The Old Trainer: To lead the pack, you first have to train yourself

August 10, 2013 

Dear Old Trainer: I gave up on my 3-year-old lab, Rufus, and decided he couldn't be trained. Then I found your column and tried your techniques, and it was like magic. He learns fast and always wants to learn more. I still don't understand why it is working though. Why is he obeying now after refusing to learn for so long?

— Jeff, Denver

Answer: Because of the way a dog's brain is wired, Jeff. Humans love to project human traits onto their dogs, but dogs are ruled by canine psychology and it is nothing like the human variety. The dominant aspect of canine psychology is the Rule of the Pack — the leader gives the orders, the pack obeys.

That pack protocol is the canine version of Hemingway's "iceberg theory" of writing. Hemingway said, "If a writer knows enough about his subject he may omit details — the submerged part of the iceberg — and yet the reader feels them as strongly as if the writer had stated them."

The Rule of the Pack is the hidden part of the iceberg when it comes to training a dog. Rufus ignored your orders because you did not measure up to what his DNA told him a leader should be. Now he sees you as the leader and — because of that iceberg called pack psychology — is happy to obey.

People who have trouble training their dog think, "Well, if I give an order he will obey, because I am a human and he is a mere dog."

Dogs find that idea amusing.

They don't see themselves as inferior to humans. Why should they? They have better hearing, can run faster and their sense of smell is 5,000 times better.

They love humans, but leadership — in their minds — has nothing to do with love. They watch members of the pack with a keen eye and decide where everyone ranks.

If they see a leader, they are happy because all dogs crave order in the pack. If they see a vacuum of leadership, they are still happy because they take over as leader and run the pack the way they want.

Even in families where dogs have accepted a human as leader it is common for them to take orders from the one they perceive as leader, but ignore orders from the rest of the family.

Shakespeare might have been describing dog training when he wrote this dialogue in "Henry IV":

"Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

"Hotspur: Why, so can I. So can any man. But will they come when you do call them?"

Anyone can give a dog an order, but will they listen when you do? Dog parks are full of people screaming at their dogs while the dogs ignore them and run around having a good time.

Any experienced trainer will tell you that in 95 percent of the instances in which they are asked to train a dog, they wind up training the owner, not the dog.

In your case, Rufus didn't need training, you did. As soon as you turned yourself into a leader, Rufus turned into a trained dog.

Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained, and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to:

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