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How to Be a Good Leader

Leadership is a vital topic -- and at the root of so many dog owners' problems. This article is shared with the permission of Mary Woodward of Greenwood Dog Training School in Delaware.

Although there is some discussion about whether dogs truly consider people as part of their "pack," I think everyone agrees that they do recognize -- and respect -- leadership.

Every group has a leader, and if the dog in the family senses that none of the humans is taking that role, they will likely rise to fill it. And that is not good. Along with the responsibilities of leadership comes that of discipline. And no human wants to be disciplined by a dog! Ouch!

Being a good leader for your pet does not mean being violent. It does, however, mean being strong and confident; sure in what you do. Some people seem to act this way naturally, others need a little help. Below I've listed some of the things you can do which will help your dog recognize you as a leader.

* Please note: If aggression is already a concern, then proceed very carefully! Best advice in that case is to get the help of an animal behaviorist who can work privately with you. Call your vet, local obedience schools, or animal shelters for recommendations. Be sure to hire someone who uses primarily positive reinforcement methods.

Feed your dog (control the food supply)
Providing the food is an important leadership role, so make it clear that you are doing so. Instead of leaving a bowl-full of food out all day, have mealtimes where your dog can eagerly await you placing his bowl -- filled with high quality food -- down for him.

Have the right of way
Is your dog in your way or where you want to be? Move him. Give him a nudge and say "move." If that provokes growling or snarling, then please contact a behaviorist. Unless there is a history of abuse, then your dog probably already thinks HE is the leader, and that you are out of line telling him to move. Since you don't want to be bitten, get professional help, please!

Greet the human members of your family first
When you come home, greet any other members of your family before giving any attention to your dog. This may be difficult, as your family members probably aren't bounding up to the door to say hello! However, do your best to walk past your dog and to hug or kiss your family members before turning to crouch and calmly greet your dog.

Play games and keep the toys when you are done
Initiate fun games with your dog, such as retrieving games, tug of war, and hide and seek. Have special toys for these games that you keep out of reach, and when the game is over be sure to put the toys back away. In a sense, these toys are special "kills" for your dog, and the pack leader should have control over them.

Eat before you feed your dog
The top pack members get first choice at the food, but since you probably aren't interested in your dog's dinner, just be sure to eat your own first! If you're not ready yet, then just have a cracker or a drink of water...and be sure your dog is watching.

Be sure your dog earns your attention
Every meal, play session, petting session, etc., should start with your dog responding to you, not the other way around. This needn't be complicated, just have your dog sit or respond to his name (the Attention work) before you do something for him. Or call him to come to you for the fun!

Go through narrow openings first
In other words, don't let your dog blow past you through the door or up or on the stairs. This is as much a safety issue as it is a leadership one. Teach him the Wait or Stay command. Until then, just take hold of his collar and hold him in place while you walk through the door. That's a bit trickier with the stairs, so work hard on those commands.

Once your dog is reliable with those commands, then you can certainly choose to let him go ahead first if that is more convenient for you. But he should wait for your permission to proceed.

Ignore your dog if you are busy
Of course, this is only feasible if you give him plenty of attention and exercise otherwise. But don't feel that you are at your dog's beck and call! Hardly dignified behavior for a leader.

Put your dog in "Time Out" if he is getting out of control
If playtime with you is getting too rowdy, or playing with another dog is starting to get nasty, then quietly put your dog in "Time Out." That can be his crate (as long as he is already comfortable with it), or simply in another room for 5 minutes or so. If you are consistent with this, he will soon learn to control his behavior so the fun can continue.

Do realize that dogs can sound pretty awful when playing with each other. They can bark, growl, snarl, have their hackles up, nip at each other -- all is usually fine. If they start to get stiff or if blood is being drawn, of course, it's time to end it.

Give your dog plenty of attention, exercise, play, and grooming
Okay, so maybe that doesn't necessarily have much to do with leadership, but it's too important NOT to talk about. So many behavioral problems are due to insufficient exercise and pure boredom.
(Note: Do not over-crate your dog. After the transition period when the dog first joins your household, avoid crating more than 4 or 5 hours a day. Give your dog a larger area in which to stay when you are not home, a safe, well-lighted room with interactive dog toys.)
Dogs are social animals and they need exercise (some breeds more than others). If your dog is driving you crazy, try getting up a half-hour earlier every day and taking him for a walk or run. You might be amazed at the change in him! Most breeds were bred to perform a duty and if not given a job to do, will invent their own.

Realize that your dog is a dog
Remember that everything dogs do that we dislike -- biting, barking, jumping up, eliminating inside, chewing, etc. -- is totally normal dog behavior! If we want our dogs to stop doing these things, then it is completely our responsibility to train him not to. No fair expecting him to "know better" or to learn to stop doing something so natural just because he was caught and punished a few times. (Note: physical punishment is not effective and should be avoided.)

Instead, make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and has appropriate things to chew. Kongs or bones stuffed with treats are great. If a problem behavior continues, then realize that the fault lies in your training and management. So take the time to think about the behavior and think about what you can do the change things. Don't expect your dog to act like Lassie, because Lassie really never existed. She was just a well-trained Collie, with a smart trainer who was always just out of camera range.

Reinforce what you like
Be sure to clearly communicate to your dog what behaviors you DO like. Someone walked by the window and he didn't bark at them? "What a good boy!" A reinforcement can be a treat, praise, an ear rub, a ball thrown, whatever. If being "naughty" is the only way your dog gets you to play attention to him, then expect him to be naughty a lot.

Ignore what you don't like (or make it stop "working" for the dog)
Unless the behavior is dangerous or really destructive, ignore behaviors you don't like. And realize that any attention from you is reinforcing! Yelling, hitting, shoving -- all are forms of attention, which your dog naturally craves. A far more effective teaching method is to ignore the undesirable behavior. If it's something that the dog has been doing for a long time, earning your attention every time, then you can pretty much expect it to get worse before it stops. Whatever he was doing worked before, so he may try harder and harder to get it to work again. Stand your ground! Eventually he'll give up, having learned it doesn't work anymore. The behavior will be extinguished. (Be careful -- if you ignore something for a while, and then give in, you'll have taught him that he needs to be really annoying to get your attention.)

Of course, some behaviors are reinforced without your attention. Counter surfing, barking at the neighbors, getting in the trash, chasing cars, etc. So do your best to make those behaviors either impossible for the dog (put the trash in a closet, don't let him run loose to chase cars), or stop working for the dog. If trips to the counter yield no food, he'll stop bothering to do so.

Train desirable behaviors
Please go to the http://www.clickerlessons.com and start learning how. Great trainers have great dogs!

By Mary Woodward and Susan Greenholt
Greenwood Dog Training School
Using positive methods to teach people how to teach their pets!

Note: An excellent book on leadership is Leader of the Pack by Nancy Baer and Steve Duno.

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Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport