Relationship Restructuring

Or, How to be a good leader.


Why does leadership matter?

If you are reading this, then I probably do not need to tell you that our relationships with dogs are unique, intimate, and highly complex. Many common frustrations that come along with dog ownership can be reduced down to imbalances and tensions in the foundation of that relationship.

At their core, our relationships with dogs are very similar to our relationships with children. Like children, our dogs’ sense of respect, responsibility, security, and emotional wellbeing is inseparable from the leadership that we provide for them.

In discussing leadership, I am not referring to the authoritarian mindset that says we must dominate the animals and views dogs as inferior to us. The dog does not need to be “knocked down a peg” as much as us humans need to elevate ourselves by learning how to behave like someone worth listening to. What I am referring to is the guidance that is necessary for us to provide, as beings who have more knowledge about the world we live in, and it’s potential dangers. Or, as my friend Chad Mackin used to say “if we followed dogs around, we’d all be drinking antifreeze.”

The need for leadership is seen clearly among all social animals, including humans. If we failed to provide adequate and consistent leadership to our children (rules, structure, and parameters), we would be viewed as negligent.

As Suzanne Clothier puts it in her book If a Dog’s Prayers Were Answered…Bones Would Rain From The Sky:

“If we agree to share a life with a dog, then we are obligated –if we are honest and compassionate people – to embrace and honor all that means. And in this case, we must accept that the canine deep need for leadership springs from the realities of canine culture, of life as social animal.

She continues that the moment we bring a dog into our lives, “We have entered into a covenant that promises a dog that we will provide for his needs. All of them.”

I think it is important to reiterate that we do not set rules and parameters for our dogs simply so that we can ensure that they “know their place”. Rather leadership is emphasized due to the need to keep our dogs safe in the kooky, artificial environment that we have asked them to share with us. The rules and parameters that we provide for our dogs are not designed to limit them, but rather to strive that we can give our dogs the maximum amount of freedom and joy in their lives while still ensuring their safety.

Leadership is a lifestyle, Not an Act 

I sincerely wish that I could provide a clear set of bullet points, or step-by-step instructions that you could follow to perfect your relationship. However, the reality is that both our dogs and ourselves are individuals and our relationships are complex. Just as is true with any relationship, our relationships with our dogs require consistent work and effort. Unlike training for specific commands and tricks, where we can set aside brief training sessions several times a day and end up with a nice finished product, the relationships that we need to develop with our dogs through clear leadership require far more than just a few minutes here and there. As Suzanne points out in her book, “The deep connections we seek, whether with a life partner or a child or a friend or a dog, require far more than a few minutes a day to develop. ‘Look honey, I’ve got ten minutes for you, and right now, I’m ready to be your mom. So, let’s do it!’ Under such conditions, it is doubtful that we could provide anything even vaguely resembling the ongoing guidance and leadership children need, never mind develop a profound connection. We are not parents in short, intensely focused sessions where we ‘train’ the children, but rather parenting is the sum of our actions in every interaction with our children.

While your dog may efficiently learn sit, down, come, and heel during short training periods, he may also be learning outside of those dedicated training sessions that there is a lack of leadership in their day-to day lifestyle. In other words, dogs can learn a huge range of commands and tricks, and still develop rude, disrespectful and problematic tendencies if proper leadership isn’t provided.

Where to begin? 

As I already stated, there are no simple step-by-step recipes for establishing a proper relationship. However, there are a few things that can help get you in the right direction.

One of the first places to start is to list the resources in your dog’s life. Commonly we look at food, water, and toys/bones. However, there are other resources that often get overlooked but are equally if not more important: Space (access to certain areas, and prime sleeping space), affection, and access to activities (such as a walk, or even freedom in the house) are some of the most overlooked and most important. Most dogs will view these resources in a hierarchy of value. In other words some dogs value food, and don’t care much about affection. Other dogs may highly value access to privileged space and activities, but not care much about food or bones. And, for a few dogs, a tennis ball can be the most coveted item, even taking precedence over steak!

Once you have an idea of your dogs’ resources and how they value them, then the next step is to ask yourself:

And Lastly and very importantly:

It doesn’t matter how well your dog listens when everything is quiet and calm, it matters how the dog listens in moments of chaos, when a squirrel runs by, the doorbell rings, or another dog is passing. If you answered no to any of the above questions, then you have a good indication of where your relationship could use some work.

