Can a dog respond to two leaders in one house?

By Helin Jung
July 27, 2010 08:30 PM

Dear Ethel,

Ever since I met my boyfriend, my 5-year-old Pekingese seems to listen to him more than me. When I call my dog or ask him to get off the bed, he sometimes ignores me (he’s slightly stubborn), but if he hears my boyfriend’s voice, he immediately responds. When it’s just me and my dog, he will listen to me, but if my boyfriend is around, I have about a 75 percent shot at being obeyed.

I don’t think I’m a doormat, but I know I’m not as cal- assertive as my boyfriend; I baby the dog more. He’s a great dog, don’t get me wrong, but Cesar Millan always says to be the pack leader, and I am wondering if now having essentially two pack leaders has confused my dog. My question is how do I get my dog to follow BOTH leaders? Or can I?

Thanks for your help, Ethel!

–Marla Hooch

Dear MH,

So your dog doesn’t listen to you as well anymore. It’s not really a boyfriend wins, girlfriend loses situation. You just have to acknowledge that as far as leadership goes, your boyfriend has better chemistry with your dog than you do. Shots to the ego aren’t the easiest to get over, but that’s what you’re going to have to do with your once-obedient (with you) pooch.

“It doesn’t mean that the dog is leaving her and going to the boyfriend,” says talk show host, behaviorist and trainer Harrison Forbes. “The dog doesn’t only listen to one person – she just needs to step it up.”

How to step it up? All you have to do is go back to basics with training your dog. Make sure your dog knows who the caregiver is by giving clear signals, Forbes says. Be the one to feed him and fill up his water bowl. Be the one to walk him.

Also, practice a few training exercises to re-establish your working relationship. For five minutes a day, when you’re totally in control of the situation (and your boyfriend isn’t home), work on a few small commands like sit, stay and come.

The key is not to let your dog get away with disobeying the commands, at all. If he doesn’t sit when you tell him to, gently push his rear end down so that he knows what to do. If he doesn’t come when you call him, gently reel him in by his leash. Eventually, “the dog gets re-tuned.”

Forbes says his hunch is that you’re probably giving your dog too many instructions in your day-to-day life, and doing that waters down their effect. Instead, he wants you to work on conserving your commands. Only tell the dog to do something if you’re certain he’ll do it. Pretend you’re an actor and be the sergeant – be more assertive so that your dog knows that you, too, are the boss.

And don’t worry, this’ll pass. If you let it.


Got a thorny pet (any pet!) problem that you can’t figure out? Try Ethel – she’ll do her best to help. Send your questions to Include your pet’s age, breed and sex, and try to give as much context to your problem as possible.

Previously in Ask Ethel:
Ask Ethel: My Two Dogs Suddenly Hate Each Other
Ask Ethel: Is a Dog Worth More Than a Boyfriend?