Leadership: the most dangerous word in dog training
“Leadership” is included in almost every dog-related book. Sometimes it is used in archaic and debunked ways, as in “Pack Leader.” Sometimes it is used, along with that other equally dangerous word, “respect,” as code for hurting or scaring our dogs. This word – leadership – has been so over-used, and associated with so many harmful and absurd approaches, I have tried not to use it at all for the last several years. My efforts are not going well – it seems the more I resolve not to use the word, the more clients ask me what it means, or how to instill it, or worry their dog doesn’t see them as the leader. Colleagues use it in handouts and in classes, and I cringe – they don’t define it, or they define it as remaining calm or some nonsense. It keeps showing up in books, diagrams, and charts, but is rarely actually defined.
The truth is, dogs don’t need what most people think of as leadership. It is us humans who have a need to feel we are in power, in charge, the leader. Dogs do much better with no such problematic notion with which to contend, because they don’t, and can’t, understand what it is we mean when we proclaim leadership over them, as if we have colonized a far-off nation or something: CONGRATULATIONS! WE ARE YOUR NEW LEADERS. No one ever wants to hear that. Not from either species.
My wife works as a manager, and supervises, along with a team of other managers, dozens of people. Recently, she relayed a short story about something that occurred at work. Another employee had made a big mistake; my wife was concerned, and thoughtful, about how to help the situation. She wasn’t with the employee at the time, or even in the same section – she hadn’t trained the employee, and the issue really had nothing directly to do with my wife at all. She was clearly affected, however, and I didn’t understand at first (this is probably why I work for myself, and by myself). She explained, “Being a good leader means you take responsibility for everything. It is my job to take responsibility for this, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. No matter what.” Wow. That is it. That is real leadership. Take responsibility, no matter what.
Finally, a definition I can get behind. Being a good leader means you take responsibility for everything. If your dog takes food off the counter or out of the trash, well, you’re the leader, why did you leave food on the counter? Being a good leader means you take responsibility for everything. Why didn’t you buy a locking trash can, or a baby gate, or both? Dogs evolved to be scavengers, did you think your dog wouldn’t take the food you left out? Be a leader. Take responsibility. Your dog hurt your cat. Who decided to have a dog and a cat, both? Did you train them? Dogs and cats act like cats and dogs. Whose responsibility is it to ensure they get along, or to manage them so they can’t fight? The leader’s. Being a good leader means you take responsibility for everything. Your dog is barking out the window while you aren’t home. Dogs bark at other dogs near their home. Trucks are scary. Dogs bark at scary things. Did you close off the sight lines with blinds, and buy a noise machine? Be a leader. Take responsibility and change the environment. Work with a trainer to come up with a plan. Being a leader isn’t putting a dog in a scary or stressful situation and then reacting to their reaction by putting a bark collar on them and punishing them for acting predictably. That is the opposite of leadership.
Recently, some friends had simultaneous major changes in their work schedules. Their dogs were going to be home for much longer stretches than before, and one of them already had a minor but chronic physiological problem with holding her urine. Being a good leader means you take responsibility for everything. They built a small outdoor kennel/potty area and installed a dog door. They did this the weekend after their schedules changed. They didn’t wait a few months until the poor dogs were stressed or soiling in the home. Their dogs can safely step outside for a wee, but are still inside the safe, warm, dry familial home while the humans are at work. That is taking responsibility. That is leadership. Does the dog learn something from this example? Yes, they will learn by example to build a kennel for their dogs when they grow up… wait, no, that would be leadership between humans and other humans. Dogs have no idea – they know they are warm, dry, safe, and can go outside safely to do their business. The expense and time it took to build the kennel? The dogs have no idea. Leadership is meaningless to them – they care about being cared for, including being loved, but leadership is a problem entirely human.
Good leadership to our dogs means only one thing: Taking care of them. Everything is up to you. Train them, manage them, provide for them. Learn at least some basic things about what dogs want and need, and how to change their behavior – and I mean from actual people who actually know about the topic, not your friend’s aunt’s cousin who watched a television show about dogs. Leadership means caring for our dogs, and caring for our dogs means trying to understand them by learning about them – what and who they really are, not what we wish they were, or what we saw in a movie, or even what people thought they were 50, 30, or 20 years ago. We were wrong. We have learned. Leaders don’t just teach, they learn. Good leaders work to understand their dogs, and work to help them be happy, enriched, and fulfilled. Leaders don’t hurt dogs, not even their feelings. Want to be a leader to your dogs? Great! Everything is up to you. Take care of it. Being a good leader means you take responsibility for everything.