The Colin’s Pack Guide to a Happy Life with Your Dog – By Colin West
So, you’ve adopted or bought a dog. Now what? Below is a an introduction to the basics of how dogs think, and what they need from you in order to have a fulfilled and functional life in our human world. It will explain a dog’s pack mentality, and it will provide you with an introduction to understanding why dogs need a pack leader, why you should be one, and how to be a good one. This guide is the result of my experience of working with dogs in packs for slightly over 3 years, watching and studying Cesar Millan’s techniques and philosophy, observing the dogs first hand, and making lots of mistakes. I continue to learn from the dogs, so please take this guide as a blueprint of best practices that I have found. However, I encourage you to follow your own instincts, and learn and improve through your own trial and error. With that being said, this guide will give you a great start in the right direction.
Why Be the Pack Leader?
Dogs are pack animals, like us, and all pack animals need leadership in order to function as a pack. Humans form republics, democracies, company structures, etc. in order to create functional packs. Dogs keep it simple; one dog, or a breeding pair, leads. For a pack made up of humans and dogs, the leader will be the most stable, strongest minded animal; if you do not lead, your dog will likely take that position. The physical does not matter so much as the mental; the leader could be a strong minded pet bird, and in most dog and cat relationships it is the cat.. It is instinctive to dogs to follow the strongest mind, because in the wild, that will help ensure the pack’s and their own survival.
If you are not viewed by your dog as a human who is able to lead, then your dog will take it upon himself to lead, whether he knows what to do or not. This is where problem behaviors can arise. When a dog takes the leadership position in a human household in a human world, he will start to do behaviors that come natural to a pack leader; defending his home and his pack on walks–becoming territorial and leash aggressive, defending his food and toys and sleeping space–becoming possessive, and having “bad” behavior,(but really just normal behavior for a pack leader in the wild however). When you are seen clearly as the leader who controls the environment and the pack, your dog will be able to relax and surrender to your good leadership.
Being a pack leader however is more than just being dominant, you must also be a good pack leader. We must be dominant, but we must also create a stable environment and structure in which your dog can thrive and be fulfilled. If you are able to accomplish a healthy, fulfilling and functional relationship with your dog, both of your lives will be that much better.
STEP 1) THE ENERGY OF A LEADER:
If you want to be the pack leader, you have to have the energy of a pack leader, and that energy is calm and assertive.
It’s an energy that is always stable, grounded, and powerful. True personal power doesn’t often get upset, frustrated, fearful, etc.; it simply handles the situation and does what needs to be done. Dogs will absorb and vibrate at the energy level that you share with them, and you want that to be a healthy one. To have a stable dog, you must have a stable and balanced energy in your home. Over time, by practicing a calm and assertive way of being, and applying that energy to certain rituals in your relationship, your dog will come to see you clearly as the pack leader, and you can begin to have a fulfilling relationship with your dog.
A simple example of how problems can be created is this: If you are constantly nervous, your dog will be too, and he will see you as being in a weak state, he will understand that you’re not in a position to lead, and he will take the leadership position. In this case, you would now have a nervous, dominant dog, and this would likely be the beginning of your dog developing issues such as nervous aggression. It’s that simple.
Your dog wants to know that you can control the situation before he will be willing to surrender, and as long as you can, he will usually be happy to give up responsibility. By claiming the leadership position, you will lift the burden of responsibility from your dog’s shoulders. Along the way to becoming the right energy, you will likely run into roadblocks that are preventing you from behaving the way you’d like. I recommend following those roadblocks back to their root, making the appropriate life change, and then repeating that until you reach your goal. When you aim for any goal, the roadblocks you run into are like signals for things that you need to figure out and conquer before you can grow.
STEP 2) EXERCISE:
Exercise is vital to your dog’s well being, and the most primitive and deeply rooted exercise for your dog is to travel long distances with his pack, (you).
Dogs are descendants of wolves, and like wolves, or any other wild dog relative, they are hardwired to travel constantly and to work for their food. According to wolf.org, “They [wolves] may travel 50 miles or more each day in search of food, and they are superbly designed for a life on the move.” If you take those strong instincts to travel miles every day and to work hard for food, and you shut them up in a house or apartment, it’s a torture for your dog, who just wants to fulfill his duties and to work, and it is going to stifle a very essential part of his life. Though one may argue that dogs have come a long way from their wolf ancestors, (some dog breeds more than others), it is still engrained in the DNA of any dog to travel.
