Photo of Sheltie by Fetmano
Dogs are pack animals by nature, and every pack has a leader. When a dog comes into your household, it is very important to establish proper human-and-dog communication where you and every member of your family have proper leading skills. This helps avoid many behaviour problems and make your dogs happier because clear leadership is what they naturally need.

What does leadership mean?

One of the definition of leadership is the ability to influence individuals to perform behaviour they would not otherwise perform. This perfectly describes what the owner should aim at. There are different ways establish proper leadership, but please remember to never use force or any kind of aggressive communication! In the wild, male individuals will aggressively fight only for the right to pass their genes. Obviously, you'll never compete about that with your dog. Your communication with the dog should be based on trust. Aggression and force removes trust and creates fear.
You may wonder, "If I'm not meant to use aggression and force, how am I supposed to become a leader?" A fair question. There are actually a lot of non-violent things owners can do in order to become a leader and build proper communication with their dog. Lead with finesse, not force. You'll have to focus on lots of positive reinforcement for desired behaviour and no rewards whatsoever for undesirable behaviour. By "reward" we mean everything that can encourage a dog to do what it's doing.

Proper communication

First of all, teach your dog the basic commands such as to "sit" and "lie down. They are a must to manage your dog's behaviour. The more commands your dog knows, the better.
Pay attention to the tone of your voice. High pitched speaking usually indicates play and fun time, while commands should be given in a normal voice. Low voice can be used for corrections.
A pack leader always leaves and enters the house (rooms) first. The rest of the pack follows him. When you are going for a walk, be the first one to step across the threshold. If your dog is trying to guide you to the door or gets overexcited about a walk, ignore it for a while until it calms down. Take the dog out on your terms, not your dog's terms. You may want to command the dog to "sit" or go "down" until it calms down. Take the dog out only when it doesn't show unwanted behaviour, otherwise you'll reinforce the latter.
It's usually a good practice to command your dog to sit before you give it a treat, before you toss the ball for it, and before you put it in the car. Additionally, command it to sit when you come to a street corner or when you are waiting for the traffic.
When playing, don't chase after your dog and don't play too rough. It is not something an alpha dog would do.
Photo of Alaskan Malamute by jgcox
If your dog misbehaves, sometimes it's better to just ignore it for a while until it calms down. Ignoring means no reward (no attention) for undesirable behaviour. When the dog is calm, use positive reinforcement such as treats and other rewards.
If your dog is trying to get your attention and you are not pleased with it, do let the dog know about it with a verbal correction in a stern voice. You may want to command your dog "sit" or go "down".
If you have a small dog, do NOT pick it up every time it puts its paws up on your leg. Put the dog in a "sit" position instead. This can be tough, but it's better than living with a misbehaving dog. Small dogs, by the way, tend to become unruly more often than large dogs. Please remember small dogs require as much discipline as their larger cousins. Small dogs may be cuter, but it doesn't mean their unwanted behaviour should be forgiven just because they are so small and adorable.
When you come home from work or the market, greet all people in the household first. Then you can greet your dog. Apart from everything else, this naturally gives your dog some time to calm down if it's over excited about your return.
To make a long story short, make sure the animal is always rewarded for positive behaviour and never gets rewarded for undesirable behaviour.

The games you play

Some dog trainers advise that the owners never play "Tug-of-War" games with their dogs. If the dog wrestles Frisbee, a rope, or a toy away from the owner, this is considered an act of dominance. It's important that you never wrestle because, if you allow your dog to win, this might give your dog the impression he or she is the leader.

Food, feeding times, and feeding ritual

In the wild, an alpha dog always eats first. Therefore, eat your meal and feed the dog after you're done. Don't share table food with the dog. Pack leaders never share food. Besides, table scraps are just unhealthy and often hazardous. Make sure the whole family follows this rule and no one sneaks treats under the table.
When you are about to feed your dog, it's advised that you don't give the dog its bowl right away. Instead, stand in front of the dog and make it wait with the "sit" or "down" command. You may pretend to eat some of the dog's food so it is comfortable with the thought that you, as the alpha dog of your household, can do whatever you want. Give the dog its food at a moment YOU choose. It should be the moment when the dog is calm and obedient.

Sleeping areas

Do not let your dog jump on the couch or bed whenever it wants, let alone sleeping on them at will. Many dog behaviourists do not actually recommend allowing your dog on the bed or couch, while some say you may let your dog do it as long as it's YOUR command, not the dog's own whim. If the dog is desperately trying to jump on the bed or couch, block its attempts and ignore the dog till it calms down. This helps set limits to what the dog can and cannot do, improving the dog's discipline and obedience.
Provide your dog with a special place like a dog crate where it can feel secure and rest comfortably. It will be the dog's own place where it can always go when it wants.

Being a pack leader is constant work

Being a pack leader is not something achieved once and for good. It's constant work, it's a set of behaviour aspects that you and every member of your family should always follow in order to retain your leading position. It's an attitude, a style of living.
As it's been highlighted before, being a good pack leader does not suggest you are mean, violent, harsh, or excessively bossy. It means you are calm, confident, consistent, firm, and in control at all times. Dogs need clear leadership. It builds the basis for mutual respect and a healthy, happy co-living for your dog and the members of your family.
It is important to educate everyone in the family about these things so you are all on the same wave. Explain to the family what a pack leader is and why they ALL need to adopt the same attitude towards the dog. If it doesn't happen, chances are your dog will deem itself to be in a higher rank than some or even all members of your family. This means the dog may develop different kinds of unwanted behaviour, including the situation when it's all right in your presence but misbehaving when you're away.

If your dog growls or snaps and you are afraid to discipline it, seek professional help.