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On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part One

Though I myself think that living in the Social Media/Information Age has its benefits, there are also some downsides.  For one thing, the danged buttons seem to be getting smaller the older I get.  For another, some deeply philosophical and complex topics—y’know, stuff like science, art, politics—are now discussed in snappy sound bites, slogans and one-minute news segments.  These days, it seems that an idea that can be sold in a line of text on an itty-bitty cell phone is going to get more “air time” than the truth, the facts or reality—the bits that are a little too complicated for a quick read.  Short-hand keeps getting shorter and buzz-words rule.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we all understand and agree on what the short-hand and buzz words refer to.  The trouble comes when everyone adopts the buzz words without a really firm grasp of the concepts, contexts and references they point to.


In the world of dog training, there are some humdinger buzz words—words that can reduce professional trainers to biting each other and wails of despair.  I have learned not to hold my breath until I turn blue when I hear them—breathe, Em, breathe—but they do make me cry sometimes in a peculiar kind of panic.  So rather than hyperventilating, I thought I’d tackle a couple of them here.


If you have a dog and your dog needs a few more swipes of polish to become the Lassie everyone is hoping for, I’ll bet some well-intended person has suggested that you need to become your dog’s Leader.  As in, Leader of the Pack.  Or, in the other buzz word, that you need to be more Alpha.  The notion being that, if you can position yourself as the family Top Dog, your bouncing Rowdy will eagerly transform into Lassie out of sheer respect.  Be Your Dog’s Leader—the magic bullet to fix all dog behavior woes.


Alas… it’s a bit like saying I could solve all my financial woes if I had more money, so the solution is—ta-da!—Be a Millionaire.  That’s it, I’ll become a Millionaire!  Wow, that’s a simple answer, isn’t it?  Phew, I’m so relieved.


Of course I’m being silly, but that’s the trouble with sound bite solutions.  They offer a really good meal but they leave out the recipe, the ingredients and all the time and work it takes to actually cook the dish.  So here’s another of what some of my clients have taken to calling “Emily-isms”:  If the solution to your dog’s behavior is that you or your dog be or become something, look deeper.  The real solution will depend on you or your dog doing something.


Or, more simply, there’s difference between Be the Leader and leading.  One is a catchy feel-good concept.  The other is about concrete, specific actions.  And if we want to train our dogs successfully, we need to act.


Sadly, the whole notion of Leadership in dog training has taken a hit in recent years, because if we look at the actions of some of the proponents of the Be the Pack Leader school of talk, we often see a lot of scary and mean stuff:  pinning the dog to the ground, kicking them in the gut if they move ahead on leash, hissing at them like snakes or angry cats, choking or jerking or shocking at the end of various devices advertised to give you the pet owner “more control” when what they really do is give the dog more discomfort or pain.   Can these methods work?  Of course.  Punishment decreases behavior.  I can certainly get someone to follow me if I point a gun at them or make them so afraid of me that saying “no” is not an option.  I don’t know if I’d have the chutzpah to call it Leadership, though.  Or claim that they “respected” me, or call them my Best Friend after aiming a weapon at them.


I meet many fine pet owners who confess to me, with real shame and guilt, that they probably aren’t being good Leaders for their dogs, that they aren’t “Alpha” enough.  What they really mean is that they don’t or don’t want to do scary and mean things to their beloved pets, and they simply don’t know what other actions to take to achieve behavior success with their dogs.   Like me, they’d like to be a dog training Millionaire—who wouldn’t?  But they’re too nice to get that million by holding their dog at gunpoint and they’re starting to realize that playing the behavior lotto and hoping for the best probably isn’t going to pan out.   


Hence my peculiar panic and the virtual hyperventilation when I hear suggested some variation of, “Oh, dogs just need you to Be the Leader…” or “You need to be the Alpha” as a solution to a dog’s behavior problems.  I’ve been a professional dog trainer for over 12 years now, and I simply have no clue what on earth the person speaking means.   Or intends to mean.  Often the words come from some eager dog-lover trying earnestly to sound “in the know,” or connect by using pro dog trainerly type jargon that I’ll surely understand or be impressed by.  Little do they know that it just makes me feel confused and sometimes just plain stupid, because I don’t know and can only guess at what they might possibly mean by a phrase that never had much scientific basis in the first place and that’s now been turned to meaningless slush in the blender of Pop Culture.


I’d like to be a Leader, you bet, just like I’d be happy to be a millionaire.  If only someone tells me what I’m supposed to do.


Dogs are trained by operations, a series of concrete, specific actions laid out in particular and sometimes fussy order.  Leader and “Alpha” are concepts, human intellectual constructs.  And as concepts, they can be attached to whatever actions, exercises or training recipes a dog trainer likes and uses to change behavior, from eating a cracker before giving a dog his meal to using the highest setting on a shock collar.  So if I teach my dog to Sit before I open a door, I can call it Option 1:  I’m being a Leader and the dog is learning to obey my wishes because of my superior Alpha status… or I can call it Option 2:  the dog is learning to Sit when asked at the door.  Which looks exactly like Option 1 without the conceptual baggage.  It is a neat exercise that, if properly executed, results in a dog that Sits politely at the door when asked and waits for a release cue before exiting--a lovely behavior to have and likely chock full of healthy impulse control benefits, like an orange is full of vitamin C.   


The question is, does adding terms like Leader or Alpha contribute anything to the mechanics of the operation—the what-we-do-with-the-dog—or the end product, a dog that Sits politely at doors?  Which is the baby and which is the bathwater?  Establishing Alpha Leadership or teaching good behavior? 


A simple trick for deciding which is baby and which is bathwater is “divide and conquer.”  Simply, try Being a Leader as hard as you can, but don’t do any specific training operations that teach the dog the behavior.  Then, forget about Being a Leader and effectively execute the operations.  It becomes clear very quickly that our Baby is healthy, bouncing operations that result in healthy, bouncing behaviors.  Being a Leader is bathwater, and pretty murky bathwater at that.


Yank on a prong collar or choke chain?  Kick the dog?  Speak in a stern tone of voice?  All are frequently justified in terms of Being a Leader when really, they’re just training operations on the punishment end of the spectrum, no more.   The Leader waters have become so murky and mucky that I rarely give it much thought—I focus on producing clean healthy behavior babies with clean healthy operations and care not a whit about whether I’m a “Leader” or not.   The trouble is, we as people are really good at falling for catchy concepts, at becoming enamored with bathwater that sounds appealing.  The result is that people continue to look for training success in “Leadership” when that’s not what’s needed at all.


Somewhere in that murky mucky tub, there might still be a Leader baby or two worth saving.  But they’re nothing like the kind of Alpha bathwater that Pop Culture pours on.  There’s a different kind of leading that has very much to do with good, healthy training operations, and if we can save the word from drowning, we might have something useful.  In Part Two, I’m going to explore the other kind of leading—the kind that we really do want to use to reach success with our dogs.

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