The distance that your dog will need to travel will depend on the energy level and the breed and size of your dog. Don’t worry too much about how much work this will take on your part, I have some very convenient tips further down on how to exercise your dog without using too much of your own energy. Once you have found a sufficient exercise routine that works for you and fulfills your dog, you can just stay consistent, and you will be amazed at the positive change you will see in your dog’s behavior. As a reference point: medium level energy dogs will need about an hour and a half of walking-type exercise to be fulfilled each day. I will cover the best types of traveling-like exercise below.
TYPES OF EXERCISE:
Walking is the best option for low level energy dogs and some medium level energy dogs. The best part of a walk for a dog is when you have been moving long enough for your dog’s mind to “switch” into a traveling mode; basically the meditative, mindless state that a dog or wolf get’s into when they plan to travel long distances. This is the same state of mind that runners or swimmers get into when they are just, “in the zone.” This state of mind is also what keeps those runners or swimmers coming back; it is a time to clear there mind, to get their alpha brain waves going, and to rejuvenate themselves with physical work.
Being “in the zone” is the state of mind that you see in the picture above. For medium and low level energy dogs, a long walk might be enough to get them into the zone, but for higher level energy dogs, this might not be enough of a challenge, which is where the next section will be relevant. But first, I will address a question you might be asking: “But what about smelling? My dog loves to smell, so I usually let him smell whatever he likes in order to make him happy.” It’s true, dogs do like to smell, but they also like to work and to travel, and the latter two are more important to his well being. So, I recommend picking out 2-3 spots along the way where you can let your dog smell for 2 minutes or so each, before you return to your traveling mode. I like to let my two dogs smell and pee once at the beginning of our walk/bike-ride, and once in the middle, which leaves plenty of un-interrupted time in between for them to get into the zone. Now, let’s talk about my personal favorite way to exercise dogs: biking.
Running, Biking, or Rollerblading/Something with wheels:
If your dog is high energy, and a walk isn’t enough, then running, biking, or rollerblading are the best options. If you bike or rollerblade while your dog runs, you will spend less energy while your dog spends more, and this is a very efficient way to get your dog the exercise that he or she needs. Dogs want to move, and they will usually only veer to the right or left if they have extra energy that has no direction. The solution is simple: go faster. Once you bike at a speed that allows your dog to really let out all of his energy, he will begin to lose energy quickly, and then you can bring the speed down into a more sustainable pace. After a dog has learned that he can channel his energy forward, he will be less likely to veer to the right or left, and to instead trot next to you. Trotting is a very natural speed for most dogs, and the speed of the trot will depend on your dog’s energy level. Learning to bike with your dog can be a life saver for both you and your dog. I think you will be surprised at how effective a long bike ride can be for bringing peace into your home; it has become the primary way that I exercise my dogs.
Before the Walk:
Have your dog in the right state of mind before you leave your home; this will make it easier for you to maintain a good state of mind on the walk. It’s easiest to have your dog in the right state of mind if you have been following a consistent exercise routine, and the energy in your home is already balanced, (see the above sections). When you decide to go on a walk, run, etc., your dog will already be excited enough once you grab the leash and bags, and I do not recommend exciting your dog more by speaking; this will work against your goal of keeping the walk/outing under control. Once you are ready to leave, I recommend standing with your back to your door with a calm and assertive energy, which is basically claiming the door as your possession, (and setting the tone for the walk: you will be leading). Wait for your dog(s) to come to you, to calm down, sit down, and look you in the eyes. Then, you can put the leash on. For high energy dogs, or for all dogs that aren’t completely balanced and well-behaved, I recommend a leash that will give you more control; a slip lead high on the neck, behind the ears is my favorite option. Once you open the door, I recommend making your dog wait one more moment for your leadership to “sink in,” then walk out of the door first and close it behind you.
