The Groundwork to
Establishing Pack Structure
with the Adult Dog
by Ed Frawley

After 50 years of training dogs, over 30 as a professional dog trainer there are a few sayings that make a lot of sense to me:

Establishing pack structure is extremely important for dogs that show signs of becoming dominant or aggressive.

Here, I will show you how we introduce dogs into the home. I have over 45 years of breeding, owning, and training dogs both in the home and police force environment.

You need to adopt the attitude of a pack leader. Dogs don't need you to roll him on his back, raise your voice, or pull hard leash corrections. Being a pack leader is about adopting a leader's attitude.

Dogs can sense a leader. Inappropriate corrections often result in a dog looking at the offender with contempt, not respect.

"Dogs know what you know and they know what you don't know." I show my dog what I know. It will establish responsibility and limits to the relationship I build with my dogs.

Love is Not Enough

The majority of behavior problems are caused by mistakes made in the beginning foundations set up between the owner and his dog. These are what I like to call "mistakes in groundwork." For this article, the term groundwork refers to "the basics of establishing pack structure with a new dog."

Indivuals believe that loving a dog is enough to form a good relationship. These people are dead wrong. It doesn't even work in human relationships.

Unconditional love is never enough. Love will have conditions and boundaries. It will have mutual trust and respect. If humans don't deal with the respect issue, their dog will never look up at them as a pack leader.

What is Groundwork?

Groundwork is not about training a dog to COME, or HEEL, or SIT. It is about teaching the dog how I plan to live with it. In other words, I am talking about how I establish pack structure with a new dog.

How we handle a dog daily will teach that dog many things about yourself, your pack, and your rules.

Whether it is grooming, feeding, or exercising, my general attitude when I am around my dog will tell him volumes about our future relationship.

"I call these the first steps to establishing a family pack structure."

When bringing a new dog home, the decisions made on how we live with the dog and the methods used to train the dog have long-term implications.

Some individuals may not think of themselves as a dog trainer, but we are teaching the dog something every time we are around it. The question is, "Are we teaching something good or something bad?" Many don't know the difference.

The Solutions to Most Behavioral Problems

Many behavioral problems can be solved merely by changes the owner needs to make in how he lives with his dog.

Dogs live in the present. Nearly all human psychologists focus on the past to find answers to current problems. While this works for a human, it does not for a dog. You can't fix their behavioral issues by looking into the past.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying that changing a training routine for an abused dog is bad. I am saying that many individuals use the term "abuse" to explain their dog's behavioral problems.

Truth is, I don't change my philosophy. I don't change how to live or traing my dog just because he had a bad experience in the past.

It's Never Too Late to Change

If you have a problem with your dog, it is never too late to consider making changes on how you live with your dog.

If there is a problem, it is absolutely imperative that you make changes. The way you have been living with your dog has allowed these problems to develop.

Dogs live in the moment. They miss nothing. The old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is simply an old wives' tale. It's information you shouldn't rely on.

It is never too late to turn things around, to start to do things correctly. The only requirements needed to make this work is patience and confidence.

Everyone Has an Opinion

Everyone will have an opinion on how to train your dog. Ask your mailman, your barber, or your relatives. They'll have something to say about it.

Take a step into a local Pet Smart. Talk to their trainers or look in their book section. You will see conflicting, contradicting, and confusing advise.

Many people, including many of the instructors out there, don't have enough experience to offer sound advice on training--much less, pack structure. This results in bad information being passed out.

In conclusion, be wary of who you take advice from.

What Breeds Need Groundwork?

Every breed needs groundwork. This article isn't specific to a certain breed. Whether you have a mini Pomeranian or a large Mastiff, groundwork is a great way to establishing pack structure in adult dogs. Note that this training is for adult dogs only, not puppies.

In the world of dog training, individuals need to realize that dog training is not breed specific. It is temperament and drive specific.

No matter how small or big the dog is, no matter how young or new the dog is, no matter where it came from or who were its parents, and no matter what current level of training the dog is at, every dog needs to go through a solid groundwork program. While this article refers mainly to adult dogs, those of you looking to have a solid groundwork program for the puppy can read Becoming Your Puppy's Pack Leader.

