By treating domestic dogs more like the wolves from which they originated, trainer Jennifer McCarthy of Longmont, Colo. believes severe doggy behavioral problems, most notably aggression, can be solved. "I have a better success rate with this approach than with other methods I’ve used,” she says. "It’s a different mind-set on how to communicate with dogs.”
McCarthy’s wolf approach can help you to take control of your seemingly "angry” dog or prevent your pooch from trying to step over you in an attempt to become leader of your pack. "We can’t completely take aggression out of a dog since a dog has the capability for it,” she explains. "The difference is that your dog should look to you to make the decision of whether or not to be aggressive.” In short, you need to be the alpha dog in your pack.
Growl like Wolves
The concept came to McCarthy while she was conducting research at Mission: Wolf, a sanctuary located in the remote mountains of Westcliffe, Colo. McCarthy placed her three German shepherd dogs fence to fence with a female full-blooded wolf in order to document how the wolf’s behavior would affect that of her dogs. "When the wolf growled at my dogs, her meaning was profoundly clear,” McCarthy says. "Wolves only bark in fear.” She adds, "We’ve bred barking into dogs for guard use, but I growl at them like a wolf would.”
Along the same lines, McCarthy believes that it’s best to instruct – and not ask – your dog to follow basic commands, such as to stay, stop, move forward and so on. She even recommends growling instead of saying, "No.” Growling can be imitated with a deep, low voice that commands attention. If you want a dog to wait patiently for a treat in your hand, growl, she advises.
Of course, all growl and no approval would disturb anyone, including your canine chum, so McCarthy also emphasizes that you should frequently praise your dog when appropriate, such as providing your pet with a good rub down after it demonstrates good behavior.
Nip Aggression in the Bud
Like any true leader, alpha wolves take on more responsibility than anyone else in the pack. You can assert leadership by making the decisions with a calm, no-nonsense disposition. Imagine that your dog is like a kid in the backseat and you’re the driver. Take control by providing direction and don’t let it get away without listening to you. Dogs are hard-wired to vie for alpha if they think the leader isn’t strong enough. When you’re in control, your dogs are less likely to become aggressive or defensive.
Feed According to Pack Status
As a dog owner, you need to establish your rank as leader. You can learn to do it in the same way McCarthy does by replicating the behavior of wolves in the wild, and this can even apply to dinnertime. Wolves usually run before eating, so exercise your dog before feeding. Feed multiple dogs according to their pack status because, after a wolf pack has hunted, the alpha wolf eats first and then decides which dog gets to eat and which has to wait. To do this with her own dogs, McCarthy first dishes out her canines’ meals. She then gets on the floor and growls at them to back off until she instructs that they can have the food. When she walks away, they’re allowed to eat.
Be Alpha and Don’t Baby
Dogs, like humans, rest easier under good leadership. If you are a thoughtful, yet decisive, head of the group, you will help to reduce your pet’s stress levels, and probably your own too. "Anxiety often stems from confusion about place in a pack,” says McCarthy. She believes that the largest single cause of dog/owner problems is treating dogs like spoiled children. Instead, set boundaries for your dog and don’t praise lavishly for nothing. Reserve your approval for when they have earned it.
Being alpha is all about attitude. If you give mixed messages that you are the alpha in one context but not in others, your dog may show signs of dominancy, anxiety, fear, or aggression. McCarthy says to present yourself as confident but kind, fair but tough, loving but firm. Prove your leadership to earn respect. A true alpha never gets into a fight because the leader of the pack wouldn’t need to do this. Your dog sees your confidence and leadership as safety and security. If you assert your leadership through body language, attitude, and, yes, a little growling, your dog will understand.