Question: I love my little dog so much but some of my friends say I spoil him. I give give him pieces of my food while I eat, he sleeps with me, and I let him do whatever he wants to on our walks. One friend in particular says these are all bad ideas. He does have a few annoying habits like jumping on everybody and sometimes I can’t get him to quit barking. He’s also snapped at a neighbor, but he’s a sweet dog. Am I really doing anything wrong?

Answer: I’m always tickled when someone qualifies their dog’s yucky behavior with “but he’s really a sweet dog.” Of course he is! And every single owner of a dog who’s torn somebody up says the exact same thing.

Look, one of the best things about having a dog is that they give us somebody to love. And that’s an amazing, beautiful thing. Dogs naturally gravitate toward love and affection. But as far as “love” being an important, integral part of pack cohesiveness, it just isn’t. That said, is the love I share with my dog a really important part of my relationship with her? Of course it is. But pragmatically, on another level, I understand what she really needs. And even though the love we share fills my heart, I understand that human love is not what my doggie needs the most from me. The thing our dog needs the most, the thing that makes our dog feel safe and secure, and the thing that fulfills our dog and draws them to us in a deeper way, is leadership. And subconsciously, all dogs crave a leader.

I’ve mentioned many times there must be a “dog-like” aspect to your relationship with Max. In the absence of appropriate, dog-like rules and boundaries, your dog starts to get the wrong idea about who’s who in the pack. And if your dog doesn’t see you as the leader, good luck trying to get him to mind you and refrain from annoying habits because, in his mind, he’s thinking, “You don’t outrank me, so I don’t really have to do what you say.”

Sleeping in bed with you shouldn’t be a problem, but in an unbalanced pack, general behavioral problems can be exacerbated in the sack. Feeding your dog from the table and allowing him to do as he pleases on the walk, however, are both really bad ideas and give Max the wrong message.

Since Max is the first cousin of the gray wolf, he understands on a subconscious level, when the leaders eat, the subordinates stay away from the food. In other words they don’t get to “participate in the kill” and must wait their turn. It doesn’t matter whether or not you feed the dog after you eat, just don’t feed him from the table. Allowing your dog to wander willy nilly on the walk is not the message you want to convey either. For us it’s a walk, but for your urban wolf, “I’m on patrol in my territory with my leader.”

There are inherent, implied protocols. When wolves do their daily, almost perpetual patrolling routine, no pack member is wandering about, sniffing every tree or chasing butterflies. And nobody gets ahead of the pack leader. Max is hardwired on a primal level to know this. But if you allow him to lead or dally, you undermine your leadership.

It’s not uncommon for dog owners to give their dog a pass on little things, and make excuses for behaviors like pulling on the leash, growling, or being ugly to strangers, ostensibly because of our “love” for Max. But we never have to allow a dog to exhibit bad behavior.

If you become a better leader, any bad habits can be turned around, but it starts with this crucial piece. Finally, my definition of “spoiling your dog” is when your pooch has bad habits and you allow them to continue because you’ve given up on it.

Originally from Louisiana, Gregg Flowers is a local dog trainer who “teaches dogs and trains people.” Contact him at dogteacher7@aol.com or dogsbestfriendflorida.com.