How to Be Your Dog’s Leader


I’m not going to bother debunking the “pack leader” theory. It’s been done far too many times, including by the theory’s originator, Dave Mech. Let’s start instead with the dictionary definition of leader and go from there: Someone who commands a group, organization, or person. I’ll add to that list an animal, as there are many of us who successfully lead dogs. We have developed the leadership skills necessary to establish a bond of joy and respect — respect being a two-way street.

The game follow the leader is a prime example of leadership, and it has nothing to do with dominance or force as those who cling to the outdated “pack leader” theory believe. Instead, it simply means that to be a leader, there must be followers. When we are teaching our dogs, we are their leader, insomuch as they are willing followers in the game of teaching.

Follow the leader by Shutterstock.
Follow the leader. (Photo by Shutterstock)

When we lead, we also control. A Gentle Leader is a tool to help control a dog, as is a regular collar, a harness, as well as a treat or a ball. These are tools used to maintain engagement and control, with the goal being able to maintain control with compliance and enthusiasm without any forceful method or device.

So how do we develop these skills to become a leader?

First, let me ask you these questions:

How many of you make your dog wait until you let her in or out of a doorway before you? Are you the dog’s leader? If you make your dog eat after you, are you the leader? How about having your dog walk on the leash beside you — are you the leader, then? How many of you do these exact things and still have a dog who has problems like jumping on people, barking, destructive behavior, or begging, no matter what you’ve tried to do to stop them?

Be a leader, not a yeller. Illustration from the Dog Decoder smartphone app, illustrated by Lili Chin.

If having your dog wait at doors or eat after you makes you a leader, then why do you have a problem dog? Because doing these things has little to do with being a leader.

Here are five leadership skills to help you create and build a bond like you’ve never known before:

1. Speaking your dog’s language

If we can’t communicate, we can’t bond. It’s that simple. English is my first language. Body language is a dog’s first language. This means that not only do we have to learn how to speak dog, we must realize that they are reading our body language every second. You all know exactly what I’m talking about. If I stop typing right now and move my chair in such a way that indicates I’m getting up, suddenly my dogs look to me, no matter what they are doing.

You really do need to become fluent in dog. Fortunately there is a wonderful book by Brenda Aloff, Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide, and a smartphone app, Dog Decoder, about dog body language, created by me and illustrated by Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings. Check them out to learn that your dog is talking a mile a minute and is dying to communicate with you.

Learn doggie body language. (Screengrab from Dog Decoder.) Illustration from the Dog Decoder smartphone app, illustrated by Lili Chin.

2. Understanding what motivates your dog

I have one dog who loves balls, one who loves treats, and another who will do anything for praise and pets. Use the right motivator, and your dog will be more trainable. Find what works for your dog and go for it.

3. Being patient

Leaders know that teaching a dog is a step-by-step process of having the dog understand what you are asking for, s-l-o-w-l-y and consistently. When teaching something new, a trick or a new cue, don’t spend more that five minutes or 15 small treats. Your dog may get it right away or not. If they do, don’t do it another 30 times. If they don’t get it, don’t continue. Take a break; try another time.

Simply have a certain amount of treats, and when they’re gone, be done. Don’t go back to that trick or cue for a couple of days but instead do things your dog loves and will succeed at. When you do go back to the difficult trick or cue, nine times out of 10 your dog will do what you ask, the first time.

Leadership is fun and rewarding for both.
Leadership is fun and rewarding for both. Illustration from the Dog Decoder smartphone app, illustrated by Lili Chin.

4. Observing

Knowing how your dog moves through the world helps you to better communicate and teach. My dog Timber is always looking for mischief and is very reactive in a fun, want-to-be-involved-in-everything kind of way. If I’m not on top of my game, I could lose her in a flash — lose her as in not keeping her engaged.

5. Flexing mental, not physical, muscles

Connecting with dogs using these simple leadership skills helps you build a strong, healthy partnership with your dog. I also have two horses, and there is no way that I could outmuscle a horse into compliance and enthusiasm. It’s the same with dogs, whether a Toy Poodle or a Great Dane. It’s about communication, connection, motivation, intention, preparation, timing, and reward.

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