Your average person is so shy about their leadership abilities. Something is stopping them. It says they can’t do this. Or they won’t because they’re positive someone else could do it better, anyway. Why bother trying?
Maybe you feel like you’ll embarrass yourself in front of sooo many people (because, you know, they’re all perfect leaders) and what would you do then? The source for these feelings stems from many roots; childhood? Your partner? Your genetics? Your education? An experience where you „felt like a failure“ and now you don’t think you can do it anymore?
Or maybe it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on. But here’s the thing – almost every time someone asks me for advice, whether in person or online, somewhere in their description I hear;
- „I am the weakest link in the pack, I know, but…“
- „I know I’m not the pack leader…“
- „I should be more assertive, but I’m just not a good leader…“
And the list goes on. The interesting thing is that usually these same people label leadership characteristics in their dog that are actually signs of insecurity and the side effects of having an unbalanced dog. So not only do they not allow themselves to lead, they see potential for leadership in the wrong behaviors in their dogs. They are also consciously acknowledging that they know they’re not the leader. Hoooow interesting!
Here are some examples of behaviors commonly mistaken for a dog being a dominant „leader“ (false);
- snarling and jumping (generally reacting) at any human, dog or other animal they encounter.
- incessant, non-stop barking (reactive) at any thing that even slightly sets them off (read; Ignore him, he’s just insecure).
- extreme dominance (acting aggressive – red zone – to the owner or other humans).
- pulling on the leash.
- acting neurotic.
- misbehaving and taking advantage of their owner/s.
All of the scenarios listed above are examples of a dog not being a leader. All of these behaviors stem from frustration, pent up energy, instability and a generally unbalanced lifestyle. Long story short – the dog is missing a leader to help him out and lead the way. Because of these behaviors, owners will often stop taking their dogs on sufficient walks or socializing properly with others, only worsening any behavioral „issue“.
A true leader is, most importantly, calm. I’ll tell a short story that I’ve seen happen many times with many different groups of dogs. I hope it will sum up what I believe makes a true leader, because describing that in detail would take days and pages and pages of writing. So, here is what I always imagine;
There is a stray dog sprawled out in the sun, enjoying the afternoon. Nothing is bothering her and she is taking a peaceful nap. Only a few feet away, another stray trots over to a small rabbit carcass that one of the dogs caught earlier that day. He begins hungrily chewing on a bone, nervously looking around for competition. Two more dogs come to the carcass and try to snatch some meaty bones quickly away from the first dog. A huge fight starts up between the dog and one more comes over to see what the commotion is about and joins in.
All of this chaos and noise is going on right next to the peacefully resting dog. She does not get surprised and hardly opens her eyes. She can’t be bothered with this nonsense. Then, at some point, she decides she’s heard enough and, why not, she’s hungry. So she slowly gets up, maybe itches behind her ear with her back leg. Slowly, calmly, and filling up the space around her with her presence, she approaches the fight. She has done nothing at all, and already three of the dogs stop and look uncertainly at her. She is walking so confidently that they begin to question her goal.
She walks right up to the food, claiming her space, and all of the dogs leave her alone. She has the food to herself and did, to put it bluntly, nothing to earn it. One brave dog decides he’s going to try to get that bone anyway, and walks back to her and leans down to snatch it. She raises her head, gives him a stern, meaningful look and lets out a deep, steady growl. No second questions asked, the dog leaves and pronto.
When the female dog has eaten her fill, she walks comfortably back to her sun spot and, once again, slumbers in the now quiet area.
This story is an example of a dog embodying a sense of „the calm before the storm“. That sense that something’s coming. You can feel it in the air. It’s the feeling that something’s coming. Before a major storm everything falls quiet and there’s a thick stillness in the air. That, to me, is the feeling I aim to imitate when leading, or when I need to follow through with a command I gave out to one of my dogs or horses.
It’s a hard feeling to describe, but if I were to put it in words, I’d imagine the female dog in the story, thinking, „You all move out of the way, or else…“ If they didn’t respond to her „calm before the storm“ vibe, she would follow through with a growl or a nip (a storm, and oh what a storm! Thunder! Lightning!). That is leadership in a situation like that; warn and handle. That is how I train my dogs.
The command „Heel“ for example is me warning a dog by either saying heel or giving them a look. Simply the fact that I’m walking with them on a leash is my way of saying, „Walk next to me.“ If they weren’t to do that, despite my warning/s, I „nip“/give them a poke in their side. It is fair, because I let them walk and decide to do it on their own first, then I warned them, and only then did I handle. I am leading in that moment.
Another thing that we have to understand is that nonhuman animals live in the moment, unlike people. One moment you could be leading the pack and be as happy as ever and the next, someone else comes along whom the dogs respect more. Every moment is new and fresh. And who leads the pack or herd can change just like that. Just because you were the leader once doesn’t mean it seals the deal for a life time. No, sir.
Many times women give the leading role off to someone else – even other women! They feel they are not strong enough or not fit for the job. This is most likely due to centuries and centuries and whole life times of men running the world and raising women to believe that leading is a man’s job. When, in fact, we have been the leaders all along. We are the mothers and what is a mother’s job if not to lead her children?
I’ve had the most funny situations where I see a mother give her child a stern talking to because he or she didn’t listen to her, then turn around to her dog and turn completely helpless! She lets the dog get away with the most simple, basic things and openly says, „Oh, he takes advantage of me! He’s such a playful boy.“ If her kids had tried yelling at others as they walked down the street with her she would have nothing of it. When her dog barks at anything that it sees, she does nothing. Why is that? It’s so much easier to interrupt a dog’s behavioral pattern when compared to changing a child’s habits.
On the other end of the spectrum, men say, „OH I CAN BE A LEADER! I TELL THAT DOG WHAT TO DO! HE LISTENS TO ME. HE BETTER!!“ Oh, great. Good to know. Because that isn’t leadership, either. I wouldn’t choose a macho, ego-run male to lead me through any situation, especially if it were life or death. Animals don’t choose their leaders based on how tough or manly they are. They choose them based on how they act, respond handle. (Women, step up to the plate!)
These are just some thoughts on leadership – of course there will always be more to come! How do you see leadership? Do you feel comfortable filling that role? Why? Why not??