It is safe to say that most of the canine clients I see have one thing in common. Their well meaning owners have somehow overlooked their dog’s need for clear leadership, often confusing “love” with leniency. This has left their dogs in a frustrated, confused state. A frustrated and confused dog can become anxious or aggressive, and can even become a dog with poor self esteem.
When I mention the concept of leadership to owners, they often know that this is what is missing. But they are reluctant to apply leadership to the relationship with their dog because they have the wrong idea of what leading a dog is all about. In the minds of many, leadership has a negative connotation attached to it. I’m not sure how this idea has come to be so misunderstood.
If you think about it, we all have leaders in our lives. And it starts from the bottom up. Each household has a leader. It is ideal if this leader is an adult (although this is not always the case). From there, we go to work where we often report to a boss. He or she then reports to a boss and so on. Even corporate CEO’s have leaders that they must submit to. That is what our legal system is all about. Our legal system is in place to keep order. And there is a hierarchy involved there too.
Good leadership is essential to keeping order in any group of social animals. Many people practice this when it comes to their kids and co-workers, but somehow derail when it comes to their dog. Why would we allow our dogs to do things that are not in their best interest if we don’t allow it for our children?
If you think about leaders that you have had in your own life, you can quickly see that some are more effective than others. A boss who nervously hovers is a headache to work for and can cause low confidence levels in those who report to them. A boss who is short tempered is uncomfortable to be around and can be difficult to trust. It is the boss who possesses a calm confidence that inspires the people who report to them to aspire to greater things. This is what most of us would choose to deal with every day. Strong, flexible, upbeat, fair, positive and fully committed are all characteristics that most of us respond best to in our leaders.
So how can we take this idea and apply it to our dogs?
I think that many people underestimate what wonderful things their dogs are capable of. I am often amazed at the array of bad behaviors that are accepted by their owners. I am disappointed to say that for the average pet owner the high bar is set amazingly low. It is my belief that almost any dog can be a well mannered member of our society. Now, I did say “almost any” in that last statement. Each person reading this is wondering if their own poorly behaved pet would qualify in that “almost any” category. I can tell you here, that this is likely not the case. The “almost any ” sector of the dog population are those unfortunate animals who posses chemical imbalances which are often genetic. These dogs are the exception.
Before we can create changes in our dog’s behaviors we first must be able to visualize what kind of dog we would like our four legged friend to be. It is important to set goals and to be sure that these goals are realistic for your specific dog. For example, will your timid dog, who was totally unsocialized as a puppy and was once nearly feral, ever run enthusiastically up to every human they greet? Will your severely dog aggressive dog ever want to be best friends with every other dog they meet? Perhaps these goals are a bit lofty. But there is no reason that a timid dog can’t become comfortable in the presence of other people, and there is no reason that a severely dog aggressive dog can’t be calm and under control while other dogs are around him. If we can’t visualize it, and BELIEVE it, than we almost certainly can’t create it. But these things are not achievable without good leadership.
As humans, emotions often control our words and actions. Unfortunately, our emotions only impede progress when dealing with our dogs. An effective pack leader uses good common sense and a pragmatic approach when trouble arises. They give their dog structure and guidance. They expect certain good behaviors and are willing to teach the dog not only what these behaviors are but how to achieve them. They also teach the dog that this way of being is in the dog’s best interest… and is non-optional.
How does your dog perceive you? Are you a leader or a follower? Do you expect enough from your dog? Do you have appropriate expectations of what your dog is capable of? Are you consistent in your expectations? Are you fair in achieving them? These are all things to think about when trying to achieve leadership with your canine friend.