Follow The Leader

Leadership. It’s a big word in the dog world, occupying both noun and verb status. We all navigate what it means to be a leader, whether we make that journey conscious and intentional or not. Leadership is defined as being in charge, in control, or at the top of the hierarchy. Terms like “dominance” and “alpha” are out of favor, but the idea of a ladder with the human at the top is not. Getting clear on what leadership is, what it isn’t, and how to take this all-too-often nebulous notion and operationalize it is important. And you all know what I’m going to say next: I think a lot of folks are getting confused, receiving bad advice, and making it way too complex.

I bristle at trends, and this “be a leader; don’t be a buddy” edict smacks of a social media trend. I want to know EXACTLY what that means, in theory and in practice before I change my behavior with my dogs. Why? Because here’s the flip side to leadership – your dog needs to connect with you. That affiliative drive needs to be built, developed, nurtured, and celebrated. Your dog might learn commands and execute them perfectly based on training theory and methods – operant and classical conditioning and all that. But when the chips are down, your dog needs to choose to team up with you. Your dog needs to want to work with you. Dare I say it? Your dog needs to be able to love you and that means you jolly well better be lovable. A few trainers do a nice job of moving the conversation away from “leadership” and into partnership, but the hierarchy perspective still seems dominant.

Depending upon how you define and embody leadership, I might be enthusiastically on board. However, I might also wholeheartedly disagree – the devil is in the details. When I ask trainers about this concept, I get a lot of vague and general definitions and admonitions. “Be consistent” is one theme, but I’m not sure I agree that consistency equals leadership. I think consistency is required, but being consistent is a low bar for a leader in my opinion. For some, being a leader means denying affection, and essentially acting like a drill sergeant. Be as unemotional and rigid as possible? Well, that’s one leadership style, but not mine.

For me, being a leader means I make the rules, I enforce the rules, and I set up the structure. I get to decide exactly how rigidly we adhere to that structure. I believe most dogs need structure (as do most humans) and thrive on rules. Rules and structure decrease anxiety – they promote trust. Without a human making these decisions and insisting upon controlling things like where bathrooming happens and what canine teeth may touch, everyone suffers. If leadership means I make and enforce rules that keep the household functioning safely and happily, I’m all in.

At my house, meals happen at certain times. Play happens in a certain way with a certain regularity. Bathrooming is handled outdoors, and ample opportunities to take care of that are offered. But I’m the one who opens the door to go out, and sets the bowl of food on the floor. Good things come from me, and things like impulse control, obeying commands, and general civility are expected in return. No, you dogs cannot bite humans or each other. That’s a rule and it isn’t flexible. No, you cannot eat what’s on the counter when my back is turned, nor can you raid the trash or the compost (but what you find under the apple tree is fair game). No, you cannot shred my cashmere sweater, or my shoelaces or my new business cards, regardless of what they smell like. No, you cannot bay like the Hound of the Baskervilles when we’re out in public and you see another dog. You cannot thrash at the end of the leash like a marlin on a hook, whether we’re at home in the driveway and Bambi strolls by, or we’re at the farmer’s market and 101 Dalmatians is being filmed in the village square. I get to decide what’s a toy, what’s food, and what’s appropriate behavior, and what’s going to happen if you commit an offense against these regulations. I’m a cast iron bitch on these matters. And I have well behaved dogs.

But am I a leader? Maybe. I might also be a pal, a buddy, a friend, etc. I am approachable, fun, and constantly inviting connection. Well, except when I want space, and then “go away” is a command that must be understood and respected.

But my dogs go through doorways first. They hop up on the couch uninvited. They nose flip me for affection and I often respond with both verbal praise and a quick scritch. I give unsolicited affection frequently and enthusiastically. I praise decisions the dogs make, and also offer praise or affection as a reward for independent actions.

You see, I believe that much more important than the performance of some elusive set of rules a trainer may set out as “leadership,” being real, honest, present, and authentic is more important than who goes through a door first. I believe that you can’t fake leadership. The dogs see right through that. You can’t “do” leadership things as a performance. Leadership isn’t a set of actions that can be performed correctly.

It has to emanate from the core of your being. It must be genuine. It is who you are, not a bunch of things you remember to do. If you want the dogs to respect you as their leader, you have to BE leadership material, not do leadership things. That’s why I think so many people struggle to articulate leadership cogently. It is ineffable, and innate. That might sound like bullshit or new age gobbledy gook, but having watched a lot of people wrestle with this, I think I’m right.

Some dogs are deferential by nature. They are ready and eager to offer respect to all humans. They don’t mind the hierarchy at all; in fact, they relish it. It feels safe and cozy. Some dogs do not offer respect to humans automatically. It’s just not in their DNA. They feel themselves to be equal to humans, or perhaps superior. (sometimes they’re correct.) If one of these dogs graces you with his or her respect, you’ve earned something precious and valuable. Hawkitt is a sweet, friendly, relaxed and confident boy. But he isn’t respectful of humans by default. He assesses people. He knows he is superior. And he chooses who he respects, based on the human’s worthiness. You have to earn his respect. Cinder was that way too. She would beg for affection from anyone, but she would bond only after a very thorough vetting process. Peeka… well, Peeka is the poster child for selective respect.  

If you believe you’re struggling with leadership, or if you’ve been criticized for being your dog’s friend-buddy-pal, I suggest taking a long hard look at your beliefs about leadership (and your trainer’s beliefs). I think one of the big challenges many owners face is that they, and their trainers (your trainer should be your leader) are really vague, nebulous, and unclear about what leadership is. No wonder it’s a problem – it’s the blind leading the blind.

To start with, my best suggestion is to stop performing what you’ve been told leadership is. Stop with the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. Be real. Be yourself. Be authentic and honest. Because those are true leadership qualities. Be unreservedly, and unrepentantly, yourself. Let your actions flow from an organic place of authentic self (how’s that for some super Woodstocky language?). That’s what dogs (and other humans) respect most. Then, if you need to figure out what to do… at least you’ll be starting from a solid foundation. As long as you keep trying to do and be “a leader” without that being clearly defined or well understood, you’re swimming in the soup of self doubt. “Am I doing it right?” will be your tagline.

You’ll know when you’re doing it right because you’ll be happy. Your dog will be happy. Your life with your dog will be filled with challenges and the meeting of those challenges, hope, disappointments, addressing issues, satisfaction, but most of all, the deep peacefulness of living in a well-functioning partnership. Your home life with your dog will be fundamentally peaceful (yes, even with a malinois) because everyone will be getting what they need. You’ll still face challenges, but you’ll face them together. Your bond with your dog will be the rock, the one safe and sacred place that you both can come back to when you need to refigure out how to surmount what used to feel insurmountable. You will trust each other. Your dog will teach you and you will learn willingly. You won’t always need to fuss over who’s in charge. It won’t matter. In my opinion, that’s what real leadership feels like.

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