During the Walk:
I recommend letting your dog pee/poop right off the bat, so that you can put that aside and start getting them into a traveling mode. From then on, move at a pace that allows you to keep your dog at your side or behind you throughout the walk, taking 1 or 2 breaks to smell, but leaving enough un-interrupted time for you both to get into the zone. Smelling should not take more than about 5 minutes of your walk. It’s important to have your dog beside you or behind you; you can’t lead a walk with your dog in front. If your dog starts to go in front of you, or to pull you to the side, it is best to correct your dog by pulling his neck to the side (toward you) with the appropriate force, but always make sure to release the tension afterward. If your dog is constantly pulling you, I recommend using a bike or rollerblades to allow you to move at a challenging speed.
STEP 3) DISCIPLINE:
Have clear rules, boundaries, and limitations for your dog.
Discipline is not just rules, boundaries and limitations, it is anything that involves structure. There is no way for an animal to exist without discipline, whether it be the discipline to get up and go to work, to hunt, or to migrate. If your dog has disciplined activities to match his energy level, he will be a much more balanced and content dog. Following rules, boundaries, and routines is essential to the survival of animals in a pack, and it will come very naturally to your dog to follow these rules once you have made them clear. Your job as pack leader is to protect, direct, and set the rules. It is your job to make it clear what behavior is expected, and what is not allowed.
No touch, no talk, no eye contact:
An important rule when guests meet your dog or when you come home is: no touch, no talk, no eye contact. By immediately paying attention to your dog, it will put you in a follower position. By going about your business while your dog sniffs you, you are letting him know that have the situation under control and that your world doesn’t revolve around him. Breaking down for your dog is not a favor, but it is just a passing of responsibility to your dog, and will confuse him as to who is in charge. Don’t worry, there is a time and place for affection, just not right when you come home!
“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” – Emerson (Not that friendships are the same as your relationship with your dog, but the same point; real love doesn’t always have to be soft.)
It is important that your dog knows who controls the house. You should be able to walk where you want, sit where you want, sleep where you want, all without being disturbed. You should also be able to take away any toy, bone, or space from your dog without any challenge. You should be able to do anything you want, however long you want to in your own home. This clear hierarchy will allow your dog to relax, and know that he shouldn’t attempt to claim areas of your home or possessions, because they’re already taken. This ownership of your home should extend to all people living in your home, and to guests. That’s why it’s important that all people follow the same rules, especially no touch, no talk, no eye contact when entering; when humans act like the pack leaders, your dog will feel comfortable and surrender. If you ever need to disagree with your dog’s behavior, your main tool will be your calm and assertive energy, and a touch if needed. Remember, you own your house, and you should be able to be free and do what you want, it will actually make your dog feel safe.
In nature, dogs only eat after they have worked hard to make a kill. Similarly, when we feed a dog after they have been exercised, this fulfills their basic instinct to work for food. It allows them to feel that they earned it. Therefore, it is important to set up a feeding ritual with your dog. I recommend only feeding your dog after their most intensive exercise of the day, for the reasons described above. Don’t leave the food down all day for your dog; this will take all of the reward and fulfillment out of the food. When you are preparing the food, have your dog wait outside of your personal space. Once you are finished, go to where you will feed your dog, have them sit or lie down, look you in the eyes, and then give it to them. Pack leaders control the food. Having your dogs sit, and look you in the eyes before they receive their food reminds them that you control the food, and it also helps keep them from being fixated on the food. By setting up a regular feeding routine, your dog will get the fulfillment every day of working, and then eating, and this will help improve his state of mind. Just like petting, food is affection, and should be given when your dog is calm and submissive to nurture that state of mind.
STEP 4) SOCIALIZATION AND AFFECTION:
Dogs are social animals, and they need interactions with other dogs to truly live a fulfilled life.
Neighborhood Dogs, or Owning Multiple Dogs:
Group walks, or owning more than one dog are great ways to fulfill your dog’s instincts to socialize. Any time that your dog get’s to travel with another dog(s) as a pack, it will be fulfilling to him. Going on a hike with your dog(s) and a friend’s dogs, or going to the beach are great ways to fulfill their need to socialize. Just remember to have you and your friend be seen clearly by all dogs as the pack leader so that the dogs don’t feel the need to compete for that position.
