Dog Aggression – How to Be Your Dog’s Leader


Article written by Michael D’Abruzzo, founder of K9-1 Specialized Dog Training LLC and the creator of “Foundation Style Dog Training”.

We all know dogs are pack animals. We all know dogs are closely related to wolves. Many of us know in wolf and wild dog society, no two dogs are considered socially equal. There is always an “alpha” dog that leads the pack, a “beta” group of dogs that are always looking for their chance to become alpha, and an “omega” group which are generally pups and other highly submissive members of the pack which don’t really want the responsibility and risk of leading the pack. Each dog, no matter what group, has a definite pecking order. Alpha dog is #1, then there is #2, 3, 4, and so on until the last and most submissive dog in the pack. The order sometimes changes, but for the most part it remains stable. The higher ranking dog always gets preference to limited commodities, and decides when and where activities, such as play, hunting, and mating will happen. This system prevents unnecessary fights and helps the pack work smoothly. If you didn’t know this – now you do. I guarantee your dog knows the scoop.

So what does this have to do with us humans anyway? Are we supposed to start lifting our legs and marking our homes as territory and bite our dogs on the snout when they try to take the best part of the elk we just chased and brought down together with our jaws? Of coarse not, but simply providing a comfortable home, feeding, and walking your dog does not automatically make you his leader.

For our purposes, we will be typically dealing with one of two types of dogs that we make part of our family. The two types are dominant secure and submissive secure.

A dominant secure dog would fall into the beta category if he were part of a legitimate dog pack and could potentially become an alpha. If placed in a human household where there is no obvious leadership, he will feel insecure. To help feel more secure he will try to take charge himself, deciding who’s allowed in the house, when he wants to play, go on walks, etc. Owners of these dogs sometimes have problems with aggression, bossiness, and unruliness. With a clear leader, these dogs are very happy, assertive, and loyal companions – ready to step up to the plate if the boss needs help. Occasionally, they will test the waters of their human’s authority.

Submissive secure dogs would be the type usually found in the omega group of a dog pack. When placed in a situation with questionable leadership, they tend to have different types of problems such as shyness and anxiety. Aggression can sometimes be seen in some of the more fearful individuals, but generally only when they feel there is not an escape option from a scary situation. With a clear leader, that they feel has the ability to lead and protect, these dogs are much more happy and outgoing. They are extremely tolerant of strangers and children. Some lucky people have those dogs that just always seemed to listen, even without formal training. It is a trait of a submissive secure dog under clear leadership.

There is not always a clear line between these two types. For instance, many pups start off as submissive secure and develop more of the traits of a dominant secure dog as they mature and some dogs become more submissive secure in their elder years.

It doesn’t really matter what type of dog you have or what kind of problems it is having… If you want to help, modify the behavior of, or teach any dog any thing – you need to create a solid foundation as a leader for that dog first.

A leader is not someone who caters to a dog’s every whim: petting, playing, feeding, and walking their little princess whenever she asks. 

A leader is also not a brutal tyrant: yelling, hitting, and using other forms of intimidation to communicate “dominance”.

How do you expect a dog to follow a push over who consistently allows that dog to decide when things happen (refer to the first paragraph). At the least it will cause confusion to the dog even if you lead in other parts of the dog’s life. How would you expect that dog to trust that person’s ability to lead the household and protect the rest of the family? Why should that dog obey that person, when that person is already obeying the dog? That person clearly is not a leader.

What about the yelling, physical tyrant? Not what I would call a leader, nor would the dog. Dogs do not understand that type of behavior as leadership. Temper tantrums are a trait of primates, not canines. It only makes the dog fear the unpredictable person inflicting the unusual behavior. Even if that dog exhibits obedience and submission to that person – it is out of fear and not respect for that person as a leader. It is very different. The tyrant is often a source of extra stress to the dog which does nothing for his confidence or over all well being. If the dog is shy or aggressive around strangers, how is he supposed to improve when even being intimidated by the one he lives with. The dog will be more willing and happy to be with a leader.

