Leadership – An Attitude for Behavioral Success

Leadership is important in many ways, but to your dog, leadership means only one thing and that is, “who leads the pack”. Because dogs are pack animals, having a leader for the pack is paramount. When there is no leader in a pack, there is cause for anxiety. The pack leader is in charge of food, shelter and other important behaviors. Without these essentials, the pack could die.

How Leadership Affects Your Dog’s Behavior

Your leadership affects almost everything regarding your dog’s behavior. Dogs who do not have a leader, or do not perceive that there is a leader exhibit behaviors such as dominance, aggression, anxiety, fear and destructive behaviors. They may decide that your ineffectiveness as leader is cause for them to be the leader. These dogs often achieve dominance over the entire household in the blink of an eye!

How to Achieve Pack Order

Pack order is fairly simple to obtain, especially while the dog is young. Establishing a routine eating, exercise and bedtime starts the young dog out on the correct path. Handling exercises such as the “Settle” also inform the dog that you are a patient yet firm leader. Being fair with your dog in all areas of his life communicates respect to your dog and consistent rules of the household will cement your relationship with your dog.

No dog is comfortable with a wishy-washy leader who can’t decide what the rules are from one day to the next. For instance, allowing the dog up on the furniture one day, and then punishing for the same behavior the next!

How to Retain Pack Order

Retaining pack order is actually harder for many people than the initial training. Many owners assume that because the dog has been to a class or gone through behavior training as a puppy that they are set for the life of the dog. Nothing could be further from the truth! In the same way you forget a new language if you don’t use it, the dog will forget his place if allowed. In addition, when a new dog or other animal enters the household, pack order is changed. Likewise, a new baby or a move to a new home can disrupt the pack order and must be taken into consideration. To maintain pack order, it is often necessary to repeat old lessons such as the Settle. Simple obedience exercises like sit, down and stay or returning to the use of the crate to curb regression in behaviors such as house soiling, chewing, or anxiety may be necessary.

Punishment vs. Leadership

Many people believe that punishing the dog is the only way to stop or curb behavior problems. Unfortunately, in most cases, punishments only increase fear and anxiety for the dog. Attitude is everything. Often, the more you yell or become agitated, the more the dog enjoys it and believes you are not a good leader. Leaders don’t lose control. Leaders maintain a calm, quiet attitude and firmly insist that their way is the only way. Dogs respect this attitude much more than violent or out of control behavior on your part. Fear is not respect and violence begets violence in many cases.

Dogs also understand body language and facial and vocal expression more than the actual words you say. A leader stands tall, speaks firmly and according to what they are communicating, makes either a stern or happy face. Sometimes, as in the case of dogs who are challenging the owner, a completely neutral face is the best. As soon as the dog complies, a huge smile is in order.

Calming Signals

If your dog is barking and growling at another dog, it is human behavior to stroke the dog and talk soothingly. However, from the dog’s point of view, this is actually a reinforcement. A calm, soothing voice tells the dog you LIKE what he is doing and petting encourages it to continue. In addition, the action of petting the dog often produces more adrenalin within the dog, causing more excitement.

If instead you firmly say, “stop that” and order “down”, or change your position so that the dog cannot focus on the other dog, this will calm him so that you can then praise for the correct behavior. Behavior that is reinforced WILL continue, so make sure you are reinforcing the correct behaviors.

Keeping yourself calm helps the dog to remain calm as well. As discussed earlier, if we exhibit out of control or fearful behaviors, the dog will assume there is something to be anxious about. Signal your control over the situation to your dog and watch him follow your lead.

Submitted by: Barb McNinch

Note: Barb is experienced in training and behavior. Her Rottweiler, Shirwin’s cody in Command has earned an AKC CDX title as well as a Dog World Award. Barb is a member of the American Association of Pet Dog Trainers.
Her book, “Training Your Rottweiler” and was published by Barron’s in 1999.