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Leadership in Dog Training

There’s a lot of talk about leadership in training. The concept isn’t wrong at all. But I’d love to rethink the paradigm of leadership a bit because I think it really overwhelms people. Leadership is not about dominance and the bullshit you’ve heard on Cesar Milan.

Leadership is about being someone that you can be trusted to course correct when necessary and make the best decision for the greater good of the team. For example, in the context of war, marines have almost blind leadership in their leaders, even, and especially, in times of life or death. This bond does not develop overnight, it comes from missions and training exercises, but when shit hits the fan, they know to trust the instructions they were given to keep them safe. They may not even have all the information on their mission, but they have faith that they have the information and resources they need.

Leadership is about being someone that can provide direction, guidance, and protection. A leader is someone that can course correct when necessary. A leader recognizes and praises good behavior and gives consequences for bad behavior. Let me be clear here, I don’t mean beating your dog up because it did something wrong. Consequences can be something as simple as taking reinforcement away. Most importantly to me, leadership in dog training is about advocating for your dog. So let’s talk about how this comes into play in my house: In my house, new dogs are tethered to me and the resident dogs will sometimes have drag leashes on to keep everything safe and so I can maintain control if necessary. I use muzzles all the time, probably too much but safety and protection of the dogs in my care is my main priority. When I bring new dogs into my house, I am always showing the dog that I have things under control. I DO NOT let the dogs attack each other through the cage- every interaction is managed and rewards are given for friendly behavior and for checking in with me. I do whatever I need to do to keep everyone safe and happy. I will put blankets on the new cages to block visual barriers if necessary, and again, I’ll use tethers. And that’s what makes me a leader. I am not waiting for things to go south, I’m proactively managing the situation to make sure everyone comes out of the experience with more marbles than we started with.

I want the animals I’m handling to know I will take on threats for them, it’s not their responsibility. It’s simply not on the table for them to take it on themselves. On top of that, I will reward them when they handle situations in a way I see as acceptable or “correct”. (Keep in mind, what’s correct is only known to me, not the dog- so I have to make it clear to the dog what I want. I don’t wait for them to make a “mistake”, I am proactive, not reactive. The dogs I’m handling should have no reason to believe I won’t keep them safe.

Think about leadership with children. It’s not about being militant and having unnecessary rules. The rules you have in place are for safety. Dogs are like 3-year-olds- even at their most advanced. They don’t understand why rules are there- but we know that rules are there to keep them safe and functioning members of society. Functioning members of society. Your kid can’t run with scissors, not because you are dominant, but because they could hurt themselves.


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