog needs to be obedient and earn its keep before it gets anything. Nothing is for free, and you can make your dog work for your attention and you can get more respect.'
If one family member seems to get more respect from the animal than others, Tang says the respected member may be giving the dog more reinforcement. So, to increase your level of respect, increase the value of your reward.