In my last post I promised to tell you how to be an effective leader without resorting to dominance and intimidation. Quite honestly, Iʼll probably offend some people here, but intimidating animals and using physical dominance is for Neanderthals. And thatʼs probably an insult to Neanderthals.

Letʼs examine the facts. Iʼm talking specifically about dogs here but this really applies to all other animals that humans care for and keep as pets. And that is my first point. We are humans. Um, that does give us a bit of an advantage. I mean large frontal lobe, cerebral cortex, ability to reason, think ahead, plan, control resources. I could go on. Not to diminish the intelligence of my canine companions, but we are at somewhat of an intellectual advantage here. Of course we are the leader.

Basically, we control everything our dogs need to live, and everything that makes them happy. We control their food, their water, their toys. We let them in. We let them out. We crate them or not. We let them on the bed or not. How much more control do we really need? We control EVERYTHING yet we still feel the need to be a bully?

Given that we are in total control of everything, it seems that there might be a way to be a benevolent leader. We already know what is necessary to raise a healthy dog. Early socialization and early training. Use your brain and teach your dog the rules right from the start. Thatʼs right, I said “rules”. Being a kind and gentle leader does NOT mean letting the dog do whatever it wants.

Being the leader is awesome. It means we get to MAKE the rules! But it also means we are responsible for teaching the rules and providing appropriate positive or negative feedback when the rules are followed or broken. Where people get messed up is when the rules are broken.

Mess up #1: Being too hard on the dog.
There is never a good reason to strike or hit a dog for doing something wrong. Never. Physical abuse 1) is not necessary 2) ruins your relationship by making the dog afraid of you and 3) often makes the dog defend itself with aggression.

Equally horrible is intimidation. Intimidation, (usually accompanied with grabbing the dog, throwing the dog down, yelling at the dog and scary body language) is nothing less than the threat of physical violence. Threatening to abuse your dog has the same effect as actually abusing them. Donʼt do it. Its mean and itʼs not necessary!

So, if it not necessary to use physical abuse and psychological intimidation to get your dog to behave well, why would you? Some people believe itʼs what you have to do to “control your dog” and “make them respect you”, and a certain popular television show certainly encourages it. Physical dominance is really not necessary and there are better
and more gentle ways of getting respect and maintaining control.

Mess up #2: Being too easy on the dog.
This is an equally big problem. Many many people do not know how to effectively punish their dogs in a way that does not involve physical force or intimidation and so they let the dog get away with poor behavior. Sometimes for years! Eventually they get fed up and resort to more drastic measures or simply get rid of the dog.

This is where being a leader is hardest and most important. Dogs learn by associating behaviors with consequences. They sit, they get a treat. Easy. But what about when they do something wrong? Many people will yell, cast a dirty look etc. but never do anything that is significant to the dog. Thatʼs the key. For a reward or a punisher to be effective it has to be RELEVANT. And there are a million relevant punishments you can use other than abuse and intimidation.

Think about punishing children. Hopefully you donʼt hit them every time they make a mistake! So what do you do? Every time your daughter doesnʼt hand in her homework you threaten to take away her cell phone. You threaten, but never do it and she continues to not hand in her homework. That is an example of mess up #2. Your threat to do something is not relevant to the child because you never follow through.

Taking away her cell phone is a reasonable punishment that does not involve physical abuse or threats of physical abuse. A much more effective way to handle this is to take away the cell phone until you receive proof that the homework is complete. Then she gets her cell phone back. Does this sound familiar? You are the leader, you make the rules and you control the resources (in this case the cell phone) all without physical violence.

Are you telling me that we can figure out how to do this with our children who also have large frontal lobes and are experts at outwitting us, yet we canʼt figure out how to do the same with our aforementioned intellectually challenged dogs?

Dogs earn privileges, just like children. If you poop in the house you spend more time in your crate or tied to my belt loop. If you donʼt sit at the door, I donʼt let you out to play. If you bark while I am preparing your dinner, I put the dinner away. If you bark at me while I am eating, you go in your crate until I am done. If you steal my shoes, you are not allowed in the bedroom. If you refuse to move from my spot on the couch, you are not allowed on the couch. If you bite me while we are playing you get a time out. It goes on and on.

There is not a single situation that I can not come up with an appropriate, relevant punishment for the dog that does not involve abuse or intimidation. Think youʼve got one? Challenge me!

I admit, sometimes it is a challenge and sometimes I have to try two, three or even more methods before I find one that works. What I am not willing to do is resort to physical or mental abuse of the animal because I am too impatient or too lazy to come up with an alternative.

With training to teach proper behaviors combined with appropriate rewards for good behavior and appropriate punishments for mistakes you can have a happy, well adjusted relationship with your dog. Isnʼt that why we have dogs anyhow?