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On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Three

In Part 2, I asserted that if we really want to understand how Leading works, we might do better to look at it from the extremely important but often over-looked other side of the coin: Following.  And it turns out that Following—the nature of Following and why we follow—is pretty darned fascinating


If we judge by media attention paid—to celebrities, movies stars, gold medal winners in you name it—clearly being the “Alpha” is the best position, the Apex of power and appeal, and of course all dogs and us would want to be Top Dogs.  Except… not really, certainly not always.  In fact, if we look at the nature of Following, it turns out that—given the right conditions—many of us would prefer to defer.


Consider this story.  Years ago, we got a flurry of calls at the shelter from deeply concerned drivers about a panicked dog running loose on the freeway nearby.  Although we’re not animal control, the situation sounded so dire that we scrambled the shelter staff, jumped into two vans and headed out.   By the time we got there, a CHP officer—bless him, he was a dog lover and incredibly expert in his handling of the situation—had positioned his patrol car behind the running dog, slowing the fortunately light traffic and gently herding the dog toward an off-ramp.  He got the dog, still running in a blind panic, heading up the off-ramp and onto an overpass as we reached the scene.  Since I was in my unmarked van, I held my dog catch pole out the window and hollered, “Humane Society!” as best I could.  The officer saw my pole, saw the marked shelter van behind me, and did something extraordinary.


He pulled aside and let us pass, then followed us.  Now, if ever there are men and women accustomed to taking the Lead in our society, it is Law Enforcement folks.  That’s their job—to provide Alpha-type authority in some of the most difficult situations, and they don’t generally defer to civilians.  But in this particular situation, the CHP officer sized things up and made a judicious call to step back and follow. 


Was it because he was overwhelmed by my calm assertive energy and dominant personality?  Heck, no.  It was because he judged that we had better equipment—and likely the expertise--to tackle the job at hand.  We had catch poles and dog crates; he didn’t.  Even with that, we didn’t take the lead.  He allowed us to take the lead.  His decision to follow was voluntary, and that’s huge.   (We did catch the dog safely; she recovered from her ordeal and later was successfully adopted.) 


As I said in Part 2, both dogs and us have core desires to 1) be safe, 2) avoid unpleasant, distressing or scary things and 3) gain access to the resources that we find most pleasurable.   Given that, whether a creature strives to Lead or opts to Follow is going to depend on—exactly that.  To the degree that Leading or Following keeps us safe, allows us to avoid nasty stuff and gets us access to what we want, we’ll do it.  But we’ll only do it if it works.  If it stops working, we’ll start looking for a new strategy.  


If we look at it closely, it seems that there are at least three common kinds of Following, and they’re really quite different.  There’s what I’m going to call Juvenile Following, Strategic Following and Forced Following, and they arise from different conditions and have very different flavors.


The simplest and most common example of Juvenile Following is found in that most universal and common of animal relationships:  Mom and offspring.  Whether baby ducks, tiger cubs, baby monkeys or us, we follow our parents (or cling to them like glue) because we’re tiny, we’re helpless, we can’t find food or stay warm or avoid getting eaten without them.  So you bet we follow.  If we didn’t, we’d die.  Mom doesn’t have to be a particularly Alpha personality either.  She’s there, the most intimately familiar figure in our universe from Day One—the source of all things both needed and pleasurable.  She is safety, she keeps the scary things away and provides our resources.  What’s not to follow?


And here I have to say, this always makes me howl when it comes to Pop Culture notions of dog training:  somehow, we should discipline our puppies the “Natural Way” by modeling ourselves after Ms. Mama Alpha Wolf, but heaven forbid we should use food to train.  Dogs should obey because they recognize our Alpha status, not because we “bribe” them with treats.


Seriously?!  The most important thing Ms. Mama Wolf does—practically her full-time job--is give her offspring, yup, you guessed it--food.  From the moment the helpless pups are born, they find her nipples for milk.   Later, she and Dad regurgitate yummy meat, bring back carcasses and teach the growing youngsters how to hunt.  The relationship is all about food.   In domestic village dogs, once the pups are weaned—once Mom stops feeding them—the relationship is pretty much over.  And I suspect that many older, more independent pups only accept parental “discipline” because 1) they grew up with it, they’re used to it and it’s become a habit, 2) they have extremely powerful pleasurable associations from being nurtured by their parents in the past to offset a few unpleasant experiences, and 3) they still need assistance in the feeding department.  When juvenile predators reach adulthood and are able to fend for themselves, Juvenile Following starts getting old (for that matter, so does Parental Leading.) 


