Lead by Example
By Sarah Fulcher, Cert.CBST, CTDI
Leadership with regards to companion dogs is a tricky and controversial subject. Some trainers tout it as the end-all-be-all to any dog behavior problem, while others say it is not important at all. I fall somewhere in the middle. While I feel that leadership with a dog is an important piece of the puzzle, it alone cannot solve every issue.
I do not like the term “alpha” as the research it was coined from has been proved obsolete. It came from studying captive, non-related groups of wolves. In these artificial packs, violence and conflict over resources and status was common place. The idea of being a firm and aggressive alpha to your pet was born from the logic that wolves do it, so dogs must have the same behavior.
The reality is wild wolf packs are remarkable peaceful, with much of the “aggression” ritualized and intended to avoid or defuse conflict. Wolf packs are essentially a family and the term alpha is now rarely used and is commonly understood to refer the breeding pair or parents in the pack. In addition, we also know now that while dogs may share a common ancestor to the wolf they have evolved separately from them for so long they have very distinct behavior patterns. Most wild dogs do not form packs with rigid structure, rather they are social but more nomadic with dominance relationships between individuals being fluid and changing depending on context.
Now, all this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide our dogs structure, boundaries and direction. Creating a consistent, predictable environment for you dog is incredibly important. Doing so helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and along with that comes the depletion or reduction of many behavior issues. I will almost always include a force-free leadership program as part of a behavior modification protocol.
Being a good leader (alpha, pack leader, mom, dad – whatever you want to call it!) for your dog doesn’t mean they respond to you if you raise your voice or otherwise threaten them. It doesn’t mean your dog absolutely needs to stay off the sofa or the bed, eat after you, or walk through doors after you. It doesn’t mean you have to show your dog who is boss by staring him down, grabbing his muzzle, grabbing his scruff, smacking him, use a special collar, or alpha rolling him.
It does mean you have to provide a predictable, consistent, and safe environment.
Oh, and you should probably be kind enough to train them.
Training is a much neglected aspect of living with a dog. We often hear discipline and exercise parroted over and over, but training is just as important and is usually left out. Basic training teaches your dog what those funny sounds you are making mean and gives you a common language. It communicates to your dog what you want them do and gives them a chance to understand and abide by your rules – as opposed to breaking rules they never knew existed and being punished. You’d be surprised at how compliant your dog can be once they have been shown what is expected of them. What’s more, once you learn how to be a skilled reinforcer instead of an enforcer, you may find that life is much more relaxed and enjoyable for both you and your dog. As a nifty side effect, positive reinforcement training builds and strengthens your relationship!
Yes, you can let your dog on the sofa or the bed if you like, provided there is no aggression resulting over access to these places. If you like, train your dog that they come up only when invited. You can feed your dog before you eat and they won’t take over the household. I promise. I almost always feed my dogs before I eat because I make sure they get taken care of before I do. I would suggest teaching them to sit and wait politely for their meals, however. Waiting at doorways, while an important training and safety exercise, will not prevent your dog from taking over the world.
Being a good leader for your dog is a lot like being a good parent. Be patient, confident and forgiving of errors. We all forget the rules sometimes. Give guidance and direction – be an educator and a translator instead of a dominator. Provide a safe, stable, predictable environment and make sure your dogs physical and mental needs are met. If your dog’s behavior frustrates you, take a bit of time to teach your dog what you want them to do. Above all, protect your dog from harm – be someone your dog can trust and feel safe with. Try your best every day to be the person your dog thinks you are. You will not be perfect, but they will forgive you.