One of the tougher challenges for any human is changing our habits.  Dogs quickly learn ways of getting predictable responses from us by seeking attention in ways we find flattering, fulfilling, or just cute. We never realize that they are testing us so that they can sort out the pecking order in our packs. From their psychological perspective the question of who is leading and who is responding far outweighs the content of most interactions.

For example, a number of clients have attached no importance to the following behavior pattern: a) the client sits on a couch; b) the dog jumps next to the client; c) the dog climbs into the client’s lap; d) the client pets the dog.

When I have seen this, I have asked the client if there are numerous times they’ve invited the dog into their lap and the dog has given them the jaundiced look that says “ I’m perfectly comfortable where I am / you’re not the boss of me anyhow”.  Most admit that that happens frequently.  A few deny that’s ever happened.

When given that latter response, I ask the client to get the dog off his or her lap and back onto the floor.  If and when that is accomplished, I’ve asked the client to pat the couch; the dog has eagerly jumped onto the couch.  When the client pats their lap and invites the dog, invariably the dog has looked at the client in the manner described earlier, as if to say “ I do that on my terms, not yours,” or, in other words “I recognize a test of pecking order when I see one!”

At least one client who was making little progress tried to rationalize the initial interaction by suggesting “I wanted Trixie on my lap; Trixie wanted to be on my lap.  Why wasn’t that a mutual decision?”

While Trixie is neither manipulative nor analytical, shet instinctively perceives one of two mutually exclusive conditions: either Trixie leads or Trixie follows.  Clarity between the two is key to Trixie’s survival and key to our establishing the hierarchical relationship necessary to keeping our dogs safe and happy.

Peter Levy is a Master Dog Trainer and Behavioral Therapist with TLC In-Home Dog Training of San Diego.