If you are going to use a boarding or doggy day care facility, use one that provides the dogs with structured exercise if possible. To put is simply; putting a lot of dogs with pent up energy in the same place with no structure or authority is asking for trouble. Boarding facilities are actually a place where dogs can pick up unwanted behaviors, and if a dog already has issues, a boarding or day care facility will probably make them worse. If you want to use a boarding or day care facility, I recommend finding one that offers structured exercise and that has some understanding of dog psychology.
Dog parks can have the same problems that boarding facilities have: multiple dogs with pent up energy, no structured way to release it, and no clear authority figure. Many dogs are brought to the dog park as a substitute for a walk or run, which means the dog has pent-up energy to release there. With no clear activities, dogs may try to run in circles, play too rough, etc, which are things that most dogs consider unstable behavior. So, you will often have dogs that are playing and trying to release their pent-up energy, and you also have dogs that are trying to correct their excited, unstable behavior, which can result in dogs trying to dominate each other or a fight. I think dog parks would be a great place if all of the dogs went on a long walk together as a pack, and then got to play and socialize after at the dog park. But, that’s not usually the case. Keep in mind that for your dog to trust you, he expects you to be in control of the situations that you bring him into, and if you bring him around dogs that are dominant, rude, or unbalanced, and you don’t control the situation, then he will lose trust and respect for you. As the pack leader, you have to control the situation, and if you don’t, then you are putting that responsibly on him.
Dog Pack Hikes:
Dog pack hikes are, in my opinion, the best way for a dog to socialize. The most natural way for dogs to connect is by traveling as a pack in nature; it releases any tension, and makes them feel as though they depend on each other for survival. Bringing the dogs together as a pack also requires a pack leader, which allows them to have protection and direction.
If you think about it, traveling as a pack through nature following a strong pack leader is just about an exact imitation of how dogs live in the wild. Dog pack hikes fulfill dogs on a very deep, instinctual level. Remember; dogs have instincts to be part of a pack and to travel because it is those very instincts that keep them alive in the wild, and if the instincts are denied, dogs can start to feel anxiety that they are not doing what they need to do in order to survive, which is understandable. After a pack hike, dogs will sleep in a way like no other, knowing that they’ve done what they needed to do that day in order to survive.
“So when can I pet him?” I will say this: all things that are worth something take time. If you just pet your dog all of the time, then your affection won’t mean anything. I believe that, once you learn to fulfill your dog through exercise and discipline, you won’t feel the need to pet them as much, and in a way, the whole process of living together will become an affectionate act, with actual physical affection just being the cherry on top. To me, this is what real love with our dogs is all about. That being said, the times when your dog is most open to affection are when he is happy and fulfilled. I’ve noticed that my dogs are the most playful and receptive after they have been exercised and eaten at the end of the day. It’s also natural for African wild dogs and wolves to play at this time. So, this is the time that I usually share affection with them. The better you fulfill your dog, the more rewarding your affectionate time will be with him. Keep in mind that if you are the one that pets him too much or at the wrong times, it will be you that loses his respect.
You will nurture whatever state of mind your dog is in at the time that you pet him, so I recommend only petting him when he is submissive and calm or playful. Also, don’t break yourself for your dog; it’s a pleasure for your dog to get to play with “the big dog,” (you), so stay in control while you pet your dog, he will enjoy it more. Also, if he gets too excited, it should be you that keeps it balanced, and puts an end to the play time. Keep in mind that if you nurture a dysfunctional relationship at home, your dog will be more likely to take control on your walks and misbehave. Sometimes we like to pet our dogs to try and make up for something they’re missing in their lives, like exercise, discipline, or socialization, but there is no substitute for those things, and petting your dog excessively will actually lead to confusion and lack of respect, not fulfillment.
So, take your time, and learn through trial and error when and how much physical affection to give your dog.
Hopefully this has shed some light on the psychology of your dog, and the understanding that we use at Colin’s Pack. For more information on dog psychology, I recommend watching “The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” on Nat Geo Wild or Netflix. I hope you enjoy the guide, and I hope you enjoy exploring the potential of your relationship with your dog!
By Colin West
Thank you Colin. A great article that sheds light on dog behavior.
It’s obvious you’re more than a neighborhood dog walker.
No problem, I’m glad you liked it.