We know what good leadership is and why it is essential to raising sound dogs that will stay in their homes for a life time. We know leadership prevents bites to humans, and saves the lives of dogs. We know leadership creates dogs that are good workers, dependable, happy, con tent with their lives, secure, and confident. But how do we sell the importance of good leadership to our students? We live in a time when dogs are looked upon as children, and companies make money by selling strollers for dogs. As instructors, how do we make sure that our students understand that it is in the best interests of both human and dog to learn about and respect that ancient relationship we have shared for millennia?
Many years ago, I got permission from fellow NADOI member Terry Ryan to print her “Alphabetize” handout for my classes. For students, I consider it the best explanation of leadership that I’ve come across. I wrote the following as an introduction to that, and still use it today:
Most dogs seem to just naturally fit in with our families and our households, assuming you are not isolating them. They quickly learn where their “place” or rank is within the pack (your family) and are content to stay there. They are secure and tractable because they know where they stand in relation to you. The relationship you have with your dog is everything; without a good relationship, all training you do will be more difficult and sometimes impossible.
It is vital that you and your dog have the right kind of relationship. You must always be his leader, and he must be subordinate. You must be the one who calls the shots, makes the decisions, and gives the orders. He must be willing to be the “low man” on the totem pole, and be happy about following your directions. You will lead; he will follow. You will direct; he will comply. You will control territory, food, toys and play, petting, and resting areas. You will be fair, depend able, and consistent. In return, he will trust you to make good decisions for him, protect him from harm, and provide him with all that he needs. He will be loyal to you for life, and ask little in return.
It really sounds uncomplicated, and most of the time it is. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, a dog may attempt to take on more responsibilities than he deserves. He may ascend the “status ladder” until he comes very close to taking over from you (or maybe he even does take over). I call this “running for president,” and like all campaigns, it doesn’t happen overnight. Often humans don’t even realize that their dog is taking over! We sometimes don’t see the signals that the dog sends us until something happens that we can’t ignore, i.e., a growl or even a bite.
A dog assumes a leadership role among “his” humans because the humans allow it to happen. Sometimes the owners are just uneducated about what they must do to maintain a good relationship, sometimes they don’t have time for the dog, and sometimes they are just weak leaders. The dog, if he is assertive at all, simply takes advantage of that. Remember, dogs are highly social, pack animals. They are genetically programmed to live and work successfully within a group. To make this work, they need to know their place within the group, and they must have a group leader. If you cannot or will not lead your dog, he may think that he has to lead you.
So, you have a pushy dog that is demanding and not obedient. Maybe he has “selective” hearing when it comes to your commands, or maybe he even tries to “order you around.” Maybe he thinks it is OK to discipline you if you don’t do what he wants you to do. He decides when and how much he eats, who comes into your house, and who can pet him or groom him. He won’t move off his bed when you say to, or maybe he even has taken over your bed! He won’t allow you to clean his ears or clip his nails, leads you around when on lead, and heaven forbid that you try to take something from his mouth. He jumps up on you, mouths your hands or clothing, and uses his body to move you around. He may be aggressive to other dogs or even people, all while ignoring your pleas to behave. He needs to have an owner who is following the leadership program! Remember, your dog must always be responsible TO you, not FOR you!