you will find topics that relate to understanding the wolf background of all dogs and the way it affects communication and understanding between our two species. The dog/wolf connection and how it affects everything our dog does and thinks Dealing with dominant dogs The body language of dogs—clues to what dogs are feeling Our body language—and how dogs perceive us Differences in communication styles between dogs and people Good ways to caress dogs There has been a breakthrough in the understanding of what makes dogs tick, as scientists have confirmed the connection between dogs and their direct ancestor, the wolf. Canine anthropologists have concluded that their studies of wolves teach us everything we need to know about the dogs who share our lives. Our pet dogs—from the tiniest Pekingese to the largest Deerhound—all have the same number of chromosomes that a wolf does. People have been manipulating what dogs look like for thousands of years, and yet all dogs continue to have the same wiring in their brains: the mind of a wolf. By some calculations, people have been breeding and domesticating dogs for 8,000 years, and yet no matter what we have done to alter the outside of the “package,” the inside of a dog’s mind is unchanged. From the study of wolf behavior has come a “new and improved” understanding of our constant companions—and ideas about how to communicate with them. There has been a gradual but significant evolution in the understanding of the dog/human interaction and how to ensure that the human is in charge of that relationship. The pack behavior of wolves is what has given dog trainers/behaviorists their understanding of how to create and maintain a harmonious balance between dogs and between dogs and their people. The most current beliefs about living with and training dogs is that we humans need to be the “powerful” ones in those relationships, but that we should not have an adversarial relationship with our dogs based on domination.

The Dog/Wolf Connection

Jan Fennell, who wrote The Dog Listener, does a beautiful job of explaining her theory about the wolf origins of dogs and how this affects our relationship to them. There has been a fair amount of research on this subject over the last decade, but Fennell’s brilliance is to describe with great simplicity how to turn your unruly pack of dogs (or even a solo dog) into mellow, attentive canines. To follow this wolf-oriented line of thinking about dogs, you may have to suspend preconceptions about how your pooch thinks and what motivates her actions. But once you open yourself to these revolutionary ideas and begin to experiment with these techniques, your interaction with your dog(s) will become so easy that it will seem like magic. I recommend Fennell’s book to anyone who has the time and desire to read the whole saga of how she came to her theory, but like any truly great idea, the practical aspects of playing alpha wolf to your dog(s) can be boiled down to a simple formula, outlined below.


First and foremost, we have to embrace the concept of just how differently dogs process relationship dynamics. Humans are verbal, whereas dogs rely on body language. In order for us to understand and to be in control of the dog’s place in our lives, we need to understand the nonverbal messages of wolves and dogs. For us, tapping into that system is like plugging into the motherboard of a dog’s computer, rather than fooling around with hit-or-miss software that we try to develop. Wolf packs are hierarchies with one “alpha pair.” They get the first and best of everything—food, bed, etc.—in return for taking responsibility for the group. The word “alpha” has been misused and misunderstood by dog trainers for years: they have been interpreting the term as humans understand it (power and control by intimidation and force), whereas leader may be a better word. Dogs are not similar to people, who are taught to surpass others, to be on top. In the animal kingdom there are many creatures, along with dogs, who neither want to be nor are equipped to be the “alpha.” In fact, they are content and even relieved to have a clearly designated leader so that they can stop worrying about all the questions answered by his leadership. In the wolf/dog universe there is no value judgment for dogs about where they fall on the spectrum—there is no shame in being third from the top, or third from the bottom—as there would be in human society, where being number one is given immense importance. Dogs just need to know where they fall in the family or pack. We have to keep that in mind when trying to understand our dog—and in every single thing we do with her. Research into how wolves live and communicate with each other has revealed that in wolf terms, there are a few central areas where there is a clear role for the leader. We humans have to play the role of leader with our dogs—with whom we create an interspecies pack—because in dog terms there has to be a leader. Some pack member has to assume that place, so if you don’t step in—in terms the dog can understand based on her wolf origins—the dog will worry and try to fill that leadership place herself. This can lead to nervous, neurotic behavior in a dog—barking, destructiveness, being clingy—all ways of expressing anxiety over the fact that no one is in charge and keeping the den safe. What we need to learn is in which areas a wolf leader, the “alpha,” naturally asserts himself. By knowing what those areas are with our dog(s), we can take them over. We don’t want to fight the dog’s inborn tendencies; we want to go with the dog’s instinct.

♦ Better Yet, Think Like a Bee.

The social structure of beehives can help us understand the position we need to assume with our dogs. There is only one queen: all the drones and workers accept her importance, are happy to do their bit in her service and are not challenging her for that position. With dogs, if they know who is in charge, it frees them to relax, play among themselves and work better. With our dogs we need to become the queen bee


There are four areas of wolf-pack behavior that Fennell claims can be applied to our relationship with our dogs to bring about startling changes in communication and understanding. The four are seemingly mundane events: leaving home, returning home, feeding and dealing with visitors. But to the wolf mentality, these moments are highly important. Just by altering the way you handle yourself in these situations, you “train” your dog(s)—without any active lessons —to respect you and honor your wishes.

