Archive for November, 2011

How to be Your Dog’s Leader

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

For all intents and purposes, I am a positive based trainer. I quite often find myself explaining to my clients positive methods for training a dog – but I was asked a question yesterday that I thought was extremely relevant for today’s dog owner, and one I don’t find myself specifically addressing: How I can be my dog’s leader if I can’t correct him?

I’ll begin by addressing this word ‘leader’. This is a common term due to pop culture, television based training, so I don’t want to continue without first clearing up my opinion on this label. Leader can mean many things – from the person at the front of a group, to the teacher you’ll never forget, to Hitler who led the Nazis. Leader can be implicated in both positive and aversive training, and given my stance on training, I’d like it to be used in the former sense. A leader should be a person who leads a dog to make appropriate decisions in any given situation, and that leader should guide that dog to make these decisions using clear and concise cues with appropriate feedback. Being the leader does not require you to be ‘the boss’ or ‘the alpha’ – it simply requires you to be the person whom your dog respects and defers to. That respect should be acquired through love and understanding, not through fear.

Studies show that the average dog learns and thinks at the same level as a three year old child. Though dogs are certainly not human, we can aptly use this comparison for the purpose of defining leadership. Say, for example, your three year old child is afraid of dogs. Explaining theories of body language, breed type, situational approaches and specific dog behaviour is not an option – a three year old doesn’t yet have the ability to rationalize and apply these theories. So, positive based training would dictate that in the presence of a dog, you should kneel calmly beside your child, tell them nice things about the dog, and if they relax or even reach out to gently touch the dog, you’d reward the child with a “good girl”, or even a popsicle. If we were to use the more popular, televised version of training, we’d grab the child by the arm firmly, march them up to the dog and force their hand onto the dog. If the child balks (which she likely would), you should firmly shake the child’s arm which you are grasping and repeat the behaviour until the child succumbs and touches the dog. For option A, the next time your child sees a dog, she will be less afraid than the last time because her experience with the dog was a positive one. For option B, it’s pretty likely your child will grow to hate dogs, and possibly be afraid of you as a parent – hopefully, not a result any parent is looking for. In both cases, the parent has been the child’s “leader”, but in only one is the parent a good leader.

Using positive training does not eliminate the possibility that you will be your dog’s leader; in fact in my opinion, it increases that likelihood. It also does not mean that your dog can do whatever he wants without consequences – it simply means that consequences do not need to be harmful or aversive. Ian Dunbar, the forefather of positive training, once said that repeated correction, (i.e. a leash jerk, that is not immediately effective, meaning one leash jerk should result in your dog walking to heel right away without repeating the behaviour of pulling) that is repeated without the desired effect then becomes harassment or abuse. So, if you’re walking a dog on leash and constant leash corrections are required without resulting in the dog learning to walk to heel, then by Dunbar’s theory you are harassing or abusing your dog. A strong statement, but when you really think about it, a true one.

This doesn’t mean a dog should pull you down the street going whichever direction he chooses. You are, after all, the leader – and this would not be a reasonable way to exercise your dog. But to be a good leader, you need to teach your dog (because he doesn’t speak English or naturally know he’s supposed to walk beside you and ignore all the stimulus going on around him that his birthright tells him he should be sticking his nose in) to walk calmly alongside you, and you can do so without harsh corrections. There are many ways – such as changing direction frequently, carrying a food treat or toy, using equipment like and EZ Walk or a Halti. And most importantly, rewarding him when he IS doing it properly!!! These tv personalities who teach ‘leadership’ are so quick to punish, yet rarely praise. The greatest leaders of our time – Obama, Ghandi, even Oprah, have all used positive based communication to get a message across, to teach and to lead, their audience. The most horrific leaders have used violence, force and manipulation.

Please – be a leader for your dog! He will love you more for it – if you choose to be a good leader. Every time you ask him to do something, and he does it, tell him he’s a good boy, or say thank you!! And if he doesn’t do it, think about whether your next step is going to be harmful to him, or going to be useful in teaching a behaviour he will gladly repeat again. My next blog will be about having fun with training . I believe in making it fun because that’s what dogs ultimately want out of life – a good time!! So if you can make them WANT to listen to you because it’s fun, wouldn’t that just be so much easier? And at the end of the day – isn’t that the way you’d want to teach your three your old to train your dog?


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