eadership in dog training is a very confusing subject and yet it is so incredibly important. Unfortunately, many people think of leadership as a pejorative. They associate leadership with force, superiority and domination, as if leadership is about being tough instead of being loving. Leadership is about dominance, but let's look more closely at what dominance actually means.
Dominance is defined as the ability to control or regulate access to resources. The parent that controls a teenager's access to the car is in charge of that resource and, therefore, is acting as a leader. The parent determines if, when, where and how the teenager is able to use the car and establishes the rules that must be followed in order to have access. With dogs, it is about a human's ability to control everything the dog wants. This includes access to food, toys, bones, furniture, outside, bed, favored locations, human interaction, as well as when and under what circumstances he may obtain these things. It sounds simple enough, but there is much more to this concept.
Dominance is determined by the behavior of the subordinates, not by the behavior of the one who thinks he is dominant. It is about voluntary compliance or deference to the leader. When we look at a group of dogs, it is easy to pick out the dog who has more clout. He is treated like a rock star or a dignitary by the other dogs. Other dogs defer, appease and seek affiliation with the dominant dog. It is also easy to pick out the dog who is a bully. He is the one running around threatening and bossing the other dogs causing them to avoid him altogether. Dominant dogs tend to be confident, have an authoritative attitude, and provide appropriate social consequences. Bully dogs tend to be insecure. They have an authoritarian attitude, are socially incompetent, frustrated and/or angry.
Unfortunately, people often think the more aggressive dog is the leader. Leadership must be achieved through respect not fear. True leaders don't concern themselves with micromanagement. They don't run around trying to control everything and everyone. True leader-type dogs can be slightly aloof at times and do not seek approval from other dogs. Leaders can be great caregivers to their subordinates. They are generally quite concerned and protective of those with which they have a bond ... just like a parent. Good leaders provide consistency, are predictable in their behavior, caring and protective. A good leader actually leads others. He doesn't just bark orders and punish bad behavior.
It is said that in order to be a leader you must be first in everything - first to eat, first to go out the door, etc. But leadership is about control, not the priority of order. It doesn't matter who gets it first, it matters that the leader controls when the dog gets it and what the dog must do in order to get it. For example, you don't have to go out the door first. You just need your dog to wait for your "OK" to go out the door. It is really about permission.
So what does this mean with regard to training your dog? You should not allow your dog to have access to anything he wants whenever he wants. With this age of convenience and "latch key" dogs, we have dogs that are free fed, have a dog door, have all the toys they could ever want, and live as a human with full access to furniture, etc. They don't have to do anything to get everything. Humans have surrendered their leadership role in exchange for convenience. There needs to be a balance. Families must create some boundaries and some behavioral rules for dogs to follow. It is so critical that dogs have a defined role in the family with the humans having more control than the dog. If you are going to allow your dog access to the furniture, consider teaching him or her the following rule: "If my butt is on it, yours is not, unless I invite you." Even if your dog has free access to a dog door, you can still require your dog to wait for your permission to go out the front door when going for a walk. There are many "control" games you can play with your dog. For example, your dog should learn to comply with a trained sit or down before the ball or toy is thrown for a game of fetch. You can also teach your dog a "stay" or "stop" command that means freeze/stop everything. These types of games stimulate a dog's brain, teach impulse control, build confidence, encourage good manners and reinforce the human's leadership role.
Leadership needs to be practiced by everyone in the family including children. The leader is not just the person with the deepest, loudest voice or the most clout. When humans lead by controlling resources, it works for everyone. Even a child can require a sit before giving a treat, or before throwing a toy.
Leadership involves voluntary compliance so don't make your dog comply. Instead, teach him what happens if he doesn't comply ... he doesn't get whatever he wants. For example, if he doesn't sit when you tell him to sit, he can't come up on the furniture, or he can't go through the door, or the toy won't be thrown, etc. Basically, you are manipulating his behavior. He needs to experience the disappointment of what happens if he doesn't comply. This concept flies in the face of traditional training where you must make your dog comply with a command.
With traditional training, if you ask your dog to sit and he doesn't, it is followed by pushing down on his rump to make him sit. But in doing this your dog didn't really comply. You just forced him into compliance. Another inappropriate technique is to "nag" your dog by repeating the command as many times as is necessary until your dog finally complies. But in doing this he doesn't ever learn what happens if he doesn't comply with your command. Disappointment is a huge motivator. Dogs need to learn what happens if they do comply and what happens if they don't.
It is time to rethink the entire concept of leadership in dog training. Leadership is not just about providing consequences for bad behavior. Too often families employ punitive techniques such as correcting a dog by pinning, rolling, poking and/or smacking, etc. These are often ineffective and inappropriate techniques that cause fear and confusion, which degrades the trust bond your dog has with you. Leadership is about proactively controlling access to resources so your dog has to look to you for guidance. It is time to utilize the power of disappointment as a primary form of punishment. The time has come to abandon the traditional despotic notion of leadership and dominance. You can be a good leader for your dog and still have a gentle, rewarding, nurturing relationship with him.
Sam Kabbel, CPDT-KA, is owner and president of Valley-based Pet Behavior Solutions, serving the Phoenix area. For more information, visit www.petbehaviorsolutions.com.