Leadership: One Size Does Not Fit All

training near post office small

Flip through the pages of any traditional book on dog behavior, and you’re likely to find advice about how to be the “boss” or “alpha”—the Big Kahuna. Never feed your dog before you sit down to your own meal. Make sure you go through doorways first. Don’t ever walk around your dog. Never let your dog up on places you sit, like your couch or bed. You might be surprised to know that I couldn’t care less about any of those rules.

Many trainers advise owners to employ some version of a leadership program, meaning the dog has to earn things in their everyday lives. There’s nothing wrong with that, and although I have long advised clients to employ some manner of a learn to earn program, especially if their dogs are overly pushy, I’m not one to be overly strict in that regard with my own dogs. Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe you should be able to ask your dog to move aside, get off the couch, and do any number of other things when asked. It makes sense to me personally to have my dogs sit before meals, especially because Bodhi can be physically pushy and impatient. It’s a good thing for him to practice waiting, and for me not to spill the food all over the place! When I take my dogs out for a walk, they both need to sit and wait at the door while I open the door, look out on the porch, and then back to them to give the release word. During the summers, rattlesnakes have been known to slither up on to our porch; this is not only a manners issue for us, but a safety one, too.

But what about the other aspects of a traditional leadership program? My dogs are allowed up on our couches—that is, when the couches are covered by the colorful blankets we use to keep them dog hair free. (Well, mostly—is anything ever really dog hair free?) If one of my dogs is lying across a doorway, depending on whether they’re in deep sleep, how convenient it is for me to step over them, and whether they’ve been extra pushy lately, I might just let them sleep or lie there, or I might ask them verbally to move out of the way. As for who eats first, I once heard from someone who owned a wolfdog that he always spit in the dog’s dish before he put the food down, so the dog would know who was boss. I can only wonder what the dog actually thought. My dogs eat somewhere in the neighborhood of the same two times during the day, but if I have something pressing to do, they may have to wait. Learning frustration tolerance is a good thing, and hey, if I’m controlling all the good stuff, I obviously am in charge, without having to be heavy-handed about it.

I once heard someone (I believe it was English behaviorist John Rogerson), say that the specific rules aren’t as important as the fact that there are rules. I wholeheartedly agree. Take a moment to think about whether the rules that you’ve learned “must” be taught actually make sense for you and your own dogs. Now think about the rules you have that might not be important for someone else. When it comes to leadership, one size does not fit all.   

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4 Responses to Leadership: One Size Does Not Fit All

  1. Michelle says:

    I find that heavy handedness isn’t necessary but consistency is when it comes to asking for behaviors like sitting before opening the door. This is because my dogs are pushy or overly independent on a regular basis. When they, for the most part, know what to expect, they seem a lot better and happier. Another place I see the pushy behavior from them is at the dog park (which I go to so my dogs can run offleash without fear of chasing a deer or mt lion)…when I don’t enforce the ‘rules’ at home regularly they can be overly pushy there. I’ve also learned (courtesy of my time both being a customer of and working at a premier dog day care and boarding spot) that my dogs can get possessive of me when I let them sleep in my bedroom…this also shows up nastily in the dog park behaviors. Just like kids, dogs are their own unique self and training technique have to be flexible.

  2. Frances says:

    I have just a few unbreakable rules: I get to decide when it is time to get up, not the animals (as I often wake up to both dogs and both cats on the bed, and the cats in particular tend to think that breakfast at 4.30am is a perfectly reasonable request, I have learned to be rigorous and vigorous about insisting on this one!); dogs stay in the car until asked to get out; dogs never, ever, ever go out of the gate onto the road; dogs and cats take turns politely when treats are being handed out. I expect politeness and reasonable behaviour all the time, and the dogs are usually very good about coming when called, etc, but these are rules rather than cues, and are very, very rarely broken.

  3. LisaH says:

    In my agility class this week, I was surprised to see a woman (new to our class) who alpha rolled her 18 month old dog because her dog growled at another dog that came right up to her face – both dogs were on leash & waiting their turn as I was on the course. I have not seen this in ages and was uncertain how to respond. It wasn’t done violently but she was definitely laid her on her side and held down for growling.

    I agree that consistency and respect lead to the best relationship and positive training increases the bond.

  4. Evelyn Haskins says:

    One of my “rules” is, “If I am stepping over you, do NOT suddenly leap up to get out of my way!” 🙂

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