Recalcitrant Rovers

by J. Michael Evans

Dogs, like wolves, are pack animals by nature and instinct. Pack animals are social by nature and live in family groups. The very survival of the pack requires that the welfare of the pack take precedence over the individual and the pack must work together as a unit to successfully hunt, defend territory and to rear their young. Pack animals establish a dominance hierarchy which provides structure and leadership. The presiding pack leader, or Alpha, keeps order within the pack and informs other wolves of their status. Depending on the Alpha's style of leadership, the role might be that of a dictator or a guide, or the Alpha might adopt either of these roles at different times. All subordinate wolves look to this Alpha for leadership and direction. Only the Alpha wolf is dominant to all other pack members.

Domestication has not nullified in the dog this ardent need to lead or be led. While dogs are distinctly different from wolves in some respects, in other matters they still behave quite similarly - especially in their need for an Alpha figure to guide them and in their need for social companionship. Failing the presence of an Alpha your dog will presume this position itself. For your dog, there should be absolutely no question as to who the Alpha-figure is in its life. You are; or more accurately, you'd better be!

Some dog trainers (particularly those who subscribe to the German style of using negative reinforcement to teach the dog to avoid correction) express the above theories to their students in ways that accentuate the "control" the owner must gain to be the "boss". Trainers might be heard to say, " Let him know who's boss!" and then demonstrate basic physical corrections to whatever problem is at hand. The trouble is that just applying those few corrections -- even if they do seem to address the behavior problem at hand -- will not, by itself, elevate the timid owner to anything approximating Alpha status in the dog's mind. In fact, the dog might rebel fiercely, getting into a dominance fight with the owner. It might correct itself on one set of problems (say, destructive chewing) and substitute another (house soiling instead of chewing).

A better approach to behavior problems in dogs is to change the relationship between the dog and owner. Trust and respect are the foundation blocks of a good relationship and are developed through consistency, firmness and kindness. If you are experiencing any of the following problems with your dog then you need to read on.

From the beginning, your dog has received cues from you which have led him to conclude that you are not the pack leader. In the absence of your leadership your dog has endeavored to fill the role of Alpha. How easy or difficult it will be to correct his problem behaviors depends upon the quality of your relationship with your dog and the degree of assertiveness and agressiveness which is natural to your dog. Your dog may regard you as a friend, a companion, a littermate, a provider or all of the above, but you are not regarded as the Alpha.


Just as it took a series of cues to convince your dog that you are not its leader, it will take a series of steps to teach the dog that you are worthy of respect, trust and above all its dominant pack leader. Today the information available to us about dog behavior and articles addressing problem behavior are more available. Carol Lea Benjamine's "Alpha Primer" (American Kennel Gazette, September 1985) , "Alphabetizing Your Self" by Terry Ryan, and Peter Vollmer's "Super Puppy Book" are excellent. A great basic obedience book is Barbara Handler's "Basic Obedience" which emphasizes positive reinforcement behvior modification.

J. Michael Evans presents the following RRRR (RADICAL REGIMEN FOR RECALCITRANT ROVERS) program of 2 exercises you can use to convince your dog that you are the boss. He warns not to modify the program, and keep it up until the behavior problem stops. Obviously, act on the problem(s) itself using sensible and humane methods while working on your whole relationship.

1) Give your dog two obedience sessions a day practicing whatever exercise the dog knows. These sessions should be 10 - 20 minutes long. Do not praise physically during this session. Use only verbal praise and keep the session moving. Move quickly, be enthusiastic. No corrections. Ignore incorrect behavior, start over. Praise only correct behavior.

2) Put your dog into a 30 minute down each day. This is very important. These downs can be done during TV shows, dinner, reading, etc.. Enforce it! If your dog doesn't know the down, teach it immediately, as well as the stay command. For now, stand or sit on the leash to force the dog to maintain a down position.