For the past 25 or so years there has been a lot of talk in the dog world about being your dog’s leader. Some feel this aptly describes the role we should take with our dogs and others feel it is a word too closely associated with a sort of military approach to the canine/human relationship and implies a need for punitive training techniques. However, considering that we expect dogs to survive and thrive in a world that is quite foreign to them, where a language is spoken that is vastly different than the way dogs communicate, and where rules are set that are often at odds with normal, and in some cases instinctual, dog behavior (for example, don’t dig, bark, chew, hump, jump up to greet, eliminate wherever you like, etc.) it seems logical that they would best adjust by having a person (or a whole family) to lead them in the right direction.
If the word leader is at odds with your sensibilities, then perhaps calling yourself your pup’s guide, coach, or even teacher will do. But, regardless of the word used to describe this position, the job description comes down to being able to help your pup earn a graduate degree in being a mannerly, social canine in the human world. Call it a bachelor’s of MSC!
So, what does this job description entail? First and foremost, setting a game plan or a curriculum that is most likely to result in the ultimate goals set by the family. Sit everyone down and have a brainstorming session about just exactly how you want your pup to behave and what the house rules will be:
Is he or she allowed to jump on the furniture?
How would you like them to greet people?
Where should they eliminate and what should they chew?
When is barking permissible and when should it stop?
How should the pup react when people take things away from them?
What cues or commands should they be taught to respond to reliably?
Then, decide just how you will all go about helping your pup learn how it is you what him or her to behave in a variety of situations. Joining a puppy class will help you make this wish list of puppy behavior a reality.
Once you have a concrete plan, it is time to decide the all important question of how you are going to help your puppy to learn what it is you expect of them. At the core of this is helping them to view their family as their leaders, guides, coaches or teachers. While we might be willing to listen to someone in one of these positions who uses intimidation tactics, most of us would agree that top performance is usually a result of being taught by someone who can motivate us to give our best effort in order to accomplish a specific goal or task.
Being reprimanded or intimidated through the use of scare tactics may work for some, but as a general rule, the most reliable and exemplary performances come from a place of motivation and dare I say it…fun! Whether learning a new sport, language, or a job task, we are most likely to be successful when in a state of mind that allows us to absorb the new information in as calm a state of mind as possible that is most conducive to learning. The same is true of puppies.
So, how do we apply the principle of using a motivation based approach to helping a pup learn to look to their people to guide, coach and lead them through life? How do we teach our puppy that being respectful and mannerly with people is the fastest route to what they want (i.e. food, toys, attention, access to fun environments, etc.)? It’s as easy as NILFF. That is, Nothing In Life For Free. All those things we provide for our pup to make sure they are healthy and happy can also be used to help them learn to look to people for direction and guidance through the human world. The more times in a day you ask your pup to do a little something in exchange for what they want, the better prepared they become to be a mannerly canine companion who respects their relationship with people. This is a pup who sees you as a leader in the best sense of the word. A dog who growls when a toy is about to be taken away, barks incessantly, jumps on people, eliminates anywhere they feel like, and runs about and ignores requests from people has not been given the benefit of guidance in regards to what is appropriate behavior. They also clearly do not understand that the source of their well-being is the very people they are growling at or ignoring.
So, put on your coaching cap, or don your best professorial attire and set your self up as your dog’s leader; in doing so, you’ll best set them up for success as a great canine companion. Teach them to respond to a few requests (such as to sit, lie down, hand target, high five, etc.) and ask them to do one or two of those things just before you tell them how wonderful they are and then offer them one of the things they want. This could be their food, a bowl of water, opening the front door to head out for a walk, inviting them on the couch, giving them a belly rub, allowing them access to play with another dog, or an almost endless list of other potential rewards. Asking your puppy to do exert a bit of effort and to respond to your requests in order to earn what they want will surely motivate them and help them figure out that you are the source of all the good things he or she wants in life.
This is a pup who will surely earn a graduate degree in puppy manners and some lucky dogs will find that their people even help them go on to earn a post-graduate degree. Think of how proudly your dog can strut down the street, with head held high and tail wagging happily knowing they have earned the equivalent of a Doctorate in MSC. Guiding your pup towards being a mannerly, social canine comes down to putting yourself in the position of being your dog’s kind, compassionate leader who guides them towards success using motivation and love.