The role of pack leader for your dog

Where a cat is clearly an independent creature; a dog by its nature is a social animal. In fact, being part of a pack or a family positively affects its psychophysical wellness by lessening the risk of behavioural problems. However, as in the wolf pack, man’s best friend needs a leader and this should ideally be the owner. Dr Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in pet behaviour helps us to investigate how best to establish yourself as pack leader.

The pack leader: dictatorial or charismatic?

Electric ‘training’ collars, isolation or physical punishment were just some of the tools used to support the owner/pack leader that were inspired by a single conviction: that the dog had to be forced into submission by imposing strict rules. However, studies on animal behaviour have literally trashed this approach by confirming the quadruped’s collaborative nature and its predisposition to follow instruction. In addition, the dog has a strong desire to understand and communicate with human beings so it adapts its behaviour and language accordingly. Have you ever seen a dog woof to communicate the same way men use words? This mimicking behaviour is your dog attempting to do just that!

The ideal pack leader: an authoritative strategist

How then should the owner adopt the role of pack leader? First of all, establish a reference point, a safe, secure base from which to return: a place where the dog feels no fear but associates it with positive experiences.

Secondly, a true pack leader must guide the dog in its behaviour, rewarding the good and ignoring (not punishing) any undesired behaviour. Like any family leader, the pack leader has to be able to manage situations, giving the pet a sense of security and using consistent language. For example, if your dog fears its counterparts you shouldn’t force them together. You should first get close to the other dogs yourself using a relaxed, cheerful tone and then invite your pet to come closer offering rewards with each sign of progress. Using this strategy will allay your dog’s fear of others: the situation will become predictable and the leader of the pack will represent a secure base from which to start exploring other dogs or any other unfamiliar situation.

A good pack leader must therefore use brains over brawn when dealing with a situation involving his pack. He has to recognise a dog’s dissimilarities in language, cognitive ability and consequently its different perception of reality. Only with this perspective shift will the elements necessary for a human to be a true pack leader bear fruit: earning the respect of your dog, and building an authentic relationship of cooperation.