How to Show Dominance Over Your Puppy (While Rocking a Pair of Leg Warmers)

It might make a lot of sense to ask the question, “How can I show dominance over my puppy?”

If it were 1983.

In 1983, dog owners, trainers and veterinarians based their understanding of dog behavior on wolf behavior. Problem was, back then scientists had access to information only about captive wolves. Captive wolves, we now know, do not act like normal, wild wolves. And this is important, because wild wolves thrive using cooperation, not competition. In other words, the model of a pack with a dominance hierarchy is much less relevant for understanding normal wolves than is the model of a family (think “mother” and “father” rather than “alpha”). The parents do not intimidate, physically dominate, threaten, bully or (literally and figuratively) need to stay on top of younger wolves to keep the family running smoothly. 

Sure, we all miss some familiar things that were popular in the 80’s. We may think back with nostalgia to leg warmers (like, totally) or Duran Duran. But not everything that made sense in 1983 has relevance any longer.

Now it is 2013. The updated science goes like this: yes, wolves are the ancestors of dogs. Wild wolves, that is, with wild wolf family structures and the behaviors that make those hum along. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how dogs were domesticated, or if they domesticated themselves, or some other option. In any case, from scientific observation of stray dogs in a variety of countries and situations, we know that domestic dogs who live as strays without a human family may form temporary pairs or small groups, but they do not form packs with strict hierarchies. Further, dogs who do live with human families don’t relate to the people as two-legged dogs.

According to preeminent veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall, “By thoughtlessly using the word pack, we have assumed that humans must be the leaders of the pack. This assumption has caused us to behave badly toward animals. While we care for dogs, they know that we are not dogs, and their relationships with dogs and humans will differ. We can best understand the complex interdependent relationship between dogs and humans by letting go of the pack concept.”

(Read what other scientists have to say here,  here and here.) 

So, while it may have been logical based on what we thought we knew decades ago, it doesn’t make sense any longer to raise and train puppies or dogs using dominance as the model. Since that’s not how dogs operate, doing so would be unlikely to produce the training results you hope for and could even cause unintended problems, as I am sure you can imagine.

Instead, create boundaries, respect your dog’s needs, and cultivate a peaceful household using updated training techniques and information about how dogs communicate. To quote Karen Overall again from her article referenced above, “We can use this new scientific knowledge about dogs to help us address canine behaviors that we or the dog find problematic. Fixing problematic canine behavior is actually not about control, leadership or mastery of the dog—it’s about increasing the chance that you can signal clearly to the dog, that you have the dog’s undivided attention while signaling, and that you are actually rewarding the behaviors that you desire.”

This is the kind of communication and training, along with taking your dog’s natural needs and emotions into account, that you’ll find here at Very Fetching and in Puppy Savvy. You should accept nothing less from your veterinarian, groomer, dog walker, dog trainer or day care provider. They should know how to apply the new science. If not, seek out someone qualified who does.

Accepting the updated information means, among other things, the chance to appreciate things about dogs we didn’t notice before. Dogs have very complex relationships with each other and with humans. They have cognitive abilities we’ve not even scratched the surface of understanding, complex emotional lives, and abilities to do things only a dog can do. They are neither lemon-heads nor black boxes that we should train and control like robots, any more than they are captive wolves who need to be “dominated” in order to live in harmony with them.

As amazing as we already know dogs to be, we may be at just the beginning of our journey together. In 2013, let us be humble. Let us allow dogs to teach us something, about themselves and about us. Let us appreciate the complexity and the simplicity of what a successful relationship with a dog requires of us. Let us do our best to listen. Totally.

You, Your Dog, and National Train Your Dog Month

Rescued, loved and very well-trained wonderdogs Murphy and Mico. (Photo by Chris Sims.)
Rescued, loved and very well-trained wonderdogs Murphy and Mico. (Photo by Chris Sims.)

January is National Train Your Dog Month. It is going to be positively chock full of fun and practical ways you can use training to enhance the lives of you and your dog. Here is what’s in store at Very Fetching:

New Blog Posts

How to Show Dominance Over Your Puppy (While Rocking a Pair of Leg Warmers)

Talk to the Paw: Should You Really Ignore Behavior You Don’t Like?

Training with Treats: Are You Using Bribes or Rewards?

