There is no question that love is a wonderful thing to give our dogs, and giving it is great therapy for us humans, too. In fact, in our organization’s work with rescued Pit Bulls, we have seen that, despite their false fearsome reputation, they often make excellent therapy dogs.
Why? Temperamentally correct Pit Bulls have a strong love of humans; they love being touched by people, even people they don’t know. They can easily tolerate the unsteady touch of a patient who has had a stroke, an elderly person using a cane or walker, or a child learning how to pet and interact with animals for the first time. In a temperamentally correct Pit Bull, the people-loving nature is already present, and the dog mostly needs to be trained in basic good manners such as sitting instead of jumping, waiting to go through doorways, and greeting people calmly.
Isn’t Love Enough?
But even these wonderful therapy dogs need more than love from us. In order to be balanced, healthy, and happy, they need leadership. We all love to spoil our dogs. But too much freedom, love at inappropriate times, and a lack of structure can not only reinforce inappropriate behavior, it can make your dog feel insecure and anxious. If you don’t show your dog leadership, she may feel she has to take charge.
For example, you might be walking down your neighborhood street when your dog sees an unfamiliar dog. If she is not sure who is in charge, she might bark and pull forward, thinking, “Don’t worry, I’ll scare that strange dog away!” Good leadership lets your dog know that all is well and that you are in control, in a positive way. This gives your dog a sense of safety and security.
Don’t Confuse Leadership with Force
It is best to establish leadership with your dog using positive methods. You don’t have to use physical force, punishment, or “alpha rolls.” (Please don’t engage in this practice. Many people and dogs have been seriously hurt attempting it, and it’s completely unnecessary.)
In fact, all the talk in dog circles about being the “alpha” can be misleading. First of all, your dog knows that you’re not a dog. Secondly, ask yourself, does a human being really have a place in a dog pack trying to be an alpha dog? Nope, you just need to be the leader.
Nothing in Life is Free
The good news is that you don’t have to act like a dog to establish leadership. You are already ahead of the game just by owning all of the resources. In our Pit Bull training philosophy, we use the “Nothing in Life is Free” approach. This means that rather than simply giving your dog rewards such as treats, walks, meals, or even a pat on the head, you ask your dog to earn them.
For example, before you give your dog a treat, ask her to perform a sit, down, shake, or any other command you prefer. This simple change reinforces the idea that you control the resources, and that alone puts you in the leadership position.
Reward Calm Behavior
When you praise your dog, be sure to do it in a way that’s calming. Don’t use your high-pitched or squeaky voice, as it can quickly elevate her level of excitement. Soon, you will have created a hyperactive dog who thinks bouncing, jumping, and being anxious is the right way to please you, because you are reinforcing that behavior.
When you come home at night and your dog is jumping all over, wait until she’s calm before even talking to her. A leader controls all greetings in a calm, positive manner. (This is the hard part for us humans, because we love those enthusiastic greetings!)
Don’t Ask, Do Tell
When you give a command, don’t “ask” your dog to perform it, “tell” her. Say it as though you know she will perform the behavior, then lighten your voice to praise her when she does.
Believe me, you won’t hurt her feelings, and she’s definitely not thinking, “Gee, my owner sure is bossy!” She is actually going to be very happy to work for something she really loves, whether it’s a treat, a toy, a walk, a game of fetch, dinner, or even just praise and affection.
The Gift of Leadership
Remember, control the resources and use your thinking, not force, to get the behavior you want from your dog. She will relax and feel secure knowing that you are in charge.
Does this mean your dog won’t feel loved? Not at all. She’ll feel more loved and secure than ever! Dogs are pack animals hard-wired to look for direction from a leader, and they take comfort in being led. In fact, when you establish your leadership role through these techniques, your relationship with your dog will improve and a deep trust will develop, strengthening your bond.
Think about it this way: just as you expect to work for your paycheck, so does your dog. In fact, earning it brings her a sense of pride and accomplishment, and she will love you all the more for giving her that gift.
Marthina McClay is a certified pet dog trainer and founder of Our Pack, Inc. (www.ourpack.org), a non-profit Pit Bull rescue, training, and education organization that has rescued and trained many Pit Bulls to become therapy dogs. In 2008,McClay and Our Pack made headlines by rescuing and training Leo, a Pit Bull rescued from the Michael Vick dog fighting case, to be a therapy dog, and is currently working with the Humane Society of Missouri to help rescue dogs taken in the largest dog fighting case in U.S. history. For more information on training classes contact www.dogtrainingforpeople.com.