Where You Lead, I Will Follow

Photo Courtesy of Millie Cullen

Be a leader. Not a phrase that you would expect to be uttered by a positive dog trainer, right? We spend so much time preaching about how to listen to your dog, give your dog choices, respect who your dog is, that it’s unexpected that I should be talking about leadership. It’s the elephant in the room of modern methods. It still needs to exist, whatever you choose to call it, along with all of the other things that I mentioned. Allowing a dog to make their own choices is super important. See this article on that subject. But, and here is the important part of this equation, allow those choices within the confines of being a leader that allow for safety first.


The word leader has been badly polluted with regards to human’s interactions with dogs. The unfortunate popularity of very outdated and disproved information being widely distributed in the public eye has prompted the world of modern methodology dog trainers to distance themselves from using it. I don’t even hand out my own Benevolent Leadership handout to clients anymore, lest it be misunderstood. Some will take a mile when they should take an inch.  The word gets an even worse connotation when inappropriately paired with the word "pack". As it should, since the ideology that follows this outdated information places dogs at a distinct disadvantage. The implication of the word’s usage within this old fashioned ideology is that their behavior often has ulterior motives that are far from accurate. In an effort to have a separation from such outdated information, modern behavior knowledge advocates avoid using the word leadership much like those with critical thinking skills avoid mall parking lots during the holidays. It’s just not worth it to be misunderstood.


Sometimes, however, things move too far in the opposite direction. That isn’t any more helpful to the world of dogs and dog lovers than the dark side of the meaning is. It’s important that the dog loving world understand that leadership IS important. It’s not a dirty word at all, when applied properly, so perhaps it’s time to elaborate on what appropriate leadership entails.


Leadership synonyms: guidance, direction, management, supervision, etc. None of these sound frightening, do they? They shouldn’t. To lead is not to control. There are several different types of leadership documented in the human world. The ones that most closely resemble how dog parents should provide leadership to their dogs include: coaching, affiliative and in part, democratic. Coaching leadership includes advancing skills, building strength and providing a lot of guidance. Affiliative leadership includes promoting harmony, making sure everyone feels connected and solving conflict. Democratic leadership involves everyone getting a say, ideas are shared and discussion is encouraged. Good stuff, right?


This sounds a lot like parenting, doesn’t it? That’s because it IS a lot like parenting. Parenting synonyms: bring up, rear, look after, take care of, etc. The differences, other than the obvious different species issue, are that dogs don’t ever really grow up like human children do. They also don’t ask to borrow the car or stay out after curfew so there are advantages to not growing up here!


Photo Courtesy of Claire Goyer

Being a real leader to your dog means putting boundaries in place to convey what is expected of one, in a benevolent and kind manner. Leadership is showing someone the ropes and setting them up for success. Leadership is taking the helm and letting your dog know what is and isn’t acceptable, for safety’s sake. It’s also about being the safety net so that there is never a need for a dog to be proactive about worries. Teach your dog to look to you to solve bigger problems than their interactive toys. Examples of being a leader: placing management equipment such as a harness on a dog in order to take said dog in public safely; kindly training a dog to have basic polite manners; preventing behavior that is unsafe, regardless of whether a dog wants to practice said behavior or not. There are so many circumstances that can be construed as leadership. Managing a dog’s environment until they are trained and trustworthy is leadership. None of this is at all scary or harmful. That isn’t the point of proper leadership.


I asked what the word leadership means to other dog professionals and here are some examples.


Kristin states: “Advocate, guardian, voice.”

Sylvia states: “Guardian, parent.”

Helen states that a fellow dog trainer says: “Be the fun leader.”

Anne states: “Tour guide to the human world.”

Sharon states: “Teach”.

Dawn states: “Teacher or guide.”

Susan states: “Guide”.

Many people said coaching was a good option.

I like how Christine puts it : “It is like helping friends from a totally different culture.” “Take the lead, guide them and make decisions for them if need be. But if it is safe to do so, they can make their own decisions.”


Why care at all about what word is being used? Because unfortunately, I see some people take the positive training methodology too literally and then misunderstand how it works. Positive doesn’t mean permissive. There are still guidelines that need followed for the sake of safety and propriety. Someone needs to be in charge and it should be the humans for all the important decisions. Should a dog go to the vet, should they wear kind management tools such as harnesses and leashes that allow their human to safely walk them, should they be prevented from rushing out of doorways or running amok without a leash. The scenarios are endless. The world is full of things we do and don’t want to do. If no one teaches us right from wrong, we flail around and maybe we get it right and maybe we don’t. The goal to parenting/leadership is that the flailing is minimal and the learning is maximized. That is a win/win situation. Parenting correctly is about the relationship. So is leadership. Think of it as parenting, coaching, guiding, mentoring, motivating, whatever you want to call it but make no mistake, it’s important to be the leader. Be the fun leader. But establish those guidelines and set your dog up for success.

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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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