Here is a list of behaviors you should follow in order to communicate calm and confident leadership to your canine companion:


Dogs need physical and social contact in their pack (human or canine) to be truly happy. Wolves, wild dogs, and other dogs in groups are constantly rubbing against each other and soliciting contact. Although all the dogs may solicit contact in play, rest, or other activities – it is generally the dog of higher status that decides the outcome. He will either accept the invitation (on his terms) or simply ignore the other dog. The “leader” will generally always have a willing recipient to his requests for contact. This is the way your dog knows it’s supposed to go.

So, even though it may seem difficult, don’t automatically respond to your lovable and goofy pal’s soliciting for petting when he paws at your legs or rests his head on your lap. To do so will confuse your dog as to who is the leader. You should ignore this behavior or walk into your dog to sort of push him out of the way and resume what you were doing until the soliciting stops. Don’t even look at those big puppy dog eyes! – Do what another dog would do.

Don’t get all upset about the rules of doggy etiquette just yet – because you can pet your buddy and you can both love it. Just make sure that you are the one initiating it and have your dog do something first to earn it. Tell your dog to “come”, “sit”, or “down”. Ask only one time in a calm voice. Petting becomes a precious reward to your dog if it is not readily available and you will be amazed at the difference in your dog’s response to your simple requests – especially if he learns that you only ask one time.

If your dog has been soliciting first and you REALLY want to pet him, wait for him to stop and have him “come” about 1 minute after he stops or on rare occasions have your dog “down” and briefly pet your dog. Try not to make a habit of petting for extended time, since it will make your dog less capable of handling situations without it. See separation anxiety.

Possessions and Play

In dog society only the top dog has free access to all possessions. Anyone who has owned multiple dogs in the same house learns that it doesn’t matter how many doggie toys you put on the ground, if the top dog of the house wants them he or she will hoard them and not share with the other dogs (unless it doesn’t seem very important to that dog). Higher ranking dogs can generally snatch what ever toys they want from lesser ranking, but not vice versa. Higher ranking dogs will sometimes take their toy to a subordinate dog and solicit a game of keep away or tug-o-war. Not having free access to these fun items and play most healthy dogs will jump at the chance. Predictably the top dog ends up winning the game in the end and walks back off with the toy. Dogs understand, respect, and are content with these rules.

So what do you think you are communicating to your dog when you place a toy box full of toys on the ground for him to have free access to? Then, he comes and drops a tennis ball on your lap and you throw it for him or he swings around a tug toy in front of you and you go tug it until your dog is bored or runs back away with it?

It is OK to have toys for your dog and it is OK to play with your dog using the toys, but remember to do it in a way that helps them understand the hierarchy:

The dog’s toys are really your toys – you are just letting him play with them. Keep that mind set. Keep the toys where the dog can’t get to them. One chew item should always be left on the ground (that you are communicating isn’t important to you), that your dog can chew on when bored or in need to exercise his jaws.

You can now bring your toys to the dog to solicit play. Have the dog do a simple obedience exercise first, then either throw the ball or start whatever game you want. Whatever game you choose, just make sure you can win in the end. It is best if you end the game of tug, fetch, keep away, or whatever else before the dog gets bored. If you rotate different toys and games on different days in this fashion, not only are you demonstrating leadership abilities, you are also keeping your dog from getting bored of the same old toys that would normally all be laying around the house or yard. It’ll be better exercise for your dog and you can use them as positive motivation for obedience and training exercises.

Detection dog trainers use the same theory to keep their dogs motivated to work for many hours at a time. Would Grandma’s Toodles the wonder poodle sniff all day to find junior’s smack if the reward was a game of fetch which he can have anyway by dropping an always available tennis ball on Grandma’s lap… probably not.

Furniture and Beds

Resting areas are considered prized possessions in dog society, so the subject of allowing your dog use of furniture and human beds is closely related to the rules used for other possessions.

To allow Skippy the naked Chihuahua free lounging privileges to all the same comforts as the human members of a family will cause confusion as to who is the rightful owner of these soft resting areas. When Skippy growls at the visiting Mr. Snuffy who tries to sit on “Skippy’s” couch it might be funny to some, but it’s not so funny when Mr. Snuffy is replaced with a toddler or Skippy is replaced with Chopper the 80 pound hound. Even with a dog that is less dominant secure, the lack of a leader claiming these commodities will cause an insecure and leaderless environment.

