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by Rolan Tripp, DVM and Susan Tripp, MS/P

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Helping a Dog "Learn" to Earn Food and Attention


Because we love dogs, there is a natural tendency to pamper them. We think it's cute when they show us what they want and so we respond by giving it to them. Many dogs misinterpret this loving generosity. Some dogs learn to get what they want by trying to control their humans. 

Following the leader

Since dogs are genetically evolved from wolves, their instinct is to participate in a family pack hierarchy. By instinct, dogs learn how to meet their basic needs by trial and error.

Much has been written about dogs viewing their human families as their packs. Although the pack comparison is not exact, dogs are social and generally learn who is in charge of the valued resources.

Dogs are better behaved when they learn that people are gentle, trustworthy and control what the dog wants and needs to survive and thrive in a human household. When dogs learn - by accident - to take charge by pawing at people, barking, and other behaviors that have worked for them in the past, the dog is more likely to develop undesirable behaviors.

When dogs see people in charge, they are more motivated to learn how to follow one word instructions such as: Come, Sit, Watch, Wait, Down, Off and Stay.
The goal is for the dog to accept all people, who have been introduced to him or her as friendly, and higher in rank.

Finding the leader

The best definition of "leader" in the canine mind is the one who controls the resources.

  • Resources are anything the dog values such as food, toys, treats, access to the yard, walks, the best resting areas, praise, petting, and play.
  • The true human leader controls these resources and expects the dog to earn the goods by doing the work.
  • For a dog, the work is responding to words the dog know with actions such as coming when called, sitting or staying when asked. (i.e., deferring to people).
  • The dog must "learn to earn" all the valued resources. This establishes the person as the controller of those resources, and therefore, the leader of the pack.
  • This "learn to earn" approach to leadership replaces any reason to hit, spank, or physically punish the dog.
  • Leadership is established by delivering the goods when the dog complies with a request or instruction.
  • This approach reinforces the innate social structure of the dog, helps the dog to trust people, and look for cues on what to do and how to behave.
  • In addition, the dog sees family members as the providers of all things good that are earned rather than seeing the family as the servants.
A life long process...

Once leadership is established, and the dog is happily complying, you can give some pampering for free, keeping in mind that "learn to earn" is a life long process. Make sure you test the relationship weekly by giving a instruction with no obvious reward in sight. If the dog complies, the dog still recognizes you as leader and life can go on as is. If the dog does not comply, then back to "doggie boot camp" where the dog gets nothing he or she wants, unless it is earned first. It is a good idea to ask the dog to defer to you on a daily basis. For example, always ask the dog to do something, prior to giving the dog his or her meals. This is a simple way to remind the dog who controls the resources!
The dog must "learn to earn" all the valued resources. This establishes the person as the controller of those resources, and therefore, the leader of the pack.

Catch your dog in the act of doing something right!

If your dog is lying quietly indoors while there is a lot of activity in the household (or any other time), verbally praise the dog for doing what you want. In this situation, the dog has already earned the praise. Look for as many opportunities as possible to praise your dog for being well-behaved. As these opportunities become more frequent, you will soon come to the realization that you really do have an IdealDog™!

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