How to Rule Your Dog's World

There seem to be a lot of dog owners out there who are worried about being pushed around by their dogs. Clients come to me all the time asking for reassurance that they are not somehow being drawn into total control by their canine companion.

Here’s how I determine who is in charge. If you were trapped in your house with your dog, and the only thing to eat was a can of beef stew, who would open the can? Whoever opens the can is in charge. (If you're thinking your dog would simply eat you instead of waiting for beef stew, you have a bigger issue than we're talking about here!)

The fact is your dog is always trapped in the house, unless you open the door. In my mind, that’s a whole lot of power!

Unless he runs away, your dog can’t eat, go outside, get medical help, get attention or petting, get water (unless the toilet seat is up) or a myriad of other things without you! You are the giver and keeper of all things good. How much more does one need in order to be the ruler?

The problem that some owners face is that they don’t see the power they have and they are careless with the distribution of resources. They open doors for anyone who barks at them, they hand out attention to unruly dogs, they dole out treats for free and they secretly fill a food bowl without ever taking credit for it.

This is reminiscent of children who grow up with a sense of entitlement. They are never given the opportunity to earn what they have or appreciate the people who give it to them. What would motivate someone to earn something through good behavior, if whining and pouting is what makes things happen?

Let’s say the person with the resources (you), was very careful with how these resources were handed down. For instance, in order to get the ruler to open the door, one would have to sit nicely and look up at that ruler. In order to get a meal, one would have to earn it with sits, downs and rolling over, one piece at a time. In order to go for a walk, one would have to sit nicely to receive the privilege of having a leash attached to one’s collar, then walk politely to the door.

What a difference this would make! Suddenly, the person with all the resources is very, very important. Suddenly, being obedient and polite is the only ticket to all things wonderful. There is no time or reason for jumping up, barking or whining, because these things produce nothing. And boy you’d sit when that person says sit, because you never know what fantastic gift you might miss out on! Heck, it might mean the difference between going to the dog park and spending the day at home alone!

I find that many an owner will tell me, “I tried that, but he wouldn’t do it.” The problem is usually not that the dog wouldn’t comply, but that the owner gave the dog the resource anyway. Big mistake! In the beginning, there will be some missed walks, a missed meal or missed opportunities for petting and playing. To rephrase an old saying, “No one changes until staying the same becomes more uncomfortable than changing.”

There’s no need to make the consequences of your dog’s current behavior painful by physically punishing him. No need to engage in power struggles through alpha rolling and scruff shaking. Simply withhold the resources that you own and allow your dog to make a choice. What makes this so effective is the fact that dogs generally do what gets them the things they need. That’s how they became domesticated in the first place!

I promise that your dog is not going to go very long without getting a meal. He won’t go very long without your attention either. Unlike humans, dogs have no need for stubbornness; it’s not in their best interest. Dogs are quick to learn the rules, as long as the rules are clear and consistent.

In the end, while dogs don’t have opposable thumbs, their owners rule the world. Take back your power by being a benevolent leader who is happy to provide every wonderful thing for your dog, on the condition that your dog earns every wonderful thing. (Of course, a truly kind ruler will occasionally bestow free offerings on the most loyal subjects.)