Bigger, Stronger, Faster, Smarter
There are four basic advantages that we really do not want our dog to realize he has over us ... being bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. Now of course, the reality is, our dog may indeed have one or more of these advantages over us. I mean take a look at the animal kingdom in general; it’s kind of amazing that humans ever survived. We aren’t all that fast, we don’t have fur or feathers to protect us from the elements, and we don’t have claws, fangs or horns. We'd be toast if it weren't for our intellectual abilities. (However, our dogs may not necessarily appreciate our I.Q. scores.) It has been said that “whenever a human is interacting with a dog, one of them is being trained” so we need to keep a bit of a primal perspective in mind and avoid engaging in situations that will shine a big spotlight on our shortcomings. In short, if your dog thinks or knows he has any of these advantages, it's time to level the playing field.
“But I specifically got a huge dog for protection” or “I got a fast dog because I want to do fly ball and agility…..what’s the problem with that?”
There certainly is no problem with having a dog with any of these amazing attributes, the only problem is when they become acutely aware of the fact that you can’t keep up or begin to see you as weak. Because dogs have a hard-wired, instinctive need for leadership, which harkens back to their ancestor, the wolf, they will naturally take the lead if they don’t think you can handle it. I know, I know, little Fluffy’s lineage has been domesticated for thousands of years and she hardly resembles a wolf, but trust me, some of those traits are still in there and can reveal themselves in the form of behavior problems or issues with simple disobedience if there is no sense of your leadership. The plain and simple fact is this. In nature, smaller, weaker, slower and dumber can’t lead the pack. So with these notions in mind, let’s take a look at some of our potential shortcomings and see what we can do to keep ourselves in the captain’s chair and avoid any doggie mutiny.
Does size really matter? Sure it does, but bigger is not always better. From the Great Dane who thinks he’s a lap dog to the Chihuahua that thinks he should try out for the K9 unit, there is a lot to be said for perception and size of spirit. I have seen houses where the cat clearly is running the show, seriously. Do you reckon it’s because of the cat’s size? No way, it’s because of her attitude, how she carries herself, how big she feels and how big the dogs think she is. If those dogs were to realize how much bigger they actually were, that cat would be hosed! So, whether your dog is a giant breed or a teacup, the idea is to keep the relationship tip-top by not letting them get to thinking that they are bigger than you. Once your dog gets that notion in his head, he is much more likely to start giving you trouble.
I am about a buck 30 soaking wet and I handle big dogs on a regular basis. Fortunately, the only time I realize how small I am is when I see a picture of myself standing in a crowd or when I need something off the top shelf. Otherwise, I usually feel like the biggest person in the room and that comes in handy when dealing with large dogs.
Here is an example. In early 2009, I got a call from a client who was interested in having me walk and train her 190 pound Saint Bernard a few times a week. On the first day, I got too close to the owner and he growled and lunged at me. Did I back off? You bet I did! At that point we both knew he was bigger than me. I began working with him and within a few weeks, using a series of exercises and games, I was able to shrink him down…. in his mind and mine. Obviously this took more brain power than physical force but it actually did not take very long before we both felt like I was the big dog. The key was building the relationship in a way that kept me in charge and never starting a fight I couldn’t win.
So if you have a dog that is bigger than you, that's fine. Simply avoid putting yourself in situations that give your dog the I’m bigger than you ”ah-ha" moment. Examples of things to avoid might be: trying to drag him on the leash when he doesn’t want to move, trying to pull him off the bed when you are not strong enough or wrestling games in which he can pin you on the ground.
On the other hand, if you have a small dog that thinks they are bigger than you, stand your ground and don’t back off when they growl or snap at you. Wear an oven mitt if you need to, but don’t back off and they will shrink back to their actual size pretty quickly. They are probably giving you the same treatment the cat gave the dogs mentioned above. Don’t fall for it. Remember, you are the human and have reasoning abilities on your side. If you are having serious problems with aggression or anything that makes you feel unsafe please get some help. Your best bet is to work with a professional on how to use certain tools, exercises, games and techniques to get yourself firmly established as the big dog.
Humans and dogs are both pack oriented species which makes us susceptible to leadership. We also both tend to like our leaders to be strong rather than weak. Does this mean we want Mike Tyson for president? Let’s hope not! We all know that strength and weakness are more than just physical. As humans we want our leaders to be strong in their convictions and of sound mind but we don’t require them to be cage-match champions. The animal kingdom though, may not be so sophisticated. Physical strength in a pack of dogs is going to be a much bigger factor than it is for civilized society. They don’t hold elections, draw straws or flip coins. They make decisions rapidly and sometimes ferociously. In the wild, interestingly enough, there are fewer fights than at your average dog park. That’s a matter of survival, consistent pack structure and discipline from birth. It is also of worthy note that the fights that do happen in the wild can be much more brutal and even deadly. That is exactly why they are fewer. If you get injured you may not survive.
So what if your dog is actually stronger than you? Does that mean they will never accept your leadership? Some dogs are incredibly powerful creatures. Some have amazingly strong jaws and can run, jump and pull like an athlete on steroids. Some can easily overpower their owners. Others aren’t all that strong physically but are determined and tenacious and can easily start to think they are stronger than you. Oh, what to do, what to do? It’s simple! Just avoid letting them know or even begin to think they have power or strength over you. Don’t let them start to see you as weak. Take advantage of those instincts which make wild dogs posture more than they actually fight. Take advantage of the fact that they depend on you for simple resources like food or access to the outside world. Don’t give them whatever they want, whenever they want it. Don’t let them pull you on the leash. Don’t let them control physical games like tug of war. Take some obedience classes with a well rounded trainer. Powerful dogs can make great companions and loyal protectors who will follow your leadership without question. You just need to know what you’re doing and develop a healthy relationship.