Groundwork exercises will help give you control of your dog. You will learn how to handle and control character traits the dog has regardless whether or not it is learned or genetic.

You will have more confidence in your dog. The more groundwork, the more experience and confidence every new dog owner will have.

Many Rescue Dogs Genetically Have Faulty Temperaments

Many dogs are turned in to humane societies because they have genetically faulty temperaments. Individuals have the tendency to believe that rescue dogs have been abused when in fact, the dog simply didn't have a healthy pack structure.

Dogs with faulty temperaments are also dogs with pack drives. The only difference lies in how these dogs react to the "rank" portion of their pack drive.

Dogs with faulty temperament need a solid pack structure more than any normal dog would.

Additionally, some temperament issues come as a result of people who own animals and prefer to treat them like a human child rather than a pack animal. This causes GIGANTIC problems.

Some of these people will come to their senses when their dog develops serious dominance problems. Others will turn the dog in to animal shelters or worse yet, have the dogs put to sleep.

The First Weeks

When bringing a new adult into our home, I socially isolate the dog for a period of time. Some dogs will only take for 3 or 4 days. For dominant dogs, it can be weeks.

When I talk about social isolation, I'm talking about the dog's basic needs: feeding, water, walking, and a clean place to sleep. Nothing else. I will not pet, play with, or sweet talk to the dog. I act like it's not there.

During this isolation period, the only time I let the dog out of the crate while in the house is when it's on its way outside.

Always on a Leash

Once the dog is out of the crate, I hook a leash to him so he is under complete control. During this period, I never have the dog off leash ever. This includes the time when I walk him from the crate to the door.

Eventually, I will start to let him more out of the crate. I will still always have him on a leash. When watching TV, he will be on a leash, lying by my feet. If I work on the computer, he is on a leash tethered to my desk. He does not have free run of the house for months.

When a house dog starts to misbehave in the house, it needs to go back in the crate. Additionally, keep it on a leash while in the house. Being loose is an earned privilege. Pet owners will often forget this.

It will become crystal clear to the dog that you are in absolute control of its environment and its life as well. This is extremely important to show to the pack animal.

You'll notice that during this entire time period, the dog doesn't need to be given a single correction. I'm simply doing this to show him that I am in control of his life.

It may take a while before formal training can start. It can be up to several weeks or even a month but during this time, there is a lot the dog can learn while you wait.

First, the dog will learn that this is his new home and that I am his pack leader. I want to bond with him before doing formal obedience training.

Keeping him on a leash and controlling every aspect of its life allows for the opportunity to show that I am fair. I will not give him any unwarranted corrections. Learning to be consistent and fiar goes a long way towards forming a respectful, two-way relationship.

During this period, I will never force anything on the new adult dog. In fact, I go out of my way to act aloof to the dog. I will make the dog feel like I don't care about him. I act like taking him outside is a job and that I would rather be in Florida or anywhere else other than spending time with him. My goal is to teach him that he must "earn my affection and respect."

Recap: The first few weeks will only consist of feeding the dog, givinghim water and exercise, and NOT acting gushy over him. When I take him for a walk, I don't play with him. I simply walk him and then put him away.

The dog will sense the aloof attitude from you. Dogs already have the instinct that all leaders are aloof. You won't see an alpha wolf running around, acting like a hyper puppy. He will be aloof, serious, and protective when necessary.

Puppies will act differently when it comes to establishing a pack structure. Read the article, Becoming Your Puppy's Pack Leader to learn more.

The Dog Crate

The easiest way to go about groundwork with your dog is with a dog crate.

The dog will need to start its life in your home in a dog crate. In the beginning, the dog may not like the crate but will eventually learn to accept it.

A bowl of all-natural dog treats is always kept near our dog crate. Everytime I ask the dog to go into the crate, I will throw a few treats into the crate first. Additionally, I also feed the new dog in the crate as well.

Many dogs will go crazy when they are first put in the crate. A treat balls or a cow's knuckle bone will take their mind off from being confined in the crate.

What will also help is putting a sheet on top and over the crate so that the dog can't see out. Screaming and hitting the dog will do nothing but increase the dog's stress and confirm that being in the crate will bring out bad things

The more a dog barks and screams, the longer it has to stay in the crate.

