In my new book “Lessons from the Pack,” one of the things I wrote is this: “The building blocks of pack leadership are respect and trust, not fear and domination.” How dogs teach us to respect is the lesson of the first chapter, and I cannot emphasize it enough.
If your dog doesn’t trust you, she’ll never respect you. Without those, she won’t follow you because you aren’t leading. People who try to use fear and domination on their dogs may think they have loyal, obedient animals, but they don’t. At the very least, this kind of style will create a fearful, anxious dog. At the worst, it’s laying the groundwork for the dog to one day attack the human.
So how do we earn our dogs’ trust and respect?
Keep calm and lead on
The first and most important thing we can do, of course, is to stay calm. Dogs are very tuned-in to our energy. To them, our “names” are the combination of our energy and scent. And, like all animals, they will do what they can to avoid unbalanced or chaotic energy.
Why is this? Probably because this kind of energy is very unpredictable, and animals like to feel secure or in control in a situation. While they may follow you if your energy is excited, they will also mirror this state — and an excited dog will not be entirely focused on you.
Another thing that an excited dog may do is jump on you in greeting, which is showing that the dog has no respect for you because they’re invading your space. It can only take a few excited greetings like this to teach the dog to behave like that all the time with everyone.
Speaking of space…
Just as a dog jumping on a human shows them no respect, it works the other way around, too, which is why you should never invade a dog’s space when meeting them. This is what my “no touch, no talk, no eye contact” rule is all about.
If you’ve ever watched two strange dogs meet, you’ve seen that they don’t immediately go face-to-face. They start to take in each other’s scents while they are still a public distance apart, and then tend to approach each other side to side. And, of course, they’ll probably sniff each other’s butts.
To a dog’s nose, this action comes with a wealth of information: “Have we met before? How’s your diet? Are you a boy or a girl?” They do the same thing to us as well, whether or not they actually stick their noses in our business. And once the dog has checked you out, he’ll decide whether to engage or ignore you. Don’t take it personally if he does the latter. It just means he feels comfortable around you.
Take a walk
The walk is the single best bonding experience you can have with your dog, since it mimics the movement of a pack in the wild. The leash is also a constant means of communication between you both. If you conduct the walk while you are feeling calm and confident, your dog will understand that you are providing protection and direction.
By teaching your dog to always stay to your side and slightly behind you, you help emphasize who is following whom, and by remaining calm and not tensing up on the leash, you teach your dog how to relax and just be a dog instead of worrying about protecting you.
Remember I mentioned that dogs don’t like things that are unpredictable? This is why it’s so important to establish a routine with your dog and to keep it. If walks, meals, and bedtimes are not generally regular, it can make your dog anxious or frustrated.
Repetition is how dogs make associations until they have connected certain actions. When these are things you want your dog to do, like sit on command, it’s great. But we also have to be careful to not accidentally teach our dogs to do the wrong things, like freaking out on sight of the vacuum cleaner.
Being consistent with those things you do want will help reinforce the behavior in your dog — a particular word from you always means they perform a particular action.
When you provide all of these things for your dog, she will learn to trust you and from that trust come respect and love. Your dog will follow you because she wants to, not because you’ve forced her to, making for the perfect relationship.
Stay calm and build that leadership!