Lost Leaders, by Ruth Owen,
The Devon Dog Behaviourist

‘I see clients and their dogs for many different problems, from a lack of basic recall, unruly behaviour in the home, to dog aggression and aggression to people including the owners. The problems are many and varied but just about all of them have one thing in common. A lack of basic leadership shown by owners to their dogs.

Dogs in the wild live in hierarchical groups. Each dog has his or her rank within the pack according to their abilities and temperament. This system keeps the pack harmonious with everyone working to their strengths and understanding their position. Domestic dogs are obviously not the same as wild dogs but neither have they evolved into a completely different species. Dogs are pack animals and need leadership within their pack to allow them to be balanced and confident. This does not exclude the human pack of the companion dog. Dogs have been with humans for at least fifteen thousand years and they have successfully integrated into our lives by being brilliant observers of us and interpreters of our needs. We, by comparison have understood very little indeed about the nature of a dog and one of our greatest shortcomings is believing that unconditional love is the key to a balanced confident canine. I wonder how many of us who have had children, chose unconditional love as a suitable upbringing without the balance of discipline and acceptable bounds of behaviour? Not many I hope. As with our children, dogs are all different and require differing amounts of love and leadership. Certain breeds require more boundaries and others can cope with much less and accept us as their leaders regardless of what we do. Even with the most challenging dogs, I am not advocating banning affection, merely suggesting that affection is earned through training. Want to cuddle your dog? Ask for a sit first, it is that simple.

Ironically, if we fail to lead our dogs, they see little option but to attempt to do the job themselves and even the smartest canine is going to struggle with running a modern home! The result is always the same, an anxious, stressed, depressed or worse still aggressive dog. We are quite literally killing our relationships with our dogs by smothering them with affection.

I am not advocating that all dogs are immediately banished from the furniture and relegated to the kitchen – far from it, my own pack are extremely partial to a sofa or an armchair. However, when I need a seat, I get one. I find it tragic that I constantly visit distraught clients with anxious or unruly dogs that they simply do not understand. A caring, intelligent client recently asked me to “give her the key to her dog” I did so and she is delighted. The answer? Stop allowing the dog to dictate the pace of life – that is your job. None of this is rocket science, we do not allow our children to rampage around life doing as they please – why do we do it with our dogs, It most definitely does not enrich their lives, or ours.

The answer is training and consistent boundaries that allow our dogs to grow confident in the knowledge that they can rely on us. We make life happen around them, they know the rules and can get back to the simple pleasures of being a dog. Dogs love routine and a structured existence.

Also, in the case of the dominant dog who by it’s very nature feels it should rule the roost, it is absolutely imperative that we begin training as early as possible and do not give in to the desire to lavish attention and affection on it. To the dog this simply renders the owner low ranking, therefore it can do as it pleases which can quickly involve the use of teeth. The truly dominant dog must learn to work for all praise and through leadership understand that it is ranked below the owner. Few dogs are born truly dominant but those that are, unless handled correctly, can soon make the connection between running the show and using their teeth to enforce their position.

Regardless of symptoms, nearly all my cases boil down to a lack of leadership. Our dogs will not respect us if we do not behave in a way that merits that respect. Too often companion dogs are seen as cuddly toys to make us feel good, when in fact they are loyal and intelligent animals that we are privileged to share our lives with.’

Ruth Owen, Devon Dog Behaviourist

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