How Can I Be a Good Leader to My Dog?

What Makes a Good Leader?

Sherry Antonishen, Head Trainer, CPDT-KA

Roberta Press, Lead Trainer, CPDT-KA

IMG_7963How 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.
IMG_8054It’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!

Back to Arti­cles