For those of you that are afraid of your dog...even just a little...you are at a disadvantage in every interaction you have with your dog, because they are stronger than you and they know it. If your puppy is growing into a powerful dog that is making you nervous, or you've rescued a dog that is ruling the roost, call in a professional right away. There are ways to balance the power back into your favor while maintaining respect, but you want to take care of it as soon as possible.
Ah yes, this is the one that is almost guaranteed to be in your dog's favor. Unless your dog is really old or disabled, he is probably faster than you. Most likely by a long shot! Some of those little rockets will simply leave you in their dust. Here is a typical example.
Joe Dog Owner is at the dog park. He decides to play fetch and has allows Rover to go off leash. He tosses the ball, Rover goes and grabs it, but to Joe’s surprise decides not to bring it back. “Here boy, bring it back,” Joe exclaims. “Come on boy, over here puppy, puppy.” He continues, beginning to move towards the dog. He decides to chase the dog to get the ball back so the dog breaks into a full sprint. Game on! “This is great...” the dog thinks, “we should do this every day!” Guess who wins the chase-me game….the dog. Guess who also now knows that he is faster? The dog gets the ball, realizes he is faster and learns that he doesn’t have to come when called. Game over on all counts. What’s the lesson for our friend Joe? Trying to outrun a dog is not the right approach, simple as that. In a perfect world your dog would never get a chance to realize their speed advantage but in truth most pups figure this out very early on. That’s OK, all is not lost. We just need to start fresh and re-condition their brain.
Here are some examples:
Things to avoid:
- Don't engage in games that involve chasing the dog. Games here can mean anything your dog finds fun or entertaining, whether you do or not. That could be fetch or “look, I have the remote control, bet you can’t catch me!” Avoid chasing your dog for any reason.
- Don’t let an untrained dog off leash in an unfenced area, especially if near a street. (50 foot long lines are a great tool before going completely off leash, by the way.)
Things to do:
- Use a bike or rollerblades to give the sense that you are faster.
- Train your dog how to properly play fetch by starting out with a light version of fetch on leash. That way, if he goes rogue, you can guide him back with the leash.
- Train your dog to come when called.
- Teach your dog to wait at doors so they don’t run outside.
- Start giving him his freedom with a long line and make him earn it.
- If you do play chase games, play so the dog chases you.
- Teach your dog what “No!” means.
If you find yourself in the position of being off leash with a dog that is not coming, avoid the instinct to chase them. Moving towards them almost always makes them run away, especially if there is any history of the “chase-me” game. Often simply walking away works really well, if they think you’re leaving, most dogs will come running. Turn sideways and clap your hands while calling in a fun, animated voice. Try acting like you found something interesting on the ground, dig around or play with the grass, they may come to investigate. Try to get them to chase you by running away. Using a firm tone will work with some dogs, if they have been taught what “No!” means but if they have not been conditioned they will often run away from trouble.
Well, the fact that you can read this should be a sign of your intellectual superiority shouldn’t it? Yes, it should but your dog might not see it that way. PhD’s, doctors, lawyers, CEOs……they can all get “outsmarted” by their dogs! Dogs don’t care about the letters after your name, diplomas on the wall or your fancy title at work. If they can get you to do things for them on command there is a good chance they are training you, which would lead one to believe they probably think they are smarter than you as well. Hmmm, do you think this could pose a problem? If your dogs think you are their servant and they are the smarter ones, wouldn’t it make sense that they behave disobediently?
Even professional dog trainers are not always immune to being outsmarted by a dog's manipulative tactics. My wife and I have a very cute but very stubborn Puggle named Missy. One night, close to the end of her housebreaking phase, Missy decided to go to the door and scratch. “What a good girl,” we thought. My wife got up to let her out. Missy waited until my wife was opening the slider and then ran across the room and bolted under the couch. We laughed and muddled some PG-13 language and then got on with our TV watching. A moment later Missy went back to the door and scratched again, this time I got off the couch, muddling some light-hearted,R rated language and approached the slider. She did it again. I couldn’t help but laugh, it was pretty funny, especially because she was so cute and spunky about it. It was like she was laughing too. We let her get away with this more times than we should have, but in the end I latched my finger under her collar and guided her outside when she scratched again. She needed to learn that scratching on the door meant she was going outside. Had I continued to let her “outsmart” me, she would have realized that these silly people will play the get-off-the-couch-and-open-the-door-when-I-scratch game forever. She tried playing this game a few more times but we were on to it and always took her out to potty if she scratched, even if she was just trying to play us.
I should also warn you that the smartest dogs are not always the easiest to train. Smart does not always mean compliant. For instance: In obedience training we say never punish a dog for coming to you. Regardless of what they did (chewed your shoes, etc.). If they come when called they are a good dog and now you can’t punish them. So let’s say you are working on your down stay and your dog decides to get up and run around. What should you do? Most likely you will have to call them to you (which gets a reward according to pretty much every training philosophy) to be able to put them back in the down stay. Now they have learned that they can manipulate you into calling them and giving them a treat by running away. Clever, clever! The trick here would be to use a long line for your down stay practice to avoid being “outsmarted.”
If you have a dog, chances are you have been outsmarted by him a time or two. As a matter of fact, it has probably happened and you haven’t even been aware of it! Use that intellectual prowess that allows you to read this article, a feat your dog will never accomplish, and try to stay one step ahead. Given the fact that they are almost definitely faster and quite possibly stronger or bigger, being smarter than your dog is your best shot!
Chad Culp–Certified Dog Trainer, Behavior Consultant, Certified Holistic Chef for Animals
Copyright 2005-2013 Chad Culp, Thriving Canine®. All rights reserved. Chad@ThrivingCanine.com