I was talking with a group of women about dog behavior over the weekend. One woman mentioned that she is more of a “litter mate” than a pack leader to her male standard poodle. This is not an uncommon situation for women with male dogs, particularly large breeds, but it can be easily fixed. Here are 6 steps you can take today to change the power dynamic with your male dog.
- Stand strong. Assertive behavior is rooted in your body. Take a lesson from yoga’s Mountain Pose for this one. With your feet shoulder distance apart, stand with your spine straight but relaxed, pelvis slightly tucked. Roll your shoulders back and let them float down your back. Your head should be balanced on your neck and chin should be at a 90 degree angle from the floor. Arms a short distance from your side, but slightly energized rather than just dangling. Take three deep breaths, becoming the mountain. This is the place from which to give your dog a command. Be the mountain when you are walking your dog on leash as well. Remember, as a woman your center of gravity is in your pelvis so wrap the leash behind your butt and hold it on both sides of your body for leverage when you need it.
- Neutral face. Your dog can read micro-expressions in your face. Dogs also receive your smile like praise, so whatever behavior he is exhibiting when you smile, you are rewarding and reinforcing. Instead, keep your face neutral as you give a command. Your eyes should look directly at him, with seriousness. Eyes are powerful. Dogs can make other dogs submit with a simple “hard stare” which is a tightening of the muscles around the eyes and not blinking. The hard stare is a tool you can use if your dog is not taking you seriously, but if you can’t pull off a hard stare, don’t worry about it. Keep your face neutral and serious instead.
- Deepen your voice. Male dogs test boundaries and they can sense weakness of resolve. When you speak to your dog with a high voice or with the sound of a question mark at the end of commands, you send a message that you are not serious. When you tell your male dog to do something, use a deeper voice than normal and make sure you sound serious to your own ears. If you are a parent, this is like saying “Go to your room,” to a child. You don’t need to say it like you are angry, but your voice should communicate that this is non-negotiable.
- Start with a look. Dogs who follow a leader look to the leader often. You want your dog to look to you for direction. Before giving any command, have your dog look at you by saying “look at me” and pointing to your eyes. If your dog won’t comply with this command, you need to do some bonding. Spend a few minutes each day with eye gazing. Make it relaxed and pleasurable by rubbing your dog’s face as you look into his eyes. Keep your eyes soft and tell him he’s a good boy any time he meets your gaze. Continue to reinforce this command by giving it several times every day-before he eats, before he goes outside, before he goes for a walk. Remember to capture good behavior by acknowledging your dog when he looks to you without being told to.
- Follow through. If you give your dog a command and he ignores it, you must follow through. If you fail to, you send the message that commands are negotiable and you are not in charge. It doesn’t work to tell him to do something over and over, you’ll just get frustrated. Instead go over to your dog and start again with “look at me.” Once he complies with that, reward him with a “good boy” and then give him the command that you originally gave. If he still doesn’t comply but his eyes are engaged with yours, he may not understand what you want. Training is an on-going process because instinctual drift (the tendency of an animal to revert to instinctive behavior, overriding a conditioned response) is a very real thing. If that seems to be what is going on, take a few minutes to re-teach your dog the behavior you are looking for.
- Reward good behavior. Dogs receive rewards through your facial expression (when you smile or laugh), verbally (“Good boy”), with touch or love, with other sounds (like a clicker) and with food. In training dogs, we like to use food as a last resort to get the behavior we are looking for. Unfortunately, food is usually the easiest reward to give, but it can be ineffective for long-term training objectives. Instead, try using the other rewards to get the behavior you want. Remember, your dog likely wants to please you so let him know when he does. Also remember that giving smiles, verbal recognition, touch or food when he is misbehaving is the easiest way to reinforce that behavior too.
To be a leader to your male dog, you have to lead. Effective leaders are assertive in their body, voice and follow-through. By practicing these steps you can shift your relationship with your dog to one that is positive for both of you.