What Kind of Crate to Use?

We like to use plastic airline type crates. They contain the hair better than wire crates and are easier to drag outside and hose down.

Once the dog has learned to break out of an airline crate or a wire crate, the only option left is the custom built aluminum creats. They are not cheap but not a single dog will ever break out of them--they will last a lifetime.

Petting or Praising the Dog

My new dog will never be pet during the social isolation period. After the period, I will pet the dog but only if it does something I have asked it to. I will never overdo it though.

I also am careful about when I pet him and what I pet him for. I don't just walk up to the dog and start to pet him. He must do something to get a word of praise or a pat on the shoulder. He must either sit or wiat for me when I tell him to. At that point, I will praise him.

Pet Your Dog on YOUR TERMS

I won't pet the dog when he wants to get petted. If he tries to push his head under my head in an effort to get petted, I will verbally scold him and send him away. If it's a strong, dominant dog, I simply ignore him.

When an adult dog demands to be petted, it is a sign of dominance. The dog never decides when it wants to get petted. You, as the pack leader, must make those decisions.

In a dog pack, the Alpha member of the pack goes to lower ranking members and expects to be groomed. This is a crucial pack drive issue.

Playing With My Dog

Being aloof for the first weeks, I won't play a lot with my dog. Playing is an earned exercise and I will withhold it for a long period of time. It will mean more to the dog when I finally do start to play with him.

I won't give my dog new toys. I want him to look forward to the walks as his only enjoyment in life.

Toys can trigger aggression. Since I don't want to fight a dog just to take his toy away, I simply won't give him any toys.

My philosophy is to never pick a fight with a dog that I will lose. If more people follow that line of thinking, there would be fewer dog bites in this country.

When I allow the dog to have a toy, I will teach him that ALL toys are MY toys. He can play with MY toys but when playtime is over, then I take MY TOYS and put them away.

With that said, we don't keep our toys in a basket, simply sitting around the house.

Any playing with my dog is always done on a line. The dog will never have the liberty to run off on its own. Being off leash would go against the concept of having 100% control of your dog.

In time, we will graduate from a 33 foot line to a 20 foot line to a 6 foot leather leash. Additionally, we will use a remote collar.

The Family Petting and Playing with the New Dog

Some people may disagree with me on this but I never allow my family members to pet or play with a new dog.

My goal is to establish a family pack and doing this is best done by becoming the PACK LEADER. When that is accomplished, I can then easily step into helping establish the rank of other family members within the pack.

Kids and Dogs

Children as young as 9 can learn to handle (not train) a dog that's already trained BUT it should only be under the supervision of the primary owner.

When children are younger than 7, they are not yet mature enough to assume the responsibility for handling any dog. They can play around a dog but only in the presence of the adult pack leader (you).

Dogs need to learn that babies and very young children are ALWAYS off limits. Dogs are not allowed near them and are certainly never allowed to play with them. It is far too easy for accidents to happen. When these accidents do happen with adult dogs and small children, they are oftentimes traumatic.

It is much better to be safe in situations like this rather than regrettable at the end.

Children as young as 11 years can learn to train a dog but the training should always be in the presence of an experienced trainer.

I always get the question on how to teach the new dog that the small child is a higher rank in the family pack.

My answer? Just don't try to do anything irrational. As a pack leader, you simply need to establish a rule that the dog is not allowed near the young child. If it breaks that rule, then it suffers serious consequences.

It may be hard to tell children they cannot have contact with a dog but it is crucial that the dog bonds with you before it bonds with the rest of the family.

Basic Dog Obedience goes into more depth on how to introduce dogs to children.

Non-Family Members Petting My Dog

Very, very rarely will I let someone outside my immediate family to touch or pet my dog.

These people are not pack members. My dog does not need to be petted by them. Many people will talk about 'socialization' and make it as an excuse for others to touch their dog. Socialization is NOT about your dog interacting with people. It is about being exposed to different environments and different situations that may or may not be stressful to the dog.

Many people misunderstand this concept. The think I want my dog to be completely away from people but that's not the case. Dogs do need to be socialized around people. They just don't need to be petted and fawned over by strangers.