♦ One: Leaving the House (Hunting)

The alpha always goes out of the den first, as the most courageous and the best decision-maker. So it’s okay to let your dog precede you through interior doorways, but when you are exiting the house through a main door, you should always tell the dog(s) to wait and let you go first, after which you can release them with an “okay” so they can follow you out. Instead of trying to stop them from getting all wound up before going out, look at the principles of the wolf pack: leaving the den is prelude to a hunt—and they are hardwired to get their adrenaline pumping so they are “up” to hunt well for food. The alpha in a true wolf pack lets the others bounce around like rubber balls. If you have more than one dog you may have noticed heightened emotions and behavior whenever you leave the house with them—it is because of their wolf origins. Eventually your dog(s) will settle down to the job at hand: “hunting.”

♦ Two: Coming Home (Reuniting the Pack)

Whenever a pack is reunited after being apart a ritual takes place: the alpha reasserts his dominance. The alpha has a personal space that has to be respected: no other pack member can approach that private space unless invited to do so. Because in the true wolf world it is possible to get injured or killed while out hunting, upon the alpha’s return the pack makes a huge fuss over him to reassure themselves that he is okay. Is he still the boss? Who will protect them if danger arises? Who will lead the hunt?

If you have more than one dog, you may face pure histrionics from your dogs when you come home from the outside world—jumping, barking, etc. You have to ignore them the way the alpha ignores his pack upon returning. If you do take the alpha role and give your dogs the cold shoulder for the first few minutes when you come through the door, you will all be happier. But that means no reaction from you. You cannot even turn around to say “Stop” or “Off” because then you would be giving the dogs attention. If a dog puts his feet on your lap or jumps up, you have to gently push him down by his chest. No words, no emotion. Even saying the word “Off” aloud breaks the spell of aloofness that is central to the dog perceiving you in this new, powerful role. I decided to try Fennell’s methodology with some skepticism. My three dogs were always so obnoxiously wound up when I returned home that I had abandoned my generally high standards for mannerly obedience. Was Jan Fennell right that they could become laid-back just by my totally ignoring them as I came into the house? Sure enough. Dogs who ordinarily spent four to five minutes on my return home holding toys, crying/whining, nibbling at my jacket sleeve, pressing against me and carrying on with each other for my attention— all acted in less than a minute as though they had been shot with tranquilizer darts, and calmly lay down on their beds. This dramatic transformation came about simply because I did not acknowledge the dogs’ existence in words, touch or eye contact when I walked in the house. It was mind-blowing. I would have thought it was a parlor trick if I hadn’t set it up myself and seen the difference between the previous hopped-up greetings and the new, mellow ones. When the dog relaxes and wanders off to lie down somewhere, that is his signal that his resistance is over. By deferring, he is showing respect for your space and your position.

♦ Three: Eating

The alpha always eats first, and he eats his fill of the best portion before others can eat. Therefore, don’t feel sorry for your dog if you eat before he has been fed —in fact, it’s a relief for him because it reassures him that you are in charge, which means he doesn’t have to be. By putting on a charade of eating right before you put down the dog’s dish, you are sending a strong message about being in charge—in nonverbal terms that the dog reads immediately. In her book, Jan Fennell maintains that you may need to reinforce the concept that you are the alpha. One way to drive this point home is to make a dramatic event of eating before the dog does. Prepare a cracker or other edible item next to the dog’s dishes. Before putting the dog’s dish on the floor make a big drama out of lifting the cracker or snack for yourself as though it is coming right from the dog’s dinner bowl. After eating the cracker you can put the dog’s bowl down. You will have made your point. You may feel foolish but some dogs need the point rubbed in

♦ Four: Danger (Visitors)

Whenever there is the possibility of danger, it is the alpha’s role to protect the pack. Once you recognize that, then dealing with your dog’s reaction to those “intruders” makes more sense. There are specific suggestions on how to handle this in Chapter Ten, “Teaching Manners,” page 235, but what follows are a few shorthand suggestions for handling your dog’s sometimes unruly reaction to people arriving at your house. The arrival of strangers to the pack—visitors or delivery people coming to the door—is an event of perceived danger to a dog. They leap around the visitor, sniffing and barking, which can make you feel like an idiot for having such wild dogs. If your dog barks madly and generally freaks out when visitors arrive outside the door, calmly tell the dog “Thank you,” and then firmly say, “Enough.” The dog has recognized the potential danger and alerted you—but then you need to take over from there, much to his relief! Relieved of responsibility, he can relax; many dogs seem calmer after being taken “off duty.” Put the dog on a leash with a head collar, if necessary, before the people come in. This gives you some control without raising your voice and escalating tension. You can also tell your visitors (whether friends, family or delivery people) to do exactly what you do: ignore the dog(s). Do not make eye contact. Do not touch them. Do not talk to them. This can be really hard for some people, especially the hard-core dog lovers, but you should insist upon it. What to do with visitors who won’t cooperate If there are people who refuse to get with the program (or those too young or too old to understand) then you need to shut the dog(s) away before those people arrive. You will get dramatic relief from dog madness if all people entering the house give those dogs a cold shoulder. That is what alpha wolves do upon returning to the den: aloofness is their body language, which says that they have returned safe and sound and are still the leader. Obviously, your visitors can do anything they want with your dog(s) after the first few minutes. It is only that initial wound up greeting that needs correction



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