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Canine Behavior/Pack behaviour


My parents got a dog 6 years ago named Mac, they got him from a family that couldn't deal with his hyper-active personality. When they first got him he was very nervous and flinched at everything movement they made towards him. He's still quite nervous now at times, we believe the family who had him before mistreated him to some extent.
I live abroad and so only visit the house once evey year or two. The first time I visited, he got VERY excited to meet me, fussed about me for almost an hour and then wouldn't leave my side. His usual place is sitting either between my feet or on one of them, with his back to me. After I left, my mum told me that Mac moped for days. Now everytime I visit he sticks to me like glue. This part of his behaviour I understand. What puzzles me is his behaviour around me whilst my parents are interacting with him. He reluctantly leaves my side to go to them when called, and whilst recieving attention from them he either looks at me wth sad/sorry eyes or won't meet my gaze. He looks the same way when he knows he's done something wrong. As soon as my mum/dad have finished fussing him he quickly returns to my side and sits down next to me with his back to me in his usual position. Why does he act this way? What position does he see me in within the pack since I'm barely there? And does my position within the pack have anything to do with his behaviour?

Thank you for your response.

There is no "pack" social structure as such in the domestic dog, it is a serious misunderstanding among those who think they know, but don't.

This dog must sense something about you that makes him want to control your movements: sitting on top of you, sitting between your legs, blocking your movements, etc., are all part and parcel of a dog who is anxious and either attempting to "control" or attempting to form "affiliation" with a Human who does not "belong" (per se, in day to day interaction) in its environment.  He may "mope" as you described when you leave, but this is not what is going on: someone equal to him in his self perceived social hierarchy, or someone who confuses his self perceived social hierarchy, is suddenly "gone".  You have literally disappeared so far as he is concerned ALTHOUGH I strongly suggest you read the British Biologist Rupert Sheldrake's works on animal to human (and vice versa) communication via non-local consciousness.

It is YOUR PARENTS who miss you when you leave, trust me.  YOU are very "important" because THEY feel that way and this is communicated to the dog who can make no sense of it except by reading their body language.  You are their beloved son.  A dog does not *know* it has done "something wrong", it only receives the behavior of its humans following that "wrongdoing".  I have proven this many times to clients.  "Oh" they have told me over and over, "the dog knows it's done something wrong because it looks guilty."  So I have, repeatedly, simply gone to something in the room that was in perfect order, pointed at it, and said (in the presence of the dog) "WHAT IS THIS?" and the dog has obligingly looked "guilty" = because of my tone, my body language, my posture, not because "this" had anything "wrong" with it.

I suggest your parents put Mac on a very simple Nothing In Life Is Free protocol.  This means: using positive reinforcement, he is taught to "sit" on cue (use another word, make one up) as seen here:

It may take up to 50 trials (because of the age of the dog and his natural anxiety) for him to "get it", but "get it" he will.  Ten out of ten successful "sits" to his new command means from that moment on, he must be asked to "sit" before being taken out, brought back in; before being fed; before being petted.  Simple as that.  No big deal.  This will make him far more secure in social hierarchy. As for your visits: not much you can do about the love of your parents for you, thank God for it; not much you can do about their depression when you leave and that's what the dog is reacting to.  He may very well have connected their emotional response, excitement, body language, etc. with YOUR presence which is why he is behaving toward you as he is.  So long as they maintain that low level of NILIF he will become more secure.  Your visits will not disrupt his life even if your parents react to your leave taking.

Don't make a big fuss over the dog when you arrive, and certainly not when you leave.  Tell your folks to walk you out the front door when you leave with the dog on leash and then continue on a happy happy, joy joy, walk with him as you go the other way.  You can't tell them not to miss you, not to worry about you.  You can tell them that the dog is watching their every move so the first half hour they reenter their home with Mac they should have a few little "parties" of soft laughter, clapping hands, singing a little song.  This is the best you can do for everyone involved.  You must be a wonderful son.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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