I expect my dog to be aloof to strangers. I want to be the center of his universe. If my dog tries to run up and get petted, I will correct it. And if it is in any way aggressive to strangers, it is immediately corrected. The level of correction is firm enough so that the dog will remember the next time it tries to be aggressive.

If individuals come up and pet my dog, I politely ask them to stop. If they ignore that request, I get very firm. I don't want to make friends when I walk my dog. I want to become a pack leader for my dog.

This applies to dogs being trained for personal protection or police service as well. The pack leader will determine who and when to fight, not lower ranking pack members. It is useful to remember this.


Having an appropriate exercise program is useful and very important for a solid pack structure. Pack structure needs to be a part of every groundwork program.

An adult dog that is getting exercised is not a bored dog. It doesn't have time to worry about getting into trouble or worry about being in his dog crate.

We do need to be careful for younger dogs younger than 14 or 15 months. They can develop hip dysplasia and other skeletal failures due to exercising too much.

Adult dogs with a ton of energy can use a weighted dog vest when on walks. These vests will give them more of a challange when they walk.

The best form of exercise is swimming. Long walks come in second.

Taking Dogs for Walks

With a new dog, I will usually give him a dominant dog collar with or without a prong collar. These collars will self-correct a dog when it pulls on the leash.

A dog that pulls on the leash is not respecting his owner as a pack leader. I will put a stop to it with a prong collar.

Many dogs will wear a prong collar without a problem. It is important that the prong fits properly. I always recommend dogs to wear a dominant dog collar along with a prong collar as there will always be times when the prong collar snaps.

There've been too many times where the prong comes apart when the handler gives a hard correction. If the dog has a second collar on, you'll save yourself some time and energy in attempt to catch a dog on high distraction.

Meeting Other Dogs on Walks

When walking my dogs, I never let them socialize with other dogs that we meet along the way.

Dogs are pack animals. Strange dogs are not part of our family pack. The pack rules are clear: The pack leader must drive non-pack members away. If he needs help from lower ranking pack members, he will ask for it.

If a stray dog approaches while I am on a walk with my dog, I verbally drive the stray away. If the stray continues to approach, I get physical with the offender.

Donít for one minute, think that your dog does not see whatís going on. Remember, our dogs are very intuitive and they miss nothing.

When you drive strays away, or put yourself between your dog and a second dog, he will instinctively recognizes this as the actions of a pack leader.

Once you have set your leadership position, a strong dog will defer to your rank and allow you to deal with an intruder as a matter of respect. When people have dogs that go crazy at the sight of another dog, that owner's rank has not been properly established with their dog.

People who follow the policy will also have dogs that are less inclined to fight with another dog they accidentally meet when off leash.

I never allow my dogs to socialize with strange dogs. Those people who think they need to socialize their dogs with other dogs are drop dead wrong. These are people who donít understand pack structure and rank drive.

Dealing with Stray Dogs

If you live in an area where stray dogs appear, carry pepper spray and gas a dog if it comes close. You can buy it on the Internet.

I also carry a stout walking stick if I have any problems with stray dogs.

If the owners of these stray dogs stand there, I tell them that I warned them to get their dog under control.

I warn them that they need to keep their dog on a leash if they don't want this to happen again. I also tell them that I would be happy to tell the police that their dog tried to attack me and my dog and that I was simply protecting myself because I feared for my personal safety. Police officers can relate to this.

Gates Doors and Stairs

It may seem like a very simple thing to us humans, but it is very important for dogs that you come down the stairs or go through the door first, before your dog. It is a big thing in terms of respect to a dog.

I will never let a dog to go through a door or gate before I do. I also never let them to charge down the stairs ahead of me.

If a dog does charge through the doors, I set them up to fail. I open the door just ride enough for the dogs head to get through. If he tries to force his body through the opening, I have a form hold on the door and won't let the door swing wide enough for him to pass. I simply close the door to the point of trapping the dog's head so that he can't pull his head out and he can't push his body through.

I won't slam his head in the door. In fact, I don't even put one bit of pressure on the dog's head. All I have to do is hold him in place so that he can move.

Doing this, your dog will have a panic attack. You don't need to say a word. Hold his head for a few seconds.

