Leadership is a special position, and in some ways even a birthright. Both dogs and humans are genetically hard-wired to live in social orders. There are similarities in good and bad leaders of dog packs and humans. The same qualities that make a good human leader make a good dog leader. But since dogs have different needs, those qualities will be expressed differently when a human leads dogs than when a human leads other humans.
Alpha versus Leader
The concept of a human role-playing an alpha wolf to have authority over a dog has led to misunderstandings and even tragedies between people and their dogs. A human with good dog communication skills, excellent physical timing, and natural authority with dogs may get away with acting out this belief. Such successes add to confusion about the alpha theory.
Any concept of how dogs think is a theory. We can't prove it because the dogs aren't talking. Much research has suggested the accuracy of various theories, but more often what people believe about dogs is based on experiences they have had or heard from others. These ideas are working theories rather than known facts. Dominance or alpha theory holds that dogs follow the big boss, and that dogs continually try to move up in the pack to be boss. Versions of this theory tend to view dogs and people who live together as being members of the same pack that has one leader. The idea is that the leader can be either a human or a dog. When you're having trouble with two dogs getting along with each other, some people who advocate the alpha theory may say that all you need to do is be the big boss yourself and force the dogs to get along. The alpha theory tends to assume that fear of retribution maintains order in a dog pack.
The way packs of wolves and packs of dogs behave doesn't bear out much of this theory. Dogs are not wolves, and some dogs are farther removed from wolf instincts than others. Belgian Tervuren dogs might employ a lot of wolf behaviours in their interactions with each other, but Yorkshire Terriers tend to act out of other motivations because of their breeding for gameness.
Even when dogs act like wolves, neither dogs nor wolves have the "big boss" pack structure that humans talk about as the alpha theory. In a pack, which is a small social group of dogs like a small farming community of humans, relationships are complicated. When the pack is stable, most members prefer being led by a good leader and second-in-command, rather than themselves having to take on leadership responsibilities. Not unlike most humans!
There is usually a male leader and a female leader. The males and the females do not compete against the opposite sex to determine which one will be "boss." Each has certain responsibilities and rights accompanying those responsibilities. For example, a female can attack another dog of any rank to protect her pups, and she can refuse the sexual advances of a male. Males without argument usually accept this behaviour unless he is mentally unstable.
The dog who is most active in enforcing order in a pack is usually not the top dog, but rather a second-in-command acting under the authority of the leader. This dog doesn't "pick" fights, but may at times appear to do so when holding drills to teach problem dogs to accept authority. The most argumentative dogs tend to be the adolescents who are in the process of finding their roles in the pack, and the adults are prepared to deal with them.
Dogs attempting to move up in the pack hierarchy are the most quarrelsome. In a wolf pack if they are unsuccessful in moving up, they leave the pack. This prevents wolves from overpopulating an area and all starving to death because there's not enough food. The ones with leadership ability leave and lead their own packs elsewhere. The extra leaders can't leave to form new packs when kept by humans, which creates potentially dangerous situations where dogs may fight to the death. If dogs can't work out their relationships and fight to the point of injury, it's the human's responsibility not to keep the dogs together. Keeping together dogs who injure one another is not humane.
Let's relate all this to humans trying to convince their dogs that the humans are alpha. When you create confrontations to demonstrate to a dog that you're the boss, you're telling the dog that you are an alpha wanna-be who is too emotionally unstable to trusted with the leadership of the group! You will actually force the dog to put you in your place. A good dog with the ability to lead a pack in time of need would react to this situation by stepping up and taking charge of the pack. This is not what you want! Do not fight with your dog. Nobody wins.
The various ideas people have for tricking dogs into thinking the people are alpha don't work if you're not a good, responsible leader. One of the benefits of the various programs that claim to make you alpha is getting you to be disciplined in how you manage life with your dog. Dogs draw security from routines and stable habits. It works better, though, if you understand what you really need to do to be a good leader, rather than faking it.
Leadership is a Role of Service
A good father would die for his family. A good mother keeps her kids safe, and the discipline she imposes on them is for that purpose. She doesn't let toddlers run in the street or preschoolers set fires because she wants her kids to be alive at the end of the day. A good parent's motive in governing kids is their welfare.
Any leader is motivated by responsibility for those entrusted to his or her charge. In the workplace the responsibility is not as extensive as it is for a teacher of children in a school, and neither of these has the degree of responsibility a parent has for a child. Leadership with your dog has similar elements to parenting. Everything about the dog's existence is your responsibility because the dog is powerless to get needs met without your help.
Just as a mom sets limits on her child's behaviour, you have to set limits on your dog. With the youngest child, and often with the dog, these limits are set through management until learning can be achieved.
What people sometimes don't understand is that your dog is aware of being dependent on you for these needs. If you do a good job of meeting your dog's needs, the dog learns to view you as a good leader. Remember that those needs INCLUDE SETTING LIMITS. TRAINING is a part of being a good leader.
In training together, you and your dog develop a common language so that you can communicate the limits to the dog without harsh treatment. This communication allows you to give the dog more freedom; if the dog walks on a leash in an orderly fashion you can go places together and the dog can have a more stimulating life.
How Can a Human Be a Good Leader to a Dog?
Good leadership is partly ingrained in who you are. You need reasonably sound nerves. You need to be an ethical person who takes care of others because it's the right thing to do. You need to be smart enough to make reasonable decisions. You need to keep your promises, including the unspoken ones you make when you bring a dog into your life to care for. The dog's needs continue day in and day out, year after year, through health and sickness. Your faithfulness to care for the dog needs to continue, too. That's what a leader does.
The dogs recognize a leader by how that leader behaves. They equally recognize a human or another dog who isn't suited for leadership. In a group of dogs, the dogs will not allow a weak-minded dog to lead. Following the leadership of such a dog could, in the wild, get them all killed.
Children are not qualified to lead a dog pack. Your best bet for keeping kids safe with the dogs is to be a steady, reliable, good-natured leader yourself. When your dogs feel safe, they have less occasion to think they need to get control over the kids. If you bully your dog, your behaviour could teach your dog to bully your kids. Steady, humane leadership from you makes your dog safer for everyone else.
Keep a reliable schedule for your dog. Don't put dogs in the position of worrying about whether someone is going to make it home to feed them. Don't leave them for hours beyond their normal potty time without access to relief. Separation anxiety in dogs is the frequent result of this kind of management.
Train with your dog to the point that you can direct your dog around the house and fenced yard without a leash and in a calm tone of voice. Training needs to continue until the dog can listen and respond when distracted or excited. Six weeks of training class is not long enough. Small dogs may get by with a few months, while larger dogs need a minimum of several months of weekly class with daily practice of the class homework. Each dog will need slightly different handling, so you need to train individually with each dog.
Since dogs also need training and socialization, taking each dog alone out of the house regularly is a good way to provide this. These outings with your dog likely have meaning to them that goes much deeper than we fully understand. Don't be surprised to see your dog looking at you with shining eyes for the rest of the day after an outing together.
Being a good leader to dogs makes people good leaders with other people, too. One factor human adoption agencies use to evaluate prospective parents is how the people handle any dogs they have. Love, responsibility and leadership are like muscles. Use them well and they grow stronger and better.
Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others. Should the training articles available here or elsewhere not be effective, contact your veterinarian. Veterinarians not specializing in behaviour can eliminate medical causes of behaviour problems. If no medical cause is found, your veterinarian can refer you to a colleague who specializes in behaviour or a local behaviourist.
Copyright 2004 - 2009 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved
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