After our trip to Hocking Hills last month, when Riley was so anxious and disruptive, I started to wonder if we had become too lax with him. Most of the time he’s a great dog, but looking back with an objective eye, I can see that over the past couple years, his naturally high-energy personality has turned into an unnaturally high-strung nervousness.

Be the Pack Leader: Use CESAR'S WAY to Transform Your Dog . . . and Your Life To figure out how to ease his anxiety, I turned to Cesar Millan. No, Riley and I won’t be appearing on an episode of the Dog Whisperer, but I did read Cesar’s book BE THE PACK LEADER. I won’t rehash the whole thing, but here are the basic principles of Cesar’s Way:

  • Dogs naturally operate in a pack hierarchy.
  • If you want an obedient dog, you need to be his pack leader.
  • To establish your leadership, you should fulfill your dog’s needs: Exercise, Discipline, and Affection (in that order).
  • With all of that, you should also project “calm-assertive energy.”
  • If you do not do those things, your dog may become confused as to his rank/role within the pack, possibly leading to instability, insecurity, disobedience, or even aggression.

Essentially Cesar was saying that to correct Riley’s behavior, I first had to correct my own.

(And it didn’t matter that we had done all the “right” things with Riley as a puppy — training, socialization, etc. A good foundation is very important and helpful, but it isn’t always enough. Because dogs are creatures of the moment, you have to maintain the boundaries you’ve established.)

Through this new lens, I saw that I was taking too many shortcuts with Riley; allowing him to have control of certain situations; and humanizing him in ways that were detrimental to our relationship and to his understanding of the world. For all of our sakes, I decided to employ Cesar’s techniques to try and reclaim leadership of our “pack.” The biggest, clearest change is that we now start every day with a 30-60 min walk, with Riley right by my side instead of in front, and only sniffing and peeing with my permission. Believe it or not, it only took a single day for Riley to learn to walk this way, and in just one week I think it has helped to make him calmer and more obedient.


(Note: For Riley, I don’t think the walking alone would be enough. We’re following as much of Cesar’s Way as we can. The Dog Breed Info Center served as a great supplement, offering concrete, helpful guidelines.)

Yes, this all takes a lot of time, effort, and patience. Yes, it’s exhausting. Yes, I think it’s worth it.

(But no, I don’t think anyone is a “bad” dog owner if they don’t do these things. I’m looking for solutions that fit me and my life, that’s all.)

Not only is Riley happier, but so am I. I feel more physically fit, more connected to my dog, and more confident and self-aware. I don’t think either of us will end up perfect, but I do hope and believe that this stable, healthy mindset can spill over to other parts of my life.

7 responses to “My dog as a mirror (Self-awareness part 1)”

  1. linda Avatar

    I randomly saw an episode of the Dog Whisperer once and found it really interesting. So cool that you’re using the concepts with Riley! Glad to hear it’s working out well. :)

  2. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

    “(But no, I don’t think anyone is a ‘bad’ dog owner if they don’t do these things. I’m looking for solutions that fit me and my life, that’s all.)”

    Also, most importantly, not all dogs are the same. As with any other relationship, it’s a process, including figuring out what he needs from you at every stage (not just Riley-as-dog but Riley-as-Riley).

  3. Sonje Avatar

    The dog trainer guy I subscribe to is Don Sullivan. I bought his The Perfect Dog DVDs. I think Sullivan is a bit more hardcore/on the discipline side than Cesar, but both my dog and I are pretty happy with each other, so that’s good.

  4. Juliann Avatar

    Dogs are so smart. It’s amazing to me how quickly they respond to training. I still let Chipsy lead the way when we walk because I figure it’s *his* chance to walk and explore, not mine. (When I want to really walk, I leave him home.) But the rest of the time, I think he knows he’s not the pack leader. Or maybe he just has ME well-trained.

  5. Kristan Avatar

    Yeah, I watched the show even before we got Riley. Cesar’s natural empathy towards dogs is really fascinating. Now, he’s able to do a lot of things with dogs that the average person should NOT attempt. But his basic principles make sense to me, and his assertion that dogs act as mirrors for their owners really helped me get a different perspective on myself.

    So true! Dog training is not a one-size-fits-all activity (as Cesar himself says) and I think I’m still figuring out what exactly works for me and Riley.

    I had never heard of him, but after googling around I see that he’s got some reviews. And yes, THIS: “my dog and I are pretty happy with each other, so that’s good.” I’ve spent a lot of time today second-guessing myself and Cesar (after some friends and fellow dog owners commented on FB) and in the end I realized that your statement is exactly what matters.

    I had that same philosophy toward Riley too — *before* he started acting up. And I don’t think the walks are actually a problem for him, but I’m trying to embrace a bigger picture of discipline. If Chipsy is being a good boy on his walks, then it seems to me there’s nothing to worry about. :)

  6. Julia Avatar

    When Ziggy first came to live with me, we sat down together and watched an entire season of “The Dog Whisperer” on dvd. Ziggy was enthralled. “Do you think the dog is going to do what that guy wants?” he’d ask near the end of every show. Then we read “How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend” by the monks of New Skeet. Ziggy loved that book. Especially the part where the monk hooked the dog to his belt and they did chores together. All of which is to say, I agree with you Kristan, education is so important in the human – dog relationship.

    And Ziggy realized fairly quickly how tightly strung I am, so he’s careful to take me for a walk every day. What a good dog.

  7. Kristan Avatar

    Every new thing I hear about Ziggy makes me love him even more. :)