How to Let Your Dog Teach You Something (And Why You Should Care)

New Book

Puppy Savvy is available now at (at a sneak preview, discounted price) and will be in wide release soon. Be one of the first to check it out, and let me know what you think! (Tip: order using Media Mail, quick and low cost.) What’s that, you’d like to view the trailer? Click here.

New! Video Dog Training Lessons

Starting with puppy training lessons that accompany the instructions in Puppy Savvy, Very Fetching will bring you step-by-step demonstrations of how to teach your dog fun and practical skills.

Webinars and Training Tips from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers

Webinars including topics like…

I’m Not Co-Dependent, I Just Can’t Live Without You
House and Crate Training
How to Choose a Great Dog Daycare or Boarding Facility

Training Tips and Canine Life and Social Skills

Learn something new, start a new training project with your dog, find a solution, ask a question or try a new game. There will plenty for you to choose from in celebration of National Train Your Dog Month! Friend me on Facebook for more updates, events and ideas.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Thoughts on Visiting the Animal Shelter

I was at a professional dog training conference last week, and I had the chance to view video of shelter dogs. Some of the footage made my heart melt with happiness, and some of it was deeply disturbing. It got me thinking about National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month and the fact that many people have never visited their local shelter.

If you have avoided visiting an animal shelter up to now, you are not alone. Perhaps you worry you’ll want to adopt them all, or that the scene will be too overwhelming for you.

Know that shelters come in all sizes and have a wide range of adoption policies. You are likely to see dogs in a clean setting and whose basic needs are being met. Nowadays many shelters provide the dogs with environmental and mental enrichment, get to know them as individuals, and have knowledgeable staff members to help you learn more. Some facilities look very old and some look brand new, but appearance is not an indication of how caring the staff is or how adoptable the dogs are.

If you think it might be emotionally difficult to visit (after all, the dogs are homeless and not all will be adopted, even in a no-kill shelter), consider using one or more of these ideas:

Go with a friend

Decide ahead of time how long you will stay

Make a donation of money or supplies while you’re there (most shelters have a wish list at their website)

Ask yourself what positive things or interactions you notice while you’re there

Whether you go or not, try to stay with your feelings of compassion for just a moment. Granted, it is uncomfortable and much easier to turn away. But if you let the sight or the thought of the shelter dogs linger for just a moment, you honor both your humane impulse and everyone, two or four-legged, who is inside the shelter. You may even feel moved to help. Perhaps you won’t help at a shelter per se, but maybe you will lend a hand further up the chain of events before dogs are found or surrendered. Or maybe you’ll even adopt a shelter dog one day.

What can you do in your life to model compassion? How can you share it with another adult, a child, or a non-human animal? What act of kindness can you offer? These are the very questions I am asking myself after having attended the conference. I am going to try and stay with them, even if for just a moment.


One Minute Dog Training Solutions…For Free

I have for you some seriously budget-friendly dog training advice in honor of National Train Your Dog Month. This is pretty cutting edge stuff. Without further ado:

Freebie Number One

Enjoy free webinars and Facebook chats on a terrific variety of training topics presented by the Associaiton of Pet Dog Trainers. Want to help your dog to stop pulling on leash? Not sure if you should get a dog from a shelter? Want your dog and baby to get along? Struggling with separation anxiety? Think you might like to become a dog trainer? Check out the schedule and grab all the state-of-the-art training advice you like!

Freebie Number Two

“But,” you say, “I want customized advice for my dog!” No problemo. Email me [barbara[at]] a one-minute long video of where you are stuck in your training, and I will write back with advice on how to get unstuck and meet your goal.

Your video must be one minute (or less) in length. (Limit three per person.)

Your training dilemma must be for everyday, basic manners issues, like trouble teaching your dog a position (like sit or down or sit pretty) or getting him to do something (come when called, settle on a mat, bring the ball back without getting so distracted). What would you like a little help with?

I will provide you some tried and true instructions that should get you unstuck, perhaps something new I invent that I feel sure would work, and maybe even some tips to advance things as you progress. Depends how zesty I’m feeling.

Feel free to send your video up to Valentine’s Day. I can’t wait to see it!

Here’s some video footage of tricks I did with one of my dogs just to get you inspired to get your training challenge on tape:

Where in the World to Take Your New Puppy

I am excited about how many of you read the previous post on when to take your puppy out into the world! Here is the what, where and how of introducing your pup to new experiences.

What kinds of experiences do you need to provide your puppy?

Introduce to your pup the sounds, sights, smells, touch, people, other animals, situations and surfaces he or she is likely to encounter in life. Consider your lifestyle and make a list of common activities your dog will encounter. Many lists will include “vacuum cleaner,” “a visitor to our home,” “grooming appointments” or “running children.” One list may include “riding elevators,” while someone else’s list may include “horses and chickens.”  Perhaps a trip to a shopping center, playground, puppy play group, public library, or cafe would fit the bill (here are more ideas.) There is no way to introduce everything the puppy will need to feel at ease about, but the idea is to at least come up with the most common things and provide happy exposure to those.

Why is a “happy exposure” so important?PSCoverWEB

Many people say they “mess with” the puppy while she is eating or “mess with” or touch her paws and tail to accustom her to that. This may work out, or what they may be doing is teaching the puppy to find that kind of touch rather annoying (and then, paradoxically, they punish the puppy for reacting in annoyance). If your goal is not mere tolerance of human touch, but rather you’d like to have a dog who actually wags her tail when you take a food item away or trim her nails, why not build in the right kind of association from the start? Teach the pup to happily accept human hands coming at her by pairing it with some of her meal. It can mean the difference between a big battle over these issues and helping the dog feel at ease (if you were the pup, which would you prefer?).


We used to think we had to “alpha roll” puppies to teach them who was “dominant.” But like every field of knowledge, dog training and behavior has evolved. There are some approaches we continue with and some areas where we find a better, more up-to-date solution. Now we know that there is just no good reason to intimidate a dog in order to help him fit into your family or your life, or to show leadership. You certainly can do it, and many people do, but why go that route when there are alternatives? I think it is much more respectful of the dog, allows kids to be part of the training, and allows you to avoid unintended fallout of using physical intimidation in the name of teaching. It is easy to get started; just get one of the books listed to the right or use this list, and find a puppy class that uses modern, reward-based methods. You can still show leadership, create boundaries and meet expectations for good behavior. What have you got to lose by training in a way that works for both of you?

How to help your puppy if the exposure turns less than happy

Stress is part of life, so it’s okay for your pup to learn what happens when things get dicey.  If your puppy balks or resists at any point, take it as information that you need to back up a step and pair an easier step with some of his meal, praise and/or a favorite toy. It is best to create trust with your dog rather than fear. Be patient and upbeat and go at your puppy’s pace. (Think of it this way: if the sight of a spider panicked you, I would not tell you to get over it and then put one down the back of your shirt. Not very effective, nor very kind.) Of course if your pup has a very strong reaction, contact your class instructor so you can pick the best plan of action for your particular puppy.

Don’t allow anyone to overwhelm your puppy (or pick him up without explicit instructions), especially if they are unfamiliar. For many reasons, well-meaning people you know and random strangers alike will mimic what they see on TV, what their neighbor told them, or what they remember about having a dog from 30 years ago. You will get all manner of unsolicited advice. The main thing to do is always allow your puppy to approach the person at his or her own pace, tell the person to pet under the chin or on the chest (they can feed treats, too, as can you), and if necessary be prepared to cheerfully say “let’s go” and encourage your pup to move away from the person. Most encounters go fine, but it always helps to have a plan in case you run into that extra enthusiastic person. (If you see a cute puppy or any dog, please ask the owner for permission before touching or interacting with their pooch.)

How often should you provide a happy exposure for your puppy?

I recommend your puppy have a field trip, new visitor, or new item from your list at least five times per week. That factors in a couple of days when you may be extra busy and gives the puppy a chance to have some calmer days. An outing doesn’t have to be any longer than 5-10 minutes, and it’s a lot less work than trying fix problems that otherwise might crop up later. An added bonus is that your puppy will likely behave like a dream the rest of the day, as the excitement of something new tends to wear them out a bit.

Puppy class certainly counts as a happy exposure, just be aware that, by itself, attending puppy class does not mean you have socialized your puppy. Class is a great way for you to learn about appropriate greetings and play between puppies, house training and bite inhibition, and basic training, and I highly recommend it. Going to the same class each week, with the same people and dogs, however, clearly only begins to help with your list. So do attend class and then practice what you learned the rest of the week in novel surroundings.

Remember, each person will have their own list depending on what they think life will have in store for their growing dog. Plan a happy new event at least five days a week. Make it fun by being encouraging, going at your puppy’s pace, and pairing encounters with meals or a favorite toy. Enjoy your curious little fuzzball, because adolescence is not far behind!