How to Be the Pack Leader

Dogs are pack animals by nature. This is traced all the way back to their wolf ancestors. They need structure and they need an alpha to follow. When they are scared or confused, dogs will seek out the pack leader for protection or guidance. The pack leader makes the rules and sets the boundaries. You need to be that pack leader.

One mistake that many first-time (and even some seasoned) dog owners make when they bring home a new puppy or dog, is that they let them get away with bad behavior. This is especially true with rescue dogs that may have been neglected or abused in their past lives (I’ll come back to this subject later). When you bring home your dog, you need to establish ground rules and boundaries from day one. Do you want your dog on the furniture? Is he allowed to sleep in the bed with you? Can he be upstairs by himself without your supervision? Now is the time to answer those types of questions. If you allow the undesired behaviors to happen from the beginning, it will be nearly impossible to correct in the future.

Enforcing the Rules

As the pack leader, you should never strike your dog. Hitting your dog will break his trust in you and hurt his confidence. You don’t want your dog to fear you. If you do need to physically interrupt a bad behavior, use a quick pinch on the side of the neck. That simulates the act of nipping them on the neck, which is what the alpha males do in the wild to keep the pack members in line.

Unfortunately, many people raise their voice volume when trying to enforce rules. Dogs quickly become desensitized to that. There are other methods to interrupt bad behavior with a loud noise. Personally I use the penny jar trick. You take a plastic container and put 15-20 pennies inside. Then the moment your dog starts doing a bad behavior, you drop it on the floor and it makes a loud noise and throws him off for a moment. That’s the window where you can give a command for a desired behavior.

Bringing Home a Puppy

If are bringing home a new puppy, establishing ground rules is especially important, and in my opinion, more challenging than with an older dog. Let’s face it: everything your puppy does is going to be cute……….. “Look at how he chews on that shoe! He’s so cute!” “Isn’t it cute how he barks with his little yips at the cars passing by on the street!” “He’s so adorable when he begs for food at the table!” ……… Well guess what: your puppy is going to grow up. And if you have let him do those things since day one, those behaviors could take months or years to correct.

When we brought home Honey from the rescue organization for the first time, she was 3 months old. She was fluffy and soft and 8 pounds of cuteness. Everything she did was super adorable. We let her get away with quite a bit, until I started researching how to correct certain behaviors and I realized we had been re-enforcing her bad habits since day one. Luckily, she is quite smart and correcting her behavior only took a couple months. Other people I have spoken to have not been so lucky.

People with large breed dogs are extremely susceptible to the “cute puppy behavior goggles.” For example, it sure is adorable when your 15 pound puppy jumps up to greet everyone that comes to visit, until he grows up to be 80-100 pounds and is still jumping up on everyone. My neighbor told me a story a couple months ago about how he finally realized his dog jumping up on people was a problem after his 85 pound black lab knocked over his grandmother when he jumped on her. Thankfully, she was not hurt in the incident, but that caused my neighbor to seek professional training assistance to correct the jumping behavior.

Bringing Home an Older or Rescue Dog

Let’s bring the conversation back to the rescue dog with the abusive or neglectful past. This is near and dear to my heart. My other girl Molly Jo came from a rescue organization. When they found her, she was underweight and looked like she had been living on her own for 6 months or more. When the organization took her in, they realized she was not even housetrained, leading them to the conclusion that she was kept as an outdoor dog by her previous owners. Based on the way she ducked her head and winced when they went to pet her, they believe she was struck on a regular basis. Her hair was so long and matted and dirty that she could barely see and she looked to be gray in color. This is Molly today (picture). Cowgirl Molly

I don’t tell you all of that to make you feel sorry for her. I’m trying to give you some background so you can understand what I’m going to say next:

I don’t feel sorry for her. I allowed myself to feel sorry for her for 24 hours. That was it. After that, she was our dog and our life together was just beginning. I am proud to call her my dog. I am proud of how smart she is and how quickly she picks up on commands. I am proud of how well she listens to both my wife and me. If you constantly think about the past and treat your dog like he is damaged or abused, he will never recover or grow. Don’t reward fear by petting him and tell him it will be okay. Don’t let him live in the past.

It’s imperative that when you bring home a rescue dog or an older dog that you are a good pack leader and set ground rules and train him with basic commands. If you treat him like a great dog and train him with confidence, he will have the opportunity to blossom and become the dog that you are hoping. You really can teach an old dog new tricks.

Keep It Simple

Being the pack leader is an important role and it will take you time to learn how to be good at it. That’s okay. I tell people to remember the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle when they are learning to be the pack leader. It’s okay to tell your dog “No” and correct them. Remember to be patient and consistent while enforcing your rules.



  1. We had a dog trainer tell us to literally throw our rottie down so we’re in the more powerful position above him, look in him the eye, and then wait until he looks away. But that didn’t last because he’s just a heavy dog. I didn’t like making loud noises either because it would scare him and I didn’t want him to be scared of us. But after watching an alpha keep my dog in line one day, I can see how the pinching on the neck or ear to get his attention would work; that’s exactly what the alpha would do.

    • I’ve also heard of trainers recommending more physical methods, but I believe that leads to them fearing you rather than respecting you as the leader. I understand your hesitance with the loud noises, however when your dog is in full territorial display and barking his head off, a loud noise like a penny jar may be the only way to break his fixation on whatever has set him off.

  2. Hi Nate,

    You’re right about how to treat an older or resqued dog. I have seen many people doing that with thei dogs after they adopt them from shelter. They don’t understand that animals are like humans. They have the same feelings. I have a friend who adopted a 3 yers old golden retriever, and after one year the dog was same solitary and i noticed that he was treating the dog in the same way as first time, feeling sorry for him, and i recomend him to change his attitude. In 2 weeks the dog was practically a new dog. And i am not a dog trainer. I just know that animals are same as humans.

    Great article.Good tips!


    • I couldn’t agree more! Our furry family members need to know that they are not allowed to live in the past because we won’t let them. We will help them blossom into the confident and wonderful pets they were always meant to be.

  3. I love this kind of website. Dogs and their ways are fascinating to me and the ‘pack leader’ approach will always work for the betterment of your best friend as well as you.
    Using these methods, in my mind, is the only way to really connect with your dog. She is not the same family as you but she and you will be connected as if you were if you maintain pack leader status at all times and she can rely on you to keep her safe and protect her.
    One of the biggest mistakes that’s made in my mind is right at the start, when the dog comes to your home for the first time. How many new owners, fling the front door open, stand back and let their new dog go in and explore their new home. Letting your new family member go in front of you at a threshold gives the wrong vibe. You’ve given the dog pack leader status right from the start. Your dog must wait for you to go first, without any pushing or barging. If necessary ask her to sit whilst you go through the door then invite her in. Take her around the house making sure you go first at all times. If she’s not allowed in a room, for instance the nursery or kitchen, go in but make her wait by the door. Being a pack leader is a full time job! Great post. Ches

  4. This is excellent advice for all dog owners. I’m a serious dog lover, but a dog that has no discipline or training is NOT fun to be around. On the contrary, jumping on people and furnishings can be dangerous and destructive. All it takes is basic obedience training when they’re young and consistency. My dogs won’t win any blue ribbons for obedience but they’re very attentive to me and well mannered. They know I expect it and they want to please me.

    • I’ve found that dogs are ultimately people pleasers. They crave approval from their alpha. Thank you for your insight!

  5. Like children, I actually think dogs like having some rules and regulations imposed upon them. In some ways it shows that the owner cares about them and thinks about them.

    They are pack animals. And while dogs want to be loved unconditionally as much as they will love you back, they also like to see you as the leader, the one to look up to, knowing that you have their best interests at heart.

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