“Leadership” Get A Bad Rap


It’s become a greatly misused term: Leader Of The Pack. So many people who are using positive training techniques get a big old hard-on when they hear that term. “Oh, you must be the Anti-Christ, you’re the Leader Of The Pack!”  For folks who are advocating All Positives in training your critters, you sure get All Punchy when that phrase comes up.  Which part is that gets you? “Leader” or “pack?”  Trust me: the phrase was not coined or invented by Cesar Millan. 


On the opposite side, “You MUST be the dominant leader of your dog pack or the entire universe will split on its axis and destroy itself because the dogs will go wild and kill us all!”  That’s pretty stupid too, seeing as how the human-dog relationship has been around for millennia. 


OK, so dogs aren’t wolves. Science has debunked that whole wolf thing.  Thank God they aren’t. Can we please give it a rest?


But suppose you have more than one dog?  Say you have five dogs? What the heck are you supposed to call them?  A Bark of Dogs? No? Then will someone please come up with a word for a group of dogs?  Like a gaggle of geese or a trumpet of swans.  For now, if you have more than two dogs, let’s just face it. It’s a pack of dogs.  It’s a loosely formed group who get their resources from the same source.  If you go to the refrigerator, five dog faces will probably be close by. Anyone who says there isn’t a loosely formed, often fluctuating hierarchy among your dogs isn’t very observant.  You are NOT going to get rid of the word “pack.” 


You are not going to get rid of the word “leader” either. You are not going to change etymology overnight. Would it calm the AP community down if the term Leader of my Group (of animals) or Group Guide were used? The term “guardian” is almost too P.C. for my taste.  A Flock Guardian will kill to protect her flock.  Do you think a Ovcharka* invites the wolf threatening her livestock in for a cup of tea? When I think of being my dog’s “guardian” I somehow envision myself as a slightly overweight Lara Croft with hip holsters over my Spanx and everyone is The Enemy. When I think of being my dogs’ leader or guide, I picture my much skinnier self atop some glorious peak, my trusty canine side-kicks with me.  We’ve hit one of the summits of training.  We’ve taken the beachhead, together.  I taught them and they, in turn, taught me. But it had to start somewhere.  My dogs just didn’t wake up one day, look at me and say, “Today I shall do complicated maneuvers while I stay by your left knee.  Ah, look at the elevated plank.  I know I must always touch the yellow part.”  It began with me deciding to guide or lead my dog to “get” that’s what I want.  I can to do that in positive way.


All Positive advocates wonder why they feel like they’re swimming upstream against the Leader of the Pack theory.  You wonder why more people, especially men, aren’t harkening to your clarion call of click-treat. “We have M&Ms, come hither!”  It’s because the first thing so many of you is get all funky with the phrase “leader” because some poor sod has watched Cesar Millan or was told to do stuff the “old” dominant way. Too many of you trot out the latest article on how dogs aren’t wolves and therefore the pack mentality is debunked.  Fine. Or you spend a while justifying positive training, like it’s some incomprehensible weird cult of the absurd. Or, and worst of all, there is a sense of superiority.  “Ah, you poor misguided, inhumane dog owner.  You haven’t been inducted into the Clicker Clique. I have the magic touch and you don’t.”  People don’t want a damn lecture.  They don’t need the science behind it.  They don’t need Pavlovian theories. They have some crazy-ass dog that is running or ruining their lives and they need help, guidance, foreseeable, hands-on solutions NOW.  They need Leadership. Grab the clicker and show them!


If you really want to attract more people away from the “old” ways, especially men, you have to show results.  That if you do this process consistently, this good result will happen, and often very quickly.  I’m no expert dog trainer.  I don’t have a bunch of letter behind my name.  But I’m not afraid to hand off my personal dog with a clicker and treats and let the person give it a whirl after I give them a few basics. My dogs will help them understand it a whole lot faster than me handing them a copy of Don’t Shoot The Dog


I personally don’t mind being a director or guide or principle player — which are also parts of the dictionary definition of Leadership.  


I think you do have to create, help, guide or direct your dog to have appropriate behavior so s/he can be a nice companion, household member, team-mate etc. That doesn’t mean alpha rolls, leash jerks or other “negative” stuff either.  I’ve got news: if you are click/treating your dog or cat or chicken to create a certain behavior; guess what, Skippy?  You are guiding them, you are the director in this little mini-play of training.  


Here is a box.  Now I shall click-treat when you do something to or near the box that I like or want to capture.  I will build on your interaction with the box until the final result is something I like.” It’s like improv theater in some respects.  “Here is your prop. Make something up and I will laugh or applaud when I like it or get what you’re trying to convey.”  You are, in a word, a leader.  Dogs (and cats) are watching you, reading your body language all the time.  Is she happy, sad, tired, mad?  What is the Human Food Provider up to?  


Yes, even cats are observing us as they plot to take over the world.


I seriously don’t want my dogs to be wild heathens, going wherever they want; not house-trained, biting everyone left and right, not coming when they’re called etc. I have rules: no toys on the furniture, teeth do not touch human flesh, chasing the cat is not in the Fun Program curriculum.  That’s not unreasonable, at least for me.  I want my dogs to look to me somewhat for “Is this ok?” (thinking and a form of trust) or “Hey, mom, I’m nose-butting you because there’s something up,” (alert) instead of going off half whacked. It’s like kids: you don’t give them some kind of rules and structure, they are going to turn into total obnoxious brats. Any adult with two brain cells to rub together has witnessed that. 


I like to think of myself as a kindly, benevolent, loving, providing Lady of the Manor. “I adore you but there are some things that shall not be tolerated.  I will give you alternatives to undesired behavior, encouragement and guidance as to what is good and acceptable in my little corner of the universe.  I will seek wise and kindly counsel to help you achieve.  I will not starve you, beat you, mistreat you although I might holler at you now and again because I’m human and imperfect.”


Why does the All Positive dog training community go off like 1960s anti-war protesters at an Abby Hoffman rally when people bring up “rules, structure, leadership?”  


“Hell, no, we won’t go!” 


Come on, seriously, what would happen if you used any of those words? You’d be immediately sucked into a Cesar Millan-induced vortex and never be heard from again? Please.  Get a grip. Being a “leader” does not automatically make you a bullying, string-’em-up-high Hitlerian dog person. Calling your bunch of dogs a “pack” does not make you stupid, behind-the-times, unkind or unaware.  


Work with the words people know and kind of understand. Don’t theorize. Show them, hands on. You’ll attract a lot more folks to the kinder, more humane way of training and interacting with their dogs if they see the light at the end of the tunnel.


*(I bet some of you looked that up….)