Understanding Structure and Why Our Dogs Need It

Written by

Chris Tipton

Written by

Chris Tipton

Chirs began working with Canine Revolution to help his dog's anxiety. It was through this training that Chris developed a passion for dog training and a desire to help other dog owners overcome similar obstacles.

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Today we are going to talk about structure and why it is vital for our dogs.

Implementing a structure can:

  • increase the life and health of your dog
  • lower or extinguish anxiety and insecurity
  • build their confidence in themselves as well as in you
  • establishes you as a strong and confident pack leader, something all dogs need.

All mammals require some form of structure. Think of our society, there are rules and guidelines to live by. There are positive and negative consequences for adhering to or breaking those rules and without these rules, chaos can erupt. Our dogs are no different.

Under our training system, we refer to this structure as the “Pack Structure.”

Pack structure is a set of rules and expectations taught to our dogs in a way they understand on an instinctual level, reinforced through consistent and effective leadership on our part. What rules you set for your dog are completely up to you and can depend on your lifestyle.

Most of us do not want our dogs to do the following:

  • jumping on the counter stealing food
  • jumping on people when they come over
  • digging holes in the backyard
  • chewing on furniture or carpet
  • the list goes on.

In order for us to have control over these behaviors, we must have structure in place.

So where do we start and how can we implement structure?

Schedule

First, we will talk about schedule and overall management. We want to set up a consistent schedule for our dogs. Routine can help when dealing with anxiety. We want to set up consistent feeding times, potty times, training times, walk times, etc. This is not something that needs to be extremely rigid and followed to the minute, as life can change and throw us curveballs, but we want to provide some form of routine and normalcy for our dogs.

We try to feed our dogs around the same time every day. Maybe we perform our training sessions around the same time. We can go for an evening walk before bedtime. We play fetch or tug in the morning after breakfast and before we go to work. These are just some examples of how we can start to implement some form of schedule or routine with our dogs.

Management

Next is management. We must manage our dog’s behaviors while we are teaching them the Pack Structure. By controlling every aspect of our dog’s life, we are building their respect for us while also not allowing for successful repetitions of undesirable behaviors.

Let’s examine some of the common issues people typically want addressed with their dogs: digging in the yard, laying on the couch, jumping on people, chewing on furniture, pottying in the house, excessive barking, and the list goes on.

Let’s say we are being intense about training our dogs and we are going to do two separate two-hour training sessions every single day. We are going to get up early and train for two hours, then we are going to do two more hours of training at the end of the day when we get home from work. That’s a total of four hours of productive training per day. You can accomplish a lot with four hours of training.

But consider this, at some point, you have to go to work, you have to go to the store, you need to pick up the kids, you need to sleep. What are our dogs doing during this time?

If I am at work for 8 hours and my dog is outside as an example (we do not advocate leaving your dog outside for 8 hours), my dog has 8 hours to dig as many holes as he wants. Or I let my dog free roam in the house while I am at work. My dog has 8 hours to sit on the furniture, excessively bark at everything that goes by the house, to chew on everything in the house, etc. In this case, our four hours of training are really not doing any good and will never solve the issues we are trying to solve.

There are 20 more hours in the day that we need to be thinking about. So during the management phase of training, it is crucial you are able to MANAGE your dog’s behavior.

For us, that means using a kennel when we can not physically manage our dogs. We like to quickly teach a spot or place command so we can use that as a form of management when we are home. We manage when they have access to food and water, when they go outside, when they train, when they exercise, when they can have toys, etc. And to clarify, we are not just locking our dogs in the kennel all day long. During this process, we are still responsible for providing them with their instinctual needs of physical and mental stimulation. Management is critical during the process of instilling structure.

The next part of establishing structure is the actual training part.

Training

So we discussed that pack structure is a set of rules and expectations to live by.

So what are those rules?

We like to start with obedience commands. This is a great foundation for setting up a set of expectations for our dogs. We teach dogs to sit, down, stay, heel, and recall. Now I am not talking about going to a puppy class at your local pet store a time or two and showing our dog some obedience and calling it a day because they sat or downed a few times for a treat. That is a great starting point but nowhere near the finish line! I am talking about proofing these behaviors to the point that it is muscle memory for our dogs.

These behaviors should be proofed to the point that our dogs perform them each and every time we ask them to, regardless of the circumstances. This means when I call my dog, they should come each and every time. Whether we are in the backyard or at the beach, or when my dog decides to take off after a squirrel. It does not matter. These behaviors are not optional, nor should they be seen as tricks like “rollover” or “give me your paw.” These are crucial behaviors from a safety perspective. We call it obedience for a reason.

