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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dog Training vs. Leadership: A Fine Line?

Guest Post by Michael Baugh 
  © Robyn Arouty
I was looking at my dog, Stella, this morning and wondering to myself, does she really want me to be her leader?  It was obvious by the look on her face that she was definitely interested in my poached egg.  She was sitting obediently across the room, wagging fiercely and staring adoringly.  Egg?  Absolutely.  Leader?  I don’t know.

A lot of trainers, even some respected reward-based trainers, are still big on the idea of establishing yourself as a pack leader and garnering your dog’s respect.  You have to admit, that’s a pretty heavy burden for a lot of people.  The evidence is in on social hierarchy in dogs.  They don’t form packs with alphas like wild wolves.  Add to that, I’m not a dog.  And anyway, where am I leading her to?

Here’s the real deal.  I have a well developed cerebral cortex (if I do say so myself).  I have a car, and credit cards, and a groovy smart phone.  I can also, on a whim, buy eggs and poach them for breakfast.  I’m a human being with opposable thumbs.  By definition I am the dominant species in the room.  So what’s up with this leadership stuff and all the hang ups about respect?  I already feel pretty good about myself, and Stella’s a cool dog.  I’m okay with both.

I do worry some about the other dogs and their people.  Folks who bully themselves into leadership roles and demand respect often get nasty (think middle management).  The dogs suffer, and honestly I think the people do too.  Training is never about who is in charge.  It’s about how you and your dog are communicating.  Is your dog getting what she wants from you?  Are you getting what you want from your dog?

I love it when Stella looks at me like that.  She loves this little morning routine.  I dip a tiny piece of crust in the egg yolk and toss it her way.  It’s training blasphemy to feed from the table and that makes me love it even more.  She and I have been at this for 18 months now and I’m hoping for about 15 more years of it.  We’re learning to understand each other.  I’ve got all her stuff, the car, the smart phone and the thumbs.  She’s got all the tricks, the impeccable manners, the face of an angel.  We trade freely.  The more I get what I want, the more she gets what she wants.  That’s training.  I’m not much worried about who’s leading whom.  I doubt she is either.

Perhaps one night I will find her at my laptop with a headset and a microphone on, like those dogs in the movies trying to take over the world.  I guess then I’ll really have egg on my face, won’t I?
 © Roby Narouty
Michael, with Stella
Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC is a science-driven, reward-based, dog trainer in Houston, TX.  He’s the director of training and behavior at Rover Oaks Pet Resort.

Mommying On The Fly

A NOTE FROM CARRIE: Just for fun, folks, we're trying out a few new blog hops to see who's out there looking for information on how to make life with dogs a little easier. Today we'll check in with Mommying on the Fly to find out if there are moms out there that need help with their furry kids. Welcome to our new visitors, and be sure to leave a comment.

© copyright Carrie Boyko, all rights reserved


Jan said...

My four dogs have established their own pack protocols. As long as I am the food source, it all seems to work out. :-)

K-Koira said...

Very well said. I feel no need to dominate my dogs, or be the "leader" so long as they respect me enough to listen to me, which they do. In fact, I generally cringe every time I hear the phrase "pack leader" thrown around in reference to dog training. NILIF is one thing, and quite useful, but IMO domination has no part in the human-dog relationship.

Carrie, with Tanner and Oliver said...

It's rather interesting to me how this article and my talks with Michael have changed how I believe my message is perceived. I have used the "Pack Leader" word loosely to refer to owners who have dogs, and in a more relative way to indicate our job as their trainers/caretakers. However, for me to think I could be a macho, dominatrix would be laughable at best. Not only would that not suit me, but it certainly does not represent my approach. I'm glad Michael has been successful in voicing this differently, and will help me to approach it with my readers with different words.

BTW, NILIF and IMO are not acronyms I am familiar with offhand. A little help?

Michael Baugh said...

BTW = by the way
NILIF = nothing in life is free (controlling resources in the name of training)
IMO = in my opinion (I have many)

Nature by Dawn said...

I think people get confused with the term leadership and automatically think military school. Leadership does not have to be established in forceful ways. It can be gentle and subtle. Setting boundaries is an example of leadership. By teaching your dog that he is not allowed on the furniture, you are establishing leadership. Feeding your dog regularly is establishing leadership. Training your dog with positive reinforcement is a way of establishing leadership. With all these things, your dog looks up to you for his care. That is quality leadership - no force necessary

Eugenia Vogel said...

Love the toast dipped in egg ritual, and when other trainers share their lovely routines. Who doesn't have this kind of fun? Of course you can feed from the table/bed/car; your dog knows when the goodies are no longer forthcoming because you say "no more", and previous goodie sessions yielded no more goodies after that's said. The difficulty with this type of thing in a trainer/client situation is that you know who you can teach this to w/o losing cred, knowing they get random reinforcement rules. Some clients are too steeped in black and white to be able to talk about the finesse factor. Long Live The Table Treats.

Jen said...

Elka gets table treats. She also gets as-I'm-cooking treats, has furniture privileges, and comes to bed with me at night. She tells me when she has to go out, I don't have her on a schedule. She goes upstairs ahead of me, I go through doors before her (typically). On walks, I let her sniff things, as long as she doesn't sled-dog towards them. And on walks, if something freaks her out, she's learning that she can look at me and I'll let her know if it's something to worry about.

Leadership is, I think, more about guidance than drill-sergeant, and if your dog thinks you're a good guide, he or she will be more reliable when you ask them to do something they might not particularly feel like doing at the moment.

LFPV said...

So well said and I couldn't agree with you more. Thank you for sharing those thoughts with us. I want my dog to respect me, just as I want the people in my life to respect me, but I don't need to be the pack leader, not with my dog, not with my family nor with my friends. You said it perfectly: "I’m not much worried about who’s leading whom. I doubt she is either." Thanks for a great article.

KD Mathews said...

I realize this is an old thread, but after reading it I became so utterly disturbed that I had to comment. I am almost beyond words at this article. How as a professional, with experience with dogs can you imply that leadership and dominance have no role or place in dog ownership?

That is incredibly irresponsible to put on a public forum where people in a variety of situations might be seeking information to help them with their situations.

True, with SOME individual dogs, who are genetically submissive, the owner can get away with not being a pronounced leader, and the two can have a smooth existence together. However, that is a very specific relationship between specific individuals with the complimentary traits.

Guess you haven't spent much time around Rottweilers, Belgian Malinois, working line GSD's, and generally anything out of Dutch bloodlines. And guess what, regular people, in pet homes, end up with dogs like that more than you think.

Regardless of what specific study claims that dogs do not form packs like wolves, it is a known fact that there are dogs that will attempt to dominate and control their human owners regardless of cerebral cortex's and the ability to grab a soda can because they have a thumb. Your comments could get owners of those dogs hurt and ultimately the dog put down.

It appears your post is driven by the commercial need to appeal to the crowd of dog owners who unfortunately do not have enough experience with diverse types of dogs and behavior to realize what you're saying is fluff.

Being a leader is not a being a bully. Professional dog trainer/behaviorist or professional marketer/salesman.

KD Mathews

Carrie, with Tanner and Oliver said...

Looking at this whole group of comments to Michael's post, I believe what we have here is a matter of semantics. One person's dominance is another's leadership and one's leadership is another's "I've got your back". Hopefully there is not much difference in these approaches for most owners of pet dogs. I cannot speak to the handling of a guard dog that may need to be more dominant than we want our furry family members to be.

Unknown said...

I'm with KD on this one. Advice like that which has been given in this post is exactly why I'm spending money and alot of time on a professional helping me fix the balance in the household again, because my German Shepherd is dominant by nature and me/my wife were treating her like a human. I'm just glad we caught it earlier than later.

Carrie, with Tanner and Oliver said...

Michael recommends the book Dog Sense by John Bradshaw. He says this book addresses the science and research behind this subject. You can get it at Amazon at this link:

Michael Baugh said...

Thanks Carrie and KD,

There's been a great deal of research about dogs and their closest relatives, European Gray Wolves, in the past few years. Carrie is right, Dog Sense is a great book on the current state of the science as it relates to the evolution of dog behavior.

For more information on the science of animal learning I recommend Dr. Susan Friedman ( ) and Karen Pryor. Both of these women have extensive knowledge with multiple species (including dogs). They know perhaps better than anyone that behavior science is not dependent on an animal's type, temperament, or in this case breed.

As educators we need to stay current on our subject matter. I'm always humbled when I draw from the changing and growing pool of knowledge. And I'm extremely careful when I choose to add to it.

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