And it should get old, since the End Game—sexual maturity and reproductive success for the next generation of the genome—is at hand.  But how long a young predator stays under parental “domination” may depend more on the food supply and Mum’s willingness to keep sharing her dinner than on personality traits.  If the parents live in a resource-rich area, continue to pay the rent and set the table—and their “discipline” isn’t too annoying—slacking works pretty well.   In general, though, the cost/benefit has to play out: if the parents are easy to be around and there’s enough for everyone, we may linger even if the digs aren’t that great.  On the other hand, if the parents are tyrants, the chow better be super and the digs top notch.  If the pickings are slim, we’re out looking for our own apartments—if the parents don’t boot us out first.  Juvenile Following isn’t supposed to last forever.


What does this mean for our pet dogs?  Well, one of the oft-told characteristics of domestication is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood:  in simple words, our pet dogs have been selected over thousands of years to stay puppy-ish even in maturity.   They are bred to be dependent, to look to us for what amounts to parental care:  food, warmth, shelter and protection.  They were selected precisely for their willingness to Follow—their biddability.  They were also selectively bred to be highly tolerant, low in aggression and willing to accept our nonsense because we raised them, they need us and if you bite the hand that feeds you, you get tossed out in the cold. 


It’s important to remember, though, that we also bred dogs for functional jobs that required more independence of thought and action, and that across all dogs “biddable” is a sliding-scale trait.  It’s also vital to remember that there’s a huge amount of Learning in the process:  a puppy that isn’t taught a habit pattern of looking to humans for pleasure and deference to their wishes isn’t going to leap out of the back yard at the age of two and bow to us as Pack Leaders just cuz.  Smart puppy owners take advantage of the Juvenile Following period to establish those good habit patterns—to teach the pup what they want and how fun it is to “please” while the pup is at his most spongy and biddable age.  Smart puppy owners also build lots and lots of joy and social connection into the relationship the pup has not just with them, but with all people, so that on those rare occasions when unpleasant or scary things occur, Puppy has lots of healthy happy padding to act as a buffer.  A well-padded dog, like a true friend, can handle the occasional rainy day or stormy moment in a relationship. 


But while piggy-backing training on the Juvenile Following tendencies is one of the most effective ways we have to train, it is also relationship and often age dependent.  It’s amazing to me how many people struggle to wrap their minds around this.  A young puppy might tolerant something mildly unpleasant or scary from any human; an adult dog from a human they know well.  A mature adult dog may not take the same guff from a complete stranger.   And yet, many is the time I’ve brought out a dog to go for a walk with potential adopters at the shelter—an adult, fully mature dog—and seen these lovely, well-meaning people immediately start leash correcting the dog.  Often, weirdly, these folks have some previous training experience, consider themselves “good with” dogs and when I ask them, say something like they’re trying to establish Leadership.  Alas, it’s the wrong kind of Leadership right out of the gate.


You and I would really, really prefer it if complete strangers didn’t go from “Hi, how are you,” to “By the way, you need to lose weight,” or for that matter, wildly French kissing us.  Only at the Oscars can Adrian Brody lay one on poor Halle Berry, and only because she was too astonished to smack him in the kisser (though if she had, who could have blamed her?)  Between strange adults, it just isn’t done—when it is done, we have an assortment of bad names and criminal chargers to go with it.  As a trainer, I don’t correct adult dogs I don’t know—or hug adult dogs I don’t know—anymore than I would spank a random child misbehaving in the super market or pinch a stranger’s behind, no matter how cute.  Although I am old enough to be most people’s Mother, I am not their mother.  If I want to take advantage of the Juvenile Following tendency in a dog, I have to first establish a relationship.  Only after we have arrived at a mutual agreement that gives me the necessary permissions