In quite a lot of cases where I’m called in to help a family with their dog’s misbehavior, I quickly find out that the dog is not the problem. In fact, some people have told me that I turned out to be more of a marriage counselor than a dog behaviorist.
AsI often say, humans like to think that we’re not pack animals, but we are. And we need to remember that, when we bring dogs into the household, we are not creating two separate packs.
Every member of that household, human or dog, is a member of the same pack. We can run into trouble two ways. First, when we forget that we’re all one pack. Second, when we forget who the leaders are.
On the human side of the equation, everybody has to be on the same page. This means that everyone is responsible for enforcing the same rules, boundaries, and limitations for the dogs consistently. If Mom doesn’t want the dog on the couch but the kids are constantly letting the dog jump up there and stay, this just confuses the dog, until one day Dad tells the dog to get down and gets bitten for his efforts.
To the humans in this scenario, they don’t know what went wrong. Their “perfect” dog just turned on one of them one day for “no reason,” and suddenly there’s a big trust issue in the relationship. To the dog, that couch became “his” because some human pack members allowed him up and he couldn’t understand why only a couple of them tried to chase him out of his territory, so he finally chose to defend it.
It’s also extremely important in any family pack with dogs for the humans to be calm with each other, even when there are disagreements. Show me a family that has loud arguments all the time, and I’ll bet that their dog is anxious, fearful, and constantly barking. And if the dog interprets a very vocal argument as a fight and is a middle-of-the-pack dog, then she is going to try to intervene and break it up.
If you want to see middle-of-the-pack dogs in action as mediators, next time you’re in a dog park and a couple of dogs get into a tussle, watch what happens with the other dogs. Some of them will immediately rush toward the commotion to try to settle things down.
So, to avoid the problem of forgetting that we are all one pack in the household, everybody has to agree what the dogs can and cannot do, everybody has to agree how they’re going to enforce the rules, and then everybody has to enforce them the same way. Then, everyone has to learn how to deal with each other calmly. I know this can be difficult with children of a certain age, because every imagined slight by a sibling can become high drama, so it’s the job of the parents to maintain that calm energy.
If Billy comes into the kitchen screaming that Sally broke his favorite toy, don’t start the conversation until he’s calmed down. This is exactly the same as not showing affection to a dog that is excited, anxious, or fearful. Don’t reinforce the behavior you don’t want; engage with the behavior that you do want. It works for dogs, kids, spouses, and people in general.
Those are the steps to take to make sure that all the humans and dogs are part of the same pack, but the second part is just as important, maybe more so. We cannot forget who the leaders of the pack are: the humans. And this means every human in the house, whether it’s a parent, grandparent, teenager, child, or even a baby.
It may seem obvious that adults and teens can naturally be pack leaders, but you’re probably thinking right now, “How can a baby be a pack leader?” Or even a toddler. The answer is simple. For children who are too young to actively lead the dogs, everyone else in the house must claim the space around them. Just as you teach the dog to stay off of the couch by claiming that space, you teach a dog that the baby is higher in the pack hierarchy by creating the same boundary around it. The dog cannot invade the baby’s space, but only enter it when you give the invitation.
Dogs understand this instinctively because it’s exactly what mother dogs do with their puppies. Not even the father is allowed to approach a mother with her litter in the den, and it’s a boundary that the mother enforces very strongly, with calm, assertive energy.
Being Pack Leaders is a family affair, and it only works when the humans commit to do it together, as a pack within the pack. If your dogs are misbehaving, don’t blame them but do look to them — because their behaviors are sending you a clear description of exactly what is and isn’t working in the human part of the pack.
Stay calm, and work together!
Is everyone in your human pack working together with the dogs, or are there issues? Tell us about them in the comments!