What Makes a Good Leader?

Sherry Antonishen, Head Trainer, CPDT-KA

Roberta Press, Lead Trainer, CPDT-KA

How to be a good leader to your dog is perhaps the most often asked question by dog owners. An answer that is popular in the media, and that might seem the most simple, is to be the “alpha”. This is a version of authoritarian style leadership, the “do what I say or else” approach.

With softer dogs  that comply and are cowed readily this might seem easy. With harder dogs this can, and often does, lead to a battle of wills. In this case “leader” usually ends up using physical force and corrections.

Putting aside for the moment the question of how appropriate it is to hurt or scare your dog, imagine if every time you did something wrong at work someone yelled “No!” and then jerked your sleeve, poked you with their finger, made a “PSSSST” noise, or perhaps even shocked you with a collar around your neck. Most people would find this at the very least annoying, and it’s also not very informative about what you should do next time.  A lot of people working under an authoritarian model over time become de-motivated and stressed.

Minus the finger poking and shock collars, this is an actual leadership style in the human world. People studied under this style do less because they want to make fewer mistakes. The same holds true for dogs. Authoritarian models are not currently recommended in human organizations, nor are they appropriate or particularly successful for people trying to motivate their furry companions.

So how can we provide good leadership to our canine companions?

We’ve all been in a position of following a leader at some point in our lives – an employer, a parent, a music instructor, a sports coach, a teacher in school, etc.

When I think of a good leader, I think of someone who:

  • Has reasonable expectations
  • Provides clarity and consistency around those rules and expectations
  • Tells me what TO do, not just what NOT to do
  • Exercises kindness and compassion
  • Supports me and advocates for me
  • Motivates and challenges me to do my best
  • Takes ownership of their half of the relationship

These are all things that I value in a human leader. But it’s not a stretch at all to apply each of these points to our relationships with our dogs.

It’s important to create clear and consistent rules for our pets, and to provide clarity in our commands and expectations. We need to show our dog what he should do, rather than just correcting him for the things he shouldn’t do. If your dog is jumping up on you when you come home, you might be inclined to push him off of you, or to yell and say “no”. This might be reinforcing your dog and making him want to jump even more – this kind of excitement can be fun for some dogs!

If you would rather your dog doesn’t jump up on you, you need to ignore the jumping and instead give him attention when he finally sits and behave politely. If you and your family members are consistent about this, it won’t take long to form the good habit to form. Then you as a leader will have a dog that knows exactly what to do, and you won’t have to raise your voice or say “no”!

Kindness and compassion isn’t about spoiling a pet, but rather about trying to understand how she may feel or react to a situation. For example rather than punishing your dog for growling, instead try to determine what she’s afraid of and help her either overcome or avoid that fearful situation. This is support and advocacy.

Finally, (and this is sometimes my biggest struggle!), it’s important to own up to our half of the relationship when things go wrong. This also means that we get half the credit when things go right!

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