If your dog does not perform these behaviors each time you ask them to, they are not obedient, plain, and simple.

This takes time, repetition, and consistency:

  • Time can mean several weeks or even months depending on your dog and your dedication.
  • Repetition means literally hundreds of repetitions.
  • Consistency means we do these things daily without fail and the standard does not change and we do not lose momentum in our leadership day in and day out.

Communication

Now through this whole process, it is also vital that we instill clear communication. Remember, our dogs are nonverbal creatures. Even though many of us may have full conversations with our dogs, we have to realize, they do not understand what we are saying. They do not speak in a verbal language. We can not simply explain and negotiate what we want with our dogs.

Dogs learn through association. They learn to understand what certain words mean by making an association with them. They learn when I say the word good, they get a treat or a pet or some type of reward. Thus they make the association, when I say the word good, they have done something right!

They also learn when I say the word no, I remove their treat or don’t pet them or maybe give them some form of correction or accountability. Thus they make the association when I say the word no, they have done something wrong.

This must also be done repetitiously and consistently in order for the communication system to be understood by our dogs. But it is imperative that we have a means of truly letting our dogs know when they have done the right thing vs. when they have done the wrong thing.

Now there are more aspects to the structure like working on specific distractions, advanced obedience, off-leash work, socialization, and much more. But the things we have discussed are the foundation and the basis of structure that everyone should have in place. You can expand on this in any way you would like particular to your specific goals for your dogs.

Now let’s talk about certain behavioral conditions that structure will help address.

Anxiety

Anxiety is something we see a lot.

In fact, most of the undesirable behaviors we have mentioned so far could be rooted in anxiety. Our dog’s excessive barking, digging in the backyard, jumping on people, or chewing on furniture are very common anxious behaviors. Now when we have a structure in place we can seriously address these issues.

On one end, when our dog performs these behaviors, because our communication system is in place, we can communicate that they are doing the wrong thing. They start digging, we say no and correct them. Through repetition, they learn digging is the wrong thing to do and the behavior will become extinct over time. On the other end, we can now effectively redirect them and more importantly redirect their energy.

Let’s say my dog jumps on my friend when he comes to the house. I can tell him no and correct him, and then tell him to go to his spot or place. Because we have habituated the obedience and it is muscle memory, my dog quickly goes to the spot. This is a command he is familiar and proficient with. Now, even though he is still anxious that my friend is over, he has something else to focus his energy on. And that is maintaining a down-stay on his spot.

Over time, the jumping behavior will become extinct over time. But even more importantly, he will begin to become less anxious when people come over. His anxiety has not been reinforced by jumping and getting attention, so eventually, he will be calm and confident when people come over.

Insecurity

Insecurity is another common behavioral condition we see.

The pack structure addresses insecurity in the same exact way. Let’s say my dog is fearful every time we walk by my neighbor’s sprinkler system. Prior to introducing any structure, my dog would try and run away from the sprinkler, pulling me along with him. Now we have taught our dog to heel next to us calmly on our walks. As we pass by the sprinkler, my dog maintains that heel position because he understands the expectations. Sure, he still may be fearful, but the difference here is he is relying on me and holding the expectations. Over time, the sprinkler no longer causes fear and my dog becomes more confident.

Now once you have successfully established a strict structure, this is when we can start to let up on the management part a little bit.

Once our dog understands the structure, has become more confident, respects us, and respects the rules, we have established some trust.

We can now allow them certain privileges that we choose. If my dog used to chew on furniture but has not since we implemented structure and he has been overall obedient and respects my authority, I may allow him the privilege of staying out of the kennel while I am at work. Maybe my dog that was a digger gets the privilege now to free roam in the backyard.

Once trust has been established between you and your dog, we can allow them these privileges not because they deserve them, but because they have earned them. At this point you can start to adjust your structure to fit your lifestyle and your preferences. You can tighten up or loosen up the structure at any time as you see fit and your dog will understand!

Hopefully, now it makes sense why structure is needed and important in our dog’s lives. Introducing structure to your dog reduces anxiety and insecurity and builds their confidence. It builds trust and respect going both ways. It creates a way for us to truly communicate with our dogs. This also reduces our anxiety and gives us a way to live a happy stress-free life with our dogs.

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