Not letting the tail wagging members of the family on the furniture and beds will definitely make it clear that it is not the dog’s possession, but isn’t always necessary. For instance, if there are no humans in the room the dog is not really breaking any leadership rules in their culture – it is fair game. But, once a human enters the room the dog should be taught to get off. If you really want Skippy the naked Chihuahua under the covers with you because it is a cold winter night and you just ran out of fire wood – make Skippy obey a command first, then reward him with access to your bed with a second command. When you wake up make sure he leaves the bed too. Just make sure that it is clear to him that it is your bed and there is no free access when you’re around and you’ll be doing fine. Skippy will respect this and it will help keep him out of trouble. You will be demonstrating leadership in a way he’ll understand. 

Going Out and Walks

Just like when the alpha of a wolf or dog pack decides when it is time to move to another location, you want to decide when and how dog walks and other access to the outdoors happen.

At this point you should know enough to guess how this works because it all relates. Don’t fall into the group of owners who believe that a dog scratching at the door or barking at the door to go out is the result of your great training. It is just another example of the dog’s great training over you. Fido thinks, “When I bark at the door a human is to open it for me”. Who’s the leader?

Put your dog on a schedule – whatever works for you, but stay consistent. Three times per day is plenty for an adult dog to get a chance to eliminate. Fido needs to know that he will consistently get a chance to go out, so there is no need to pee in the house. Not responding to his attempts to decide when things happen will reinforce your role as a leader. If Fido isn’t sick and he knows there is a schedule you shouldn’t have to worry about any accidents.

When it is that time for a walk or to open the door to the yard, call your buddy one time and have him sit before you open the door. If the dog knows the routine and will not respond to one soft command, walk away from the door and try again a little later. He must learn that you mean what you say. You will not throw a tantrum or get upset and you will not just open the door anyway or repeat yourself because you must act like the kind of leader that dogs understand.

When on the walk, you choose the direction. Don’t let your dog drag you from tree to tree and across streets just because he smelled something interesting from that direction. Make all the decisions and you’ll be fine.


It is very simple to communicate your leadership through a proper feeding routine. Not only will this routine help establish a proper relationship – it will also help with housebreaking.

Remember the simple truths about the role of a dominant dog. You do not want your companion telling you when and what he wants to be fed by falling into the routine of filling the dog bowl when he slaps it with his paw or barks. You also don’t want to experiment with different types of foods just because your four-legged food critic is turning his wet nose to what you gave him – falling into the trap of being trained by the dog. And, if you just leave an always full food bowl on the ground you not only are missing a simple opportunity to teach your leadership, it can lead to other problems such as housebreaking and obesity.

Stay in control of your dog’s feeding routine. Feed your dog two times per day about 12 hours apart. The amount depends on the type of food and your dog’s individual requirements. When it is the scheduled time – hold the bowl of food and call your dog to you. Softly give a simple command such as “sit”. If your dog correctly responds, then praise instantly and put down the bowl. If your dog doesn’t respond in one command put away the bowl and wait again to the next scheduled feeding to try again. If your dog is new to this, give the poor soul another chance sooner rather than later – but not every ½ hour or so! The dog has to learn that he has to eat on your terms when he is lucky enough that you will offer it to him. He must feel as if his compliance to you is vital for his survival. If he doesn’t come and sit, or whatever other command you ask, on the first softly spoken request he will not eat and will ultimately starve. I assure you that I never heard of a dog that allowed himself to starve to death because he refused to comply with this simple exercise. Most dogs will not skip more than one or two feedings before catching on. When you put down the food do not leave it there for more than 20 minutes before picking it back up again.

If you are feeding the right amount and following this method your grateful buddy will eat it all right away, will have two consistent bowel movements at the same time each day to aid in housebreaking, and recognize your leadership in this routine.

You can give treats sparingly through the day – but it is best to take advantage of the added value of these treats by using them as rewards for good behavior and for training new behaviors.

About the author:

Over the years Michael D’Abruzzo has had countless clients who were not satisfied with the methods, knowledge, patience, honesty, professionalism, or results of their previous trainer or behaviorist. Many dogs labeled as “too set in their ways” or difficult become the pride of their owners after working with him.  His reputation of being the last resort for many dogs is the same reason why veterinarians and past clients just refer to him first. For more information on dog training, dog aggression and much, much more, visit Mike’s web site.