Leadership 101

We hear a lot about leadership with dogs. But what does that mean, and how important is it to our dogs? Like any social creature, dogs use a variety of signals to navigate day-to-day life, and they look to those they live with to do the same.

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Traditional advice urges owners to eat first, go through doorways first, alpha roll their dogs, force dogs to walk behind them, and engage in similar behaviors designed to artificially increase their rank in their dogs’ eyes. The message drips with fear (not to mention a healthy dose of paranoia): if you don’t work hard to keep your dog down, he’ll stage a household coup. Dogs are social climbers, we’re told, and if we don’t view every interaction as a contest that we must win, our dogs will take advantage of some perceived weakness and take over.

So here’s the thing: leadership is important to dogs. The vast majority of dogs do best when they feel like someone confident and in control is making responsible decisions for them. But using force doesn’t make you a good leader. It only labels you as weak.

You see, dogs with high status don’t do a lot of jockeying for position. They’re secure in their place, and they just don’t feel the need to butt heads with others.

We do the same thing. The president doesn’t feel the need to make jokes at his assistant’s expense to solidify his political position. The top CEO of your company doesn’t go around reminding middle management that she could fire them at any moment. The principal doesn’t steal the kindergartners’ lunch money to teach them their place. So why do we feel the need to do this with dogs?

Any time we shove in front of our dog at the door, stick our hands in his food bowl just to make sure we can, or haul him behind us on the leash, we’re certainly sending a message. But it’s not the message of calm, confident control a true leader would send. Instead, we’re telling our dog in every way possible that we’re concerned about our status. We’re telling him that we don’t have what it takes to be a great leader, and you can bet that he’s getting that message loud and clear.

The most fighting happens in middle management, whether you’re a person or a dog. If you’re “fighting” your dog for leadership, you’re in essence telling him that you’re middle management rather than the CEO. Is that really the message you want your dog to receive?

So, we know that force certainly isn’t the best way to gain your dog’s compliance and admiration. Your dog isn’t staying up at night plotting to overthrow you. Here’s how you can be the best leader possible.

Frankly, you already have all the tools you need to become a wonderful leader at your disposal. All you have to do is make use of them.

One of our primary advantages over dogs is our ability to use our opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs are like magic to dogs: they can cause door handles to turn, refrigerators to open, and dog treats to appear from sealed packages. They can snap leashes on and off, find just the right spot under the collar to scratch, and operate faucets to refill water bowls. These tasks, and many more, are your ticket to becoming the Grand High Poobah of your household.

You see, great leaders provide for their followers, and dogs intrinsically get this. You’re probably already giving your dog all sorts of wonderful things: fresh water, food, walks, access to the great outdoors, ear rubs, toys, and everything else he needs. To become a great leader, all you have to do is leverage these interactions by asking your dog to say “please” first by performing a simple task (such as sit). Just like with children, “please” will become a magic word for your dog. When he wants anything, simply ask him to sit calmly and look at you first. Voila! Instant leader.

I think Patty Ruzzo said it best. “I don’t know if my dogs respect me or not, but they’re greedy and I have their stuff.” So leverage your dog’s stuff. Stop fighting him. You’ll be amazed at the difference such simple things can make in your relationship.

How do you help your dog to look to you for guidance and leadership? Share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments below!

9 responses to “Leadership 101

  1. When we get to barriers like gates or closed interior doors, I do insist my dogs get back and let me go through first. When we are at the front door getting ready to go on a walk, they have to wait until they get permission to proceed through the open door. But I look at this as manners we insist on at our house, they only do it because of leadership. I don’t want them rushing into the backs of my legs or trying to run past me through a gate or narrow door (and they would) and I certainly don’t want them thinking they can bolt through an open door. Manners.

    The place where I have been encouraged to exercise “leadership” and it has been beneficial is with regard to one of our dogs trying to warn other dogs not to get near me. She would warn them, and there was a scuffle with one foster dog (no injuries). I was told to send her away and not allow her to have automatic access to me (come right up and get affection just because she wanted it) but to call her over for snuggles instead, then send her away when I was done. It curbed, then stopped, the incidents of warning other dogs, but I do still have to watch her if she starts staring at the other canine visitors when they approach (I know what she’s thinking). If there is another way of dealing with this, I would love some advice. As for “alpha rolling” or being mean or punitive, that’s already not happening here. We just stress self discipline and manners, but this behavior has me a little stumped.

    • Hi Jeanne,
      I have the same problem with a dog we just adopted from the spca – Daisy has many issues to address but she guards and is possessive of me- her leader. We have two other dogs who occasionally she sees as a threat and will keep them in their place, namely away from me.
      I now only cuddle/kiss/stroke Daisy when either of the other two dogs are also near to me, even if that means calling them over. I need Daisy to view them as part of the solution- the other dogs are near me and everyone gets attention, they are away and no one gets attention.
      I also give this positive behaviour a word said in a happy high pitched voice – I use ” nicely” and say this every time we are cuddling etc and we achieve a positive outcome. I also use the word “enough” when things are not going to plan- this is said in a stern low voice. When the unwanted behaviour ceases, even for a few seconds, I then say ” good girl, nicely” in that happy, high, pleased voice.
      It’s really word association but said very specifically, so as to not be confusing.
      It’s working for my dogs- I hope it helps with yours.

  2. Thank you so much for addressing dog/human behaviour in such an informed and compassionate way…. the piece about the roll-overs mended my heart (I never did it, but it was so bad to see other folks enthousiastic about “being the man in charge for the dog!” without the words to help) and this one too. I have two smaller dogs ,one 11 and the other about 4 years old and usually we get along great. As I’m one calling the shots I get to say what’s important so we all snuggle on the sofa but they wait until their food is on the floor before they eat… stuff like that.

    I look at them for clues too :), I once met this guy who thought he was the Big One because he walked right through his doggie as they were in the park but he aimed for her, and I watch my two just go around each other and that is so much nicer….

    Watching wild dogs in Africa (on tv, hehe) interact with each other is so different from looking at wolves, I can learn every day… could you shed some light on greeting rituals for dogs one day too? I AM happy to see them as they come home, just as they are happy to see me, but how can I greet them without confusing them?

  3. I think it’s much less about being “alpha” than about being the leader, as you describe here. However, another equally important point is that great leaders also PROTECT their dogs. Allowing my anxious dog to walk in front of me as a regular habit says to him, “whatever we encounter, you have to handle it first.” Since his anxiety shows up like “aggression” on the approach of another dog, this is not the message I want him to get!
    I like Jeanne’s perspective about manners. By insisting on good manners, we do control their “stuff.” That automatically makes us the leader, and we can let our dogs know we appreciate but don’t need their help at that moment if we see “that look.”

  4. it is important for dogs to see us leaders of their pack. thanks for sharing.

  5. I currently have 5 male rottweilers and a male shepherd mix, I’ve had up 9 rottweilers at one time, all boys (neutered), I see myself as more of their protector and the” Goddess of all things good”, i think because of this we have a very calm pack. When we walk , 2 at a time, I insist they focus on me and the walk beside me, because 2 110+lb rotties dragging me around is NOT enjoyable. When I leave for work, they have to back 3 feet away from the door while I leave, or else they will be gone on an excursion around the neighborhood. They’re all absolute angels, but that’s a mom bragging :-)

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  7. Great Article. I agree completely. I have always told people that they need to have a relationship with the dog before they can expect it to work for them. Leadership begins with trust and respect. Before you will ever get very far with training, your dog must trust and respect you. Heavy handedness will only yield fear and mistrust.

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