4 Signs You've Made It as The Leader of Your Dog
Or is your dog the head of your household?
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
What kind of leadership do domestic dogs need? A question that sparks controversy. For this post, we talk leadership as in parenthood and not as in ”alpha” leadership. I am not going to address the controversy in full now, but I need to establish a healthy context for this post. Here is why:
For quite some time now, our understanding of what kind of leadership our dogs need is in a transition phase.
You will find a ton of bs advice on the web on this topic. It seems that when people talk about providing leadership and guidance to their dogs, they mean strict order and often domination. They mean ”alpha” leadership.
(You are welcome to scroll down to the bullet point no.1 if you want to skip this part.)
What outmoded science says?
The wrong studies had people believing that wolves live in packs ruled by a male and a female (the ”alpha” pair) who dominate the lower-ranking members of the pack to secure full access to the resources (food, shelter, mates) for themselves. All other members of the group fight to climb up the ladder. Because of this war for the resources, the Alphas have to prove their position at the top with violent displays of power.
The theory further suggested that since dogs descent from wolves, this must be the model dogs follow when they form their own packs. And since they live with us, we must be the pack. It makes sense, right?
The problem with those studies (Rudolph Schenkel, ”Expressions Studies on Wolves”, 1947⇒) was that they involved two packs of captive and unrelated wolves. It turns out that captivity fucks up a wolf’s mind and sharing an area with strangers makes them want to be the dominant alpha. Those studies were later seen as insufficient but they were the standard on the wolf behavior field for decades.
Dog trainers followed this logic for decades. Dominance training was the standard, and to my surprise it’s still a thing, luckily in decline.
The ”alpha concept” is still perpetuated by a big chunk of the dog-blogging community.
You will hear them say, ”Don’t let your dog be on the couch. Being on the same level with a lower-ranking member of the pack is wrong”.
Or, ”Don’t feed your dog before you are done eating, the alpha eats first”.
Or, ”Don’t let them walk out the door before you, it’s a direct sign of disrespect”.
My dog eats when it is time for her to eat (her breakfast is before mine). When I open the door, she usually runs first because she can’t be contained. And sometimes, when we look the other way, she gets on the sofa because she is a sneaky girl who likes to enjoy every sleeping spot in the house.
I do not consider myself an insufficient leader. It’s the alpha theory that’s problematic, not my dog’s dogness.
What current science says
Wolves travel together in extended family packs and the parents are the leaders. The younger members of the pack do not try to overthrown the alpha male or female. When the pups grow older, they move away to form their own packs with other dispersed young wolves.
Wolves display situational social dominance, and the reasons are not always clear. Whatever the reasons behind dominance, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dominance is observed in many animals species, including humans.
There is plenty of evidence to support that free-ranging dogs form packs, just like wolves and other wild canids do. It is also true that dogs form dominance relationships.
However, there is not a single evidence to support the theory that we must be the dominant ”alpha” to inspire our dogs’ respect and/or change their behaviors. Even if the alpha theory was accurate for wolves and then we assumed that dogs follow the same model, there is no reason to believe this is how we should raise our dogs. For the single fact that you and your dog are not a dog pack.
Multi-species packs are yet to become a thing, and until then, let’s settle with what we know about how dogs see the symbiosis with the human family: not much. I’ll wait for the growing ”dog science” to tell me what the human family has done to the dog brain.
One is certain, dominance is not the way to be your dog’s leader.
Use positive training methods to communicate with your dog(s). Use methods that rely on trust, cooperation, communication, and fun. Qualities found in a good, generous, and confident leader. Your dog needs one.
So if you are in doubt, don’t look for signs of submission. Look for the subtle moments when your dog seeks for the safety of your presence, eye contact of reassurance, or your guidance in moments where it’s needed.
Be trustworthy and predictable, be involved and committed, be confident in your ways and respectful of their ways. Be a generous provider and caretaker.
Here are a few signs that you are on the right track:
1. Your dog follows your lead
Obviously, right? You are no leader of anyone if no one follows you.
How do you make sure your dog follows your lead, especially when off-leash? The answer is confidence.
Once on your walk, demonstrate leadership by deciding the particulars. If your dog happily follows your lead every time you take a turn or stop, it’s because she/he knows you are in control of your actions.
