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.