After doing this 2 or 3 times, he will respect the door as your space and not their's.

Additionally, I will teach the dog to sit bfeore going through the door to go outside and to sit while I come out, turn, and close the door.

This exercise is black and white to the dog. They understand that they need to go to the door and sit before leaving the house and must sit before back into the house.

Every once and a while, I will open the door before they sit and offer them the opportunity to stick their head in the door opening. They will always look at me and if dog's could talk, they would definitely say, "Oh no! I know that silly game!"

Loose in the House

It can take weeks or even months for a dog to accept your home as his home too.

I have noticed it take a longer period of time to settle in for adult dogs that are being re-homed the first time. Dogs that have been in two or more homes adjust much faster.

We never allow a new dog to be unattended and loose in our home when we are gone until it has been with us for a long, long time--like months. In fact we own dogs that are never left unattended in our home.

This does not mean we lock them in a crate for 4 years. It just means that I control our dogs in the home 100% of the time. They start off in the crate and graduate to a dog leash in the home.

So the dog is either in his crate, on leash, or, after formal training, loose in the house. When that happens my eyes are on the dog 100% of the time.

This may fly in the face of other advice you get. But I will be the first person to say ďI TOLD YOU SOĒ when your dog chews up your favorite couch or pees on your brand new carpet while you run down the the corner grocery for a gallon of milk.

I will always remember back to 1972. I had a 1-year old dog that dug her way through the sheet rock in my apartment while I was gone (for 30 minutes). She was well on her way to making an outside doggy door in the siding of the apartment building when I got home.

People who allow dogs out of their crates too soon, or people who bring their new dogs into their homes and donít KEEP THEIR EYES on their new dogs are the people who send me emails with behavioral problems.

So our approach is to have our crate in the family area. This allows the dog to watch the family going about their daily lives. This seems to speed up the process of teaching the dog that it is now part of our family pack. It also gives the dog a chance to recognize WHO OUR FAMILY IS. Thatís very important.

Through observation the dog learns about our style of living.

If your new dog is a little shy and over reacts to family members walking by the crate itís a good idea to leave a bowl of all-natural dog treats sitting on top of the crate. When a family member goes by they can drop a dog a treat through the front grate in the door of the crate.


One of the most important decisions you make concerning the health of your dog will be what you feed the dog.

We feed all of our dogs a raw all-natural diet. I strongly recommend you do the same.

For the first weeks in our home I am the only one who feeds my new dog and he only gets fed in the crate.This does two things: for dogs with a lot of food drive it provides a positive experience related to the dog crate, it also eliminates the possibility of an issue with food aggression (if the risk for it exists).

In the beginning I always put the food in the crate before the dog is allowed into the crate. I try not to put the dog in and then go and get the food bowl and put it into the crate.

I do it this way because I want the dog to look forward to going into the crate. If the food is not there when I put him in he never knows when he is going to get a nice bowl of food.

Once we start formal obedience training and the dog knows the Sit Command (and this can be weeks after I get the dog) I will change my protocol and make the dog sit before putting the food inside the crate. This follows the theory that "nothing in life is free."

Establishing this control simply adds to your pack leader status.

I never FREE FEED a dog (thatís where there is always dry food available). Free feeding is a terrible practice that can lead to FAT dogs.

I never put food down and then fool with the bowl when the dog is eating. I get emails from people who think that taking food away or putting my hand in the food bowl shows the dog that you are the Alpha. These people are dead wrong. It shows the dog that they are an incompetent pack leader and it destroys your bond.

There is nothing wrong with making a dog sit or lay down (if they know the command) before giving them their food. There is also nothing wrong with your eating before the dog eats. But harassing the dog after giving him his food only stresses the dog and hurts your relationship. Itís just a really crazy thing to do.

You will not see an Alpha wolf eat its fill, allow lower ranking wolves to eat off a dead deer kill, then come back and drive lower ranking pack members away just because they are tough enough to do it.

Grooming the New Dog

Every day I make an effort to spend 2 or 3 minutes grooming my dog. Pack members groom one another.

When you groom your dog you have to put your hands on him. I have a very soft touch to my hands, which shows the dog that I like him.

If the dog squirrels around because he does not want to stand, then I firmly control him. If I have to verbally warn him and jerk the lead or grab him by the scruff and give a shake (assuming I am not working with a handler aggressive dog) I do it.

The instant he stops squirreling I go back to softly talking to him and stroking him. Itís critical that there is a clear black and white difference between squirreling and submitting.

I ALWAYS end the session by softly brushing and praising him and then releasing him. I use a RELEASE COMMAND by saying "OK" so he knows we are done. This is very important.

The goal of these sessions is not grooming but rather to start to establish control by showing him that I will control him but when I control him I am nice to him. It just is one more link in the chain of making you a pack leader.

Vaccinations - DO NOT VACCINATE

If you want to do your new dog a huge favor, donít ever vaccinate him after you get him. I strongly suggest that you educate yourself on the damage yearly vaccinations do to dogs.

I have an extensive section on our web site about vaccinosis. Over vaccinating a dog causes far more health and temperament problems than the vaccinations were suppose to fix.

Our position is if you feed your dog a healthy all-natural diet his natural immunity will handle almost anything that he runs into.

Too many vaccinations results in dogs with auto-immune or other health problems. I donít respect vets that push these yearly shots for dogs.

Obedience Training vs. Groundwork

Hundreds of thousands of people will go through obedience classes each year. After these classes, these dog owners are no more of a pack leader than they were before they started classes. The reason for this is obedience instructors do not teach pack structure.

In my opinion, formal obedience is only 25% of the solution for dealing with most behavioral problems. The other 75% of the solution requires the owners to correct pack structure and rank issues to solve their behavior problems.

Owners who ignore GW or owners who donít give enough thought to their GW are often people who end up with dominant and aggressive dogs.

Formal Obedience Training

How one approaches obedience training will vary according to the goals of the owner and the drive and temperament of the dog.

Over the years, I have imported more trained Schutzhund dogs than I can remember. The way I approached their obedience training is to assume they knew nothing (even though they were fully trained). I then started their training from scratch and took them through my basic obedience program.

Those dogs that had better training than others went through quickly, those with poor training took longer. In the end they all worked for me because the time spent going through this program taught them what I expected and how I dealt with disobedience.

The reason for starting from scratch was because even though these dogs had previous training, what they had really learned was to mind their previous owner. They now needed to learn to mind me.

This simple concept is why I never recommend sending a dog off to be trained by a professional dog trainer. On a long term basis this almost never works. The dogs only learn to mind the pro but after being home for two weeks they forget what "come" means because the owner does not understand how the dog was trained and what level of correction is required for obedience.

The result is they revert right back to the way they were before they went to the professional. These dogs are not stupid, if the professional would return they would immediately turn into the ďnice obedient house petĒ. Thatís because dogs know what you know and they know what you donít know.

Leerburg's Obedience Training Program

The correct way to train a dog is to take them through three phases of training

  1. The Learning phase
  2. The Distraction phase and
  3. The Correction phase
  4. Some people will add that there is a maintenance phase and I agree with them.

In the learning phase, we teach the dog the meaning of a command. We do this by motivating the dog with a toy or food or praise from the handler. Force can also be used, but I NEVER use force in the learning phase.

The learning phase MUST BE DONE in a distraction free environment (like your kitchen or back yard). I believe that itís counter productive to start training in a dog training center like PetSmart. No untrained dog can focus when there are 10 to 25 other dogs around it. The higher the distraction the less learning takes place.

Remember-- the higher the distraction, the less learning takes place.

In Closing -- Where to go from here?

With all this said, I hope I have cleared up a few issues on pack structure, obedience training, and the family pet.

If you have further questions go to my web site and read some of the other articles I have written on living with dogs, or read some of the zillion or so questions and answers. You could also buy some of my training videos.

I also recommend that you visit or join my web discussion board (itís free). My board has over 9,500 registered members with over 120,000 searchable posts in the archives. The number of members and posts are going up every month.

In closing I would like to say that a well trained dog always has an owner that is a respected pack leader:

ďWhen we established a meaningful bond with our dog we will both wake up every day wanting to spend time together. Donít ever underestimate the happiness this kind of relationship can bring to your life.Ē