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Ground Work to Becoming Your Puppy's Pack Leader by Ed Frawley

A year or two ago, I wrote an article titled "The Ground Work to Becoming a Pack Leader." Well it has been read by many people time, it's obvious that two articles should have been written: one for adults and one for puppies. This article will specifically focus on ground work for puppies.

When an 8-week-old puppy is taken home, many people will be concerned about what should be fed to the puppy or how to stop it from peeing on the floor. While these concerns are certainly okay to address, there is another concern that is often ignored. People will forget to establish themselves as the pup's pack leader.

The genes that control their puppy's temperament, personality, and drives are extremely strong. If puppies don't have a solid pack structure, they will grow up as a dominant or obnoxious adult dog.

We'll be explaining how to raise a new puppy in our home.

I, Ed Frawley, have trained dogs for 45 years. I have bred over 350 litters of German Shepherds since 1978. Cindy has also owned dogs her entire life and has done serious competition training since 1984. I tell you this so that you can see the experience we have in this area. There are enough people out there with little to no experience and will offer you advice on this subject.

Pack Structure

Dogs are pack animals, just like wolves are pack animals. They're predators. Cows and horses are herd animals and are also prey for these predators.

Predators live by one set of genetic rules, prey animals live by a different set of genetic rules.

Pack animals have a leader and lower-ranking pack members. These packs are not a democracy.

The pack is organized in a hierarchy of rank. Every member knows what their rank is within the family.

Genetically, dogs understand this concept. This is why there are dog fights when a new dog is added to a home that already has a dog. Everyone needs to re-establish the new packing order when a new pack member comes on board.

The Beginning of Pack Structure

A puppy will start to establish pack structure with its littermates at about 4 ½ weeks of age. They will start doing so simply by playing with one another.

They will bite and push each other around. The ones who bite the hardest and push the most become the higher ranking pack members.

Of course, there is no question that the mother is the pack leader. A good mother will exert her leadership by warning puppies to stay away from her food bowl when she is eating. She will protect her litter as well. This is a demonstration of leadership. She controls the litter in subtle ways that establish her as the pack leader.

What is a Pack Leader?

Pack leaders are aloof and calm. They are self-confident. A pack leader is fair. While he is a dictator, he is a fair dictator who enforces a well-defined set of rules that all members know, understand, and are expected to live by.

Pack leaders DO NOT lose their temper, bully pack members into compliance, or act unfair.

For example, eating first is what pack leaders do. Lower ranking members don't get a choice. When the leader is finished, he will turn the food over to other pack members. He doesn't come back and drive them away from the food.

People who put food down and then take it away or push dogs away from the food bowl are bullies. Their dogs will see them that way. By doing this, you are not being fair. You're not practicing leadership principles. They won't look at you in respect.

To do this correctly, make the dog do something (such as sit) before the food is put down. Once it's down, leave it alone until it's time to pick up. We leave the food down for 15 minutes and then pick it up if the dog has not eaten at all.

You can easily bully your way to the leadership position but doing so will destroy the relationship with your dog.

Pack members need to trust me, feel relaxed around me, and be comfortable in my presence. The only way this can happen is if they know the rules and anticipate our expectations. When that happens, they know they will be treated fairly. They also know that if they ignore the rules, they will suffer the consequences.

A leadership relationship is learned through the day-to-day experiences of living with an owner who establishes and enforces rules. It's also learned through formal obedience training.

Hundreds of dogs will go through obedience classes every year in the US. The majority of these dominant dogs will come out just as dominant as they went in. The owners were not trained in pack structure so these dogs don't know how to alleviate their dominance.

If you've raised your puppy since they were a pup and it has become a dominant and aggressive dog, then you are not a pack leader. You did not establish family pack structure.

Where to start?

A puppy will come to your home with its only experience in life with its mother and littermates. While the puppy can see that things have changed, it has no reason to believe that how it interacts with you has changed.

Biting and chasing littermates is how it interacted with its littermates. It will try to interact with you the same way after it has grown accustomed to its new environment. Very subtly, the pup is trying to find its rank in the packing order of your family.

You need to teach your puppy that you are the new pack leader. In a manner that won't scare your dog, teach it that biting and chasing high ranking human pack members is absolutely. This is a small challenge but a lot of people will overlook these steps. And then there are the people who will overreact to them. You will need to find the middle-ground in telling your dog.

Ignoring this behavior will result in a dominant dog. Overreacting to this and using too much force will result in a shy dog that will never reach its potential.

Establishing the Tether

When we bring a pup home, we always use a dog crate. Not using one is a mistake.

You need to reduce the possibility of house training mistakes and to teach the pup that being wild in the house is not going to happen.

Most of our interaction with the pup will be done outside. Using a flat collar with a snap and 20 foot cotton lines are useful when the pup runs around. Let will let it drag the line.

Never let the pup run around the house. Have a line on it ALWAYS. You need to control every aspect of the pup's life. Trust does not fall on deaf hearts.

Letting your pup run around the house untethered will leave you with inconvenient problems. They are going to get into things you don't want them to get into, they are going to pee on the floor, and they are going to jump up and bite you.

If you get tired dealing with the pup, put it in the crate. It will scream a lot for a few days but we just set it in the garage and let it scream its head off.

If you don't have a garage, you can cover the crate with a sheet and leave one of the toys or treats in the crate. Turn on the radio or TV. The pup will calm down as time passes. Occasionally, I will let it lay at my feet when I work on my computer. If it doesn't calm down, then it will stay in the crate when I don't have time for it.

Many readers are appalled by my "No One Pets My Puppy" rule. Truth is, I want to become the center of the universe for my dog. I don't want my dog to be looking to other people as a source of praise and fun. I recommend that you take a minute and read or listen to that article.

Controlling the Wild Puppy

When people get puppies with a lot of prey drive, they're often at a loss as to what to do to control it.

This is easy. Redirect the puppy to a toy.

Puppies will play with their mouths. They see littermates as prey objects. When they come into your home and start chewing on you, then they see you as a pray item. Your job is to teach them that toys are prey items and not your hands, arms, or legs.

Doors and Gates

Going through doors, going through gates, and coming down stairs first are a huge thing in terms of rank for a dog. All dogs, puppies, or adults will get excited when it's time to get out of the house or get back in. They'll bolt straight out the door.

Starting form day one, you need to control the puppy at the door. Keep them on a line and make them sit for food when we go outside or come back inside. In fact, we'll make the dog sit when we step outside before we close the door.

Establishing a routine at the door will enforce your rank and control over the dog. Don't underestimate the importance of this.


There is no question that people quickly fall in love with their puppies. They'll buy their pups a lot of toys.

We do love our dogs, but we don't leave our toys lying around the house. The dogs don't own any of these toys. The toys are our toys and we let the pup play with "OUR TOYS." We always take the toys away when play time is finished.

Again, this will demonstrate leadership without pressure. It is not domineering but makes it clear that you are the leader.

When we play with pups, we will always have it wear a line. It will stop them from keeping the toys away and conditions them to forget that they have a line on.

Playing with your puppy should be fair. You need to teach them that to establish yourself as the leader.

Taking the Toy Away from the Puppy

When it comes time to take the toy away, we will use the term "OUT" (though any word should do so long as it is consistent). We'll offer to trade the pup a really good treat for the toy.

We'll simply let them smell the treat and when they spit out the toy, they will get the food. If we want the game to end, take the toy out of the picture and make it disappear. Don't tease them with the toy once we take it away. You will lose the bond you have with your dog.

This trick will only last for so long. Dogs will start to get it and they'll prefer to play instead of getting a treat. When this happens, you move on to the second stage of teaching the dog to release when told.

Other Dogs and Puppies

We never allow our puppies to be around other dogs or puppies. If raising two pups at the same time, we will never let them play together. We want our pups to look at us as their source of fun and excitement--not at another dog.

I will get emails about people who have dogs with behavioral problems because they have mistakenly bought two pups which are now 12-24 months old. These dogs are now anti-social and more difficult to train. They'll have aggression problems.

If out on a walk and being approached by another person, we never allow the other dog to come up and smell or greet our puppy. I cannot stress this enough.

We don't know how aggressive the other dog is. Once a puppy has been attacked, it will be aggressive for the rest of its life. Dogs never forget traumatic events like that.

As the pack leader, your puppy will expect that YOU will protect it from non-pack member. If we're out on a walk and a stray dog tries to approach out puppy, we put ourselves between the pup and the off-leash dog. We drive the stray away. If we walk in an area, that we know there are stray dogs, we carry pepper grass or a strong walking stick and won't hesitate to use them if the stray isn't threatened by our verbal warnings.

Vets, Vaccinations, and Neutering

Vaccinations can cause more problems than they can prevent. We feel they are a major cause of allergies in dogs. Vaccinations as well as commercial dog foods are the leading cause of cancer in dogs. Vaccinations are also the reason why dogs develop thyroid problems which can lead to aggression in dogs. These changes won't appear until months after a vaccination.

Many vets won't talk about these things because a major part of their income comes from yearly vaccinations. We recommend you walk away from a vet who pushes those yearly vaccinations.

The only vaccinations we give our pups are for parvo and distemper. These are given at 7 ½ weeks and 11 or 12 weeks of age and then never again.

Most areas force pet owners to get rabies shots. If we were not bound by law, we would not give this vaccination.

Bottom line is, you need to do your own research and make your own decisions on what to do for your own dogs.