I read a lot of articles about “leadership” in dog training. They have a lot of rules, and dos and don’ts, and depending on which tribal camp the author comes from emphasize heavily some woo-woo things about energy or some equally woo-woo things about positive reinforcement.
I’d like to write a different list about how to be a leader to your dog. It’s a lot shorter than most of the other lists I’ve seen.
1) Be Willing To Take A Bullet
I was cycling with Mika towards the nearby campus one light, fluffy spring day, when I saw an offlead dog charging towards us. You can predict from stories of woe and horror that you’ve seen on the internet that loose dogs are a problem. I’ve heard stories of packs of dogs taking down even a healthy and cognizant person, when out on a walk with their dogs. I’ve gotten calls from clients who have – not once – but twice been attacked by large, maurading dogs (one instance where a mastiff broke through a fence to get to them) in their own neighborhood.
So what did I do?
I got off my bike before the dog could get to me, unhooked Mika, put her in a sit-stay (downstays are too vulnerable for my liking in such situations) and threw the bike at the dog.
The bike hit the dog with a resounding “AEIP!” and the dog, predictably, ran off from the crazy bicycle throwing person never to bother us again. My bike, being a sturdy mountain bike, took no damage at all.
Now, this is a more obvious situation of being willing to do anything to protect your dog – momma-bear fashion – but people don’t realise that they don’t protect their dogs from anything. They let strange people and dogs assault theirs. They talk on their cells while walking the dog – completely obliterating your situational awareness. And like the client mentioned above, they continue to expose their dog to dangerous areas and situations even after the worst has already occurred once.
They put their dogs into offleash play situations with dogs who either gang up on their dog, or who are so large and rowdy that they overwhelm their dog, and then don’t bother to stop it when their dog is being persecuted. They put their dog offlead before the dog has the requisite reliability to be called off of (deer, rabbits, other dogs, people, squirrels, whatever).
It is your duty and trust to protect your dog. That is what a leader does – protect their people. Now, that doesn’t mean bubblewrapping them from every situation, no – because to protect your dog you also must push them to develop the temperamental resilience to deal with stress (something that is glaringly lacking in many positive reinforcement training regimens).
So walk softly with your dog and carry a big stick. And be willing to use it, too.
2) Don’t Let Them Push You Around
Probably one of the most dominant things you can do to your dog is ignore them. When I see clients coming in for training the first time, the thing they all do is continually pet and manhandle their dogs – and their dogs continually pester them.
If your dog is pestering you – don’t respond. If they’re barking, either don’t respond or they get a response that isn’t what they want. If they’re poking prodding, nudging, staring, whatever – this is the sign of a dog that doesn’t respect your physical person or your social presence. So the most regal, leaderly thing to do is simply to not give them the pleasure of getting something out of you. Be immovable, immutable. Most nasty, aggressive dogs start out simply being pests and getting what they want by pestering you.
Leaders change their follower’s behavior, not the other way around – and if you dog fails to do that, then suddenly the roles are reversed.
3) Be Consistent
You have to be consistent about this, though, because dogs are the masters of manipulation – if you are a waffler, your dog will grab ahold of that tooth and nail and they will use it to advance themselves in the social hierarchy.
After all, somebody who is only offering guidance, protection,and clear rules some of the time is almost worse than somebody who never does it. If you decide that your dog is no longer allowed on the couch, then you’d better be willing to follow through with it.
Nobody respects a flip-flopper – and it makes you look like a crazy person to your dog.
And that’s it.
That’s all. And none of this stuff is new – trainers since the beginning of time have been using these three rules, though some people make it seem more complicated than it really is.