The first step of adjusting your relationship involves controlling the resources that your dog sees as the most valuable. A simple example would be food. I recently spoke to a client who complained that although their dog sits politely on a mat when they are preparing the dog’s meals on the counter, as soon as they lift the bowl and begin walking toward the dog, she begins jumping, spinning and barking at them. “Should we correct her?” they asked.

My answer was simple: The moment she starts jumping, spinning etc. simply say “nope”, turn around, place the food back on the counter and walk away. Then try again after a minute or so.

As one of my mentors Bart Bellon used to say in a thick Belgian accent, “The dog will always find his own advantage.” What he meant by this is that a dog will alter his behavior in a way that suits their needs. If the dog is jumping, spinning, and barking because they want their food, but the jumping and spinning etc. causes you to put their food away, they will stop doing it. If you only continue the feeding process when they are calm and sitting politely, then they will start sitting like a completely civilized being until you give them permission to eat.

Another example is a family that has two dogs Bella, and Carter. Bella likes to lie at her owner’s feet while she cooking, in hopes that a morsel of goodness may drop within her reach. If Carter happens to wander too close to Bella while she is in this prime position, she often decides to set boundaries for him by attacking him. It is the leaders job to set boundaries, so by doing this, Bella is telling us that she thinks she is in charge (at least in this context). Again, the solution can be rather simple. If Bella can’t act like a polite and respectful lady in the kitchen while food is being prepared, then she is not allowed into the kitchen. This is most effective when she is kept out of the kitchen by adherence to rules, rather that by physical barriers such as gates. Bella should only be allowed in the kitchen when she learns to behave responsibly. By controlling the resource of the kitchen (prime real estate), and the activity of waiting for food, they can send a clear message to Bella that the humans are the only ones who get to set rules. Thus solidifying their leadership.

This approach can be taken with any resource. If your dog loves going out into the yard, then make sure you require the dog to sit calmly while you open then door. Your dog should be able to stay sitting, even with the door wide open, until you give them permission to go out. The key here is permission. If your dog loves coming up on the couch, have them learn to wait until invited. In short time you will find your dog sitting politely at your feet gazing patiently into your eyes with the look of “Please?”

This idea of teaching your dog to wait for permission, and making permission dependent on polite behavior should be applied to all valued resources. But, rather than stress yourself out trying to make lots of changes all at once, I recommend to pick just the one or two resources that your dog values most, and try to apply these principles with enough consistency that they become habit for both you and your dog. Once the habit is established, it can be easily maintained, and you can add another resource into the mix. The more you learn to use the access to, and prohibition from resources as a form of reward and punishment, the less you will be dependent on external aids such as treats and training collars.

The last note about controlling access to resources is this: Don’t forget about affection! So many of the dogs that we see for behavior issues have no shortage of affection, coddling and spoiling in their lives. While there is no problem with affection in general, if you are providing affection in excess, without the rules and discipline and parameters to back it up, it is a recipe for imbalance. If you are struggling with your dog’s behavior, you might consider cutting back on affection, only offering it in small doses for a job well done. At least until things are feeling more balanced and you have made a commitment to ongoing leadership.

Applying Your Obedience

The second piece of this puzzle is having the ability to control your dog and direct their behavior in moments of importance and conflict. This is where solid and thorough obedience training is immensely important. However, it is not enough to simply teach commands. You have to use your commands regularly throughout the day, in all circumstances, to create patterns and habits that you like.

As an example, it is our standard for all of our clients’ dogs to be able to stay in a place, or down command for a minimum of 30 minutes. Once this is established, we ask them to practice at least one 30 minute (or more) stay, at least once a day. Commonly people choose to practice this while they are eating a meal. By practicing this level of impulse control on a daily basis, it helps to ensure that our dogs maintain the ability for self-restraint. Next, you simply place this skill out in the real world, in more challenging situations. For instance, if you are at the vet hospital, you can have your dog practice a down-stay in the waiting room. The more different environments and situations in which your dog practices obedience, the more capable they will be of listening to you in new and challenging ones. Again, the key here is consistency, don’t move forward with whatever your doing until your dog complies with what is being asked of them. Many dogs learn that when out in public their owners become self-conscious and don’t follow through with training. Thus the dogs learn that in public they can get away with being a menace.

Protect and Advocate

The third and last piece of the puzzle is pro-active intervention. Suzanne Clothier defines proactive intervention as simply “being alert to and willing to respond to any potential threats toward the ones we love, especially those more vulnerable than ourselves. “ In other words, one of the key jobs of a good leader is to show that they are always ready and willing to protect their pack. This principle translates directly into situations where dogs often display aggressive or fearful behavior. Take for example the dog who lunges at, or bites someone who is trying to pet them. In most cases, the dog has made it very clear through their body language that they are uncomfortable with the person’s approach well in advance of the bite. The bite occurs when the oncoming person ignores their warnings and proceeds forward anyway, often chanting “It’s o.k., I’m a dog person”.

If you were standing next to your dog, and you did not prevent this person from touching them, then you broke your dog’s trust and failed as a leader. If your dog has tried to tell you over and over again that they are uncomfortable with people approaching, then it is your duty as their steward to advocate for them and show them that you are looking out for their best interest. When a dog feels that they are understood, and that someone is looking out for them it gives them a sense of security. They will begin to relax into situations that normally would make them panic, and before you know it, they are allowing themselves to experiment with social interactions that previously would have been impossible. In other words, when a dog knows that you will keep them safe, they will be more willing to trust you when you ask them to step a little outside of their comfort zone. The process is all predicated with you showing your dog that you “hear” them, you understand that they are nervous, that it is ok to be nervous, and that you will protect them. This principal is also the key to our success socializing many of the difficult and dangerous dogs that come to the training center.

Another example of this principle in action is when I walk my dogs on the bike path in Clarence where I live, we occasionally encounter an off leash dog. Upon spotting the oncoming dog, I put my dogs into a down-stay (the value of solid obedience), drop their leashes, and I go ahead to intercept the dog. By doing this I am reinforcing for my dog that I will put myself in a position of risk, assess the potential threat, and be prepared to protect my pack.

Wise Words From a Friend

Before I sum-up, I want to leave you with these thoughts from another good friend of mine, Sean O’Shea:

“Relationships are real things. You and your dog have one. It might be healthy, balanced, and awesome, or it might be toxic, disrespectful, and disheartening. Or maybe it’s somewhere in-between. Whatever it is, it’s been built by your interactions. What you’ve allowed. What you haven’t allowed. What you’ve asked for. What you’ve reinforced. Who you’ve been and how you’ve behaved.

Everything you’ve done has been information your dog has used to determine your relationship. All this information has told your dog who you are and what role you wish to play in his life. It’s also informed him about the rules of life. What is and isn’t okay.

While trainers can teach your dog behaviors, commands, acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior, your dog is simply too smart and too emotionally evolved to take the information as universal. Eventually, if you don’t keep up the work, your dog will see the cracks. He’ll realize that while he knows and understands the rules and commands – consequences and expectations with you are different than with the trainer. And when he realizes there’s wiggle room, he’ll likely take it. Not because he’s a bad dog, but because he’s opportunistic…just like you and me.

Just like us, when authority and rules are foggy, or not consistently enforced, we tend to take advantage of them. Whether we like to admit it or not, it’s always consequences – or the possibility of them – that tends to keep us on our best behavior. The more predictable and dependable, the better our behavior tends to be. And of course, the less predictable and dependable, the worse our behavior tends to be.

So our dogs are reading us. All the time. Who are we? Are we strong? Are we needy? Are we inconsistent? Are we soft? Are we stressed and overwhelmed? Do we share love generously and discipline begrudgingly? They take what they see and make decisions accordingly. You can’t cheat the universe, and surely can’t fool your dog. What you are and what you share is what you get back from both.

While us trainers can build the foundation for the new, more healthy patterns and choices to stand on, it’s only you – the person who enforces the rules, structure, and expectations daily – that can make these changes permanent.

We can only start you on the path, from there it’s up to you to maintain it. Dogs are too smart for it to be any other way.”

Wrapping Up

So, in summary, the relationship you have with your dog matters, and it is constantly and continuously shaped by your interactions together.

All dogs thrive the most when provided with clear and consistent rules and parameters.

The starting point for assessing and re-building your relationship begins with evaluating your dog’s access to resources (anything the dog values), and considering whether you require polite and appropriate behavior before granting access to those things, or whether the dog has free access.

It is also worth looking at your position as the protector, especially if you own a fearful or aggressive dog.

Think honestly about your interactions with your dog. Is your dog respectful? Pushy? Do they crowd your personal space and demand attention? Do they look to you for permission and guidance in moments of importance? These are all important questions and answering them will set you on the road to a healthier, more cohesive relationship with your dog.