Your confidence is key here. Dogs love a confident leader with an upright posture, steady walking, and a relaxed way to communicate his/her intentions. Do not mistake leadership with obedience, your dog should be allowed to stop and sniff, or even ”misbehave” when excitement hits them.
Also, see if your dog can tell the difference between ”heading home” and ”casually walking” while on leash. When your dog respects your tempo it means that you are leading the way. Also, does your dog check on you and wait when she realizes you are left behind?
Now, when it comes to doors, going first is not a definite sign that your dog feels like a boss, but if it’s not clear who is, you’d rather want to teach your dog to wait for you to walk first.
Once roles are clearly defined, loosen up. Confidence is key in leadership, but cooperation is also important. When you are out there with your dog, whether leashed or unleashed, try not to obsess over leading the way and appreciate your dog’s enthusiastic nature. If the conditions allow, let them show you the way.
There will be circumstances where dogs get hyper and thus less responsive. Always use your judgment if that’s a good time to let your dog be independent or even —yes, why not— the leader. Given that most dogs hardly know free-will, being in charge (or think they are) is a great way for them to gain confidence and boost their decision-making abilities.
Hiking is one of those circumstances. When in nature, dogs are in their prime. The great outdoors is their element (more than ours). I see it as a great chance to switch roles. I like to back off, loosen up, let my dog be herself, and myself surprised.
Your dog asks for permissions
When in doubt, indecisive, or confused, as kids, we seek permission in our parents’ or guardians’ guidance. An eye contact that says ”ok”, a gesture that says ”yes, go” or ”no is no”.
Likewise, your dog should seek the same kind of affirmation from you. See if your dog asks for permission before she runs to a nearby dog or before she gets on the sofa. Do your cues or gestures matter in moments when they should matter?
To get there, associate your verbal cues and gestures with positive emotions. Positive reinforcement is the way to go. Adding a reward after a verbal cue is a proven way to make your dog respond happily. With time and positive association, you’ll be your dog’s guiding star.
3. You can trust your dog’s impulses
Trust is a key-trait for leaders. If your dog finds safety in your confident presence, gentle touch, and calm voice, you are trusted.
Now, go a little deeper to see if you can trust your dog’s impulses.
Would you dare to interfere with your dog’s meal? Grab their bowl while eating? Does that make them growl? Do you think your dog would bite you? If yes, it’s a sign of an insecure dog and something you want to work on. A trusted leader should not provoke such a reaction on the dog’s part
Can you examine your dog’s sensitive body parts, say a wound? Does your dog trust that you will do the right thing? This kind of acceptance has to be taught. Your dog will trust you if you are predictable and therefore worthy of their trust.
Keep in mind that a dog with trauma should not be challenged irresponsibly.
4. You have control over your unleashed dog
Dogs have the right to explore the world at their own pace. Freedom is joy, dogs deserve it, and I can’t recommend it enough. However, unleashed dogs, especially in distracting environments, are going to challenge your leadership in ways no other occasion will.
A dog on a leash is an easy-to-manage dog. We can’t be bragging about our ability to handle our dogs when the leash is doing most of the job. There is a challenge that comes with a free dog that many people are not willing to take because it is hard and because it takes extra effort if you want to make it right.
You can’t claim you have a responsive dog if you can’t keep your unleashed dog close to you. The moment your dog runs towards a nearby dog or a low-flying bird, your voice should still matter.
One of my dog’s friend, Freddie, is known for being unmanageable the moment he realizes he is not attached to his leash. He becomes unresponsive and hyperactive. He won’t let the nice lady that walks with him come closer and put him on a lead again. I usually must help to catch him when he is not expecting it.
If this reminds you of you and your dog, it’s ok. I mean you are not there yet as your dog’s leader, but it’s ok. I recommend you become more involved with your dog daily if you want to be a better leader, and, in the above scenario, a better handler.
Train more, and provide more. Until then, keep your dog on a leash.
Don’t leave with a sad face if the above signs are not present in your life. You are not a strong leader for your dog but it’s ok. First of all, be skeptical of generic advice on the web like in this post. You know your dog better then I do. Consider factors like age, breed, temperament, or trauma that impact a dog’s responsiveness and cooperation.
And then remember there is always room for improvement:
- Exercise your dog’s skills with positive training.
- Be involved with your dog(s) daily.
- Don’t settle with a basic doggie life. Go next level.
A well-trained and content dog is generally more responsive and manageable.