How to be a positive leader for your dog

how to be a strong leader for your dog
Woman and dog together at sunset

Leadership is defined as the ability to guide, direct or influence. Nowhere in the definition does it mention domination, intimidation or control. Yet many dog trainers still use and promote this approach. These conflicting messages leave many people confused – and if they’re confused, think how the dogs must feel!

Luckily, we’re learning more and more about animal behavior, learning theory, and how dogs interact with their world. This new information is helping many people let go of outmoded ideas of punishment-based training. The following ten tips will help you build a strong foundation for positive, successful training and get leadership.

1.    Think positive, not punishment

A study in the February 2004 issue of the British Journal of Animal Welfare found “not only that rewards were more effective in eliciting desired behaviors from the dogs, but that those owners who used punishment-based training had seen a variety of bad behaviors in their dogs including barking at/aggression towards people and other dogs, fearfulness, excitement, separation anxiety, and inappropriate mounting.”

Dogs that were trained exclusively using positive, reward-based methods were significantly more obedient than those trained using punishment or a combination of rewards and punishment. “The use of punishment-based training might create a state of anxiety or conflict in the dog that is later expressed as bad behavior,” suggested the authors of the study.

2.    Reward, don’t ignore

Humans tend to focus on what they don’t want their dogs to do. They spend too much time saying “no” and trying to make their dogs stop what they are doing. Start putting all that energy into “catching” your dog doing the correct things and rewarding those behaviors. If your dog has finally settled down and is quietly chewing a bone, do not ignore that behavior – reward it. Walk by him, quietly drop him a treat, and move along. If you don’t have a treat, a quiet “good dog” will do.

Hint: If good behaviors are ignored while unwanted ones aren’t, your dog may very well decide that behaving well isn’t worth very much. He’ll continue the “bad” behaviors because they get all the attention.

3.    Manners are learned as rewards are earned

Some people have a hard time using food rewards yet present an entire bowl of food to their dogs without so much as a thought. You are going to feed your dog every day anyhow, so why not let him earn it by using some of that food as a training reward? There are actually trainers and pet parents out there who do not even own food bowls for their dogs – every piece of food is a paycheck for a job well done.

It isn’t necessary to go to these extremes unless you want to, but plan to use a portion of your dog’s food to train, or use it in food carrier toys such as Kongs or Buster Cubes so your dog can expend some mental energy working for his food each day.

Hint: Dogs who live in the wild spend a large part of their day looking for food. When you put your dog’s food in a bowl and it’s gone in 30 seconds, he has little to look forward to the rest of the day. That’s why some dogs walk the path of destruction – they’re bored!

Training and the use of food carrier toys exercise the mind. In some studies, dogs actually preferred to earn their food rather than have it delivered in a bowl.

4.    Love your dog, limit your dog

Like children, dogs appreciate and live well with rules and limits. There is always time to relax the rules after your dog learns them, but it’s much more difficult to go back and put rules in place when he’s had no structure in his life.

Training is one of the best ways to limit your dog. It should always be fun, but the reason for training is to give your dog some life skills that will help him resolve conflict and live peaceably with humans.

Use your dog’s crate, baby gates or leashes to prevent him from practicing unwanted behaviors. Teach him to like his crate, to be comfortable left alone, and to relax when he is not sure what to do. This way, if he is ever in doubt, he will know to rest rather than become frantic with panic or wild with excitement.

5.    Give him physical – and mental – exercise

It’s easy to exercise your dog’s body, but do you also exercise his mind? Get creative and find things that will challenge his wonderful mental capacity. Hide and seek with his favorite toy, clicker training, food puzzles, special digging pits, trick training, and doggie trashcans are all good ways to stimlulate your dog’s mind. Be willing to let him make a few messes here and there – better a mess of organized play than one where your dog digs up the garden or shreds your pillow.

6.    Let your dog be your teacher

Learn about dogs. Read, get on the Internet, go to workshops and seminars, and watch your own dog. He always knows what he needs. Dogs are great teachers if you are willing to be the student. They are the masters of body language and have beautiful etiquette if allowed to express it. Learn what your dog is “saying” and your relationship and understanding will grow.

7.    Respect your dog’s boundaries

You expect your dog to respect your space and boundaries; in return, you should do the same. If your dog just settles down to rest by your feet, it is not an invitation to reach down and touch him. In fact, this can quickly teach your dog never to relax in your presence.

Similarly, if your dog shows his belly to you, it is not always an invitation for a belly rub; it might be his way of saying he is worried or concerned. Watch how dogs interact with one another; you would not see another dog start to pat or pound on a submissive dog’s belly. He would simply sniff and move away – anything else would be considered rude in the dog world.

If you personally wouldn’t like something done to you in the context of what you might be doing to your dog, respect him and back off. Body pounding, constant head patting, and grabbing his face, are all good examples of how a human might invade a dog’s personal space, and while he might tolerate it from you, that does not mean he enjoys it.

8.    Lead by example

Your calmness will teach your dog to be calm. Learn to breath and smile at your dog. The more you display calmness, the calmer your dog will be when he needs it the most.

9.    Listen to your dog

Have you ever heard yourself say, “My dog is stubborn. He knows how to sit but he won’t do it if we go anywhere outside our neighborhood!” Your dog is not stubborn; he’s trying to tell you something. He might be nervous, fearful, overly excited, or perhaps the behavior has not been trained to fluency in different environments. The same goes for reactive behavior towards other dogs or humans; your dog is trying to express how he feels about the situation and needs some help, not criticism.

10.    Enjoy your dog

Dogs are truly the comics of the animal world. Enjoy your dog for what he is – a dog! There is poetry, music, and laughter in every moment spent living with dogs (some admittedly messier than others). Dogs offer life lessons to anyone who will take the time to look and not judge, and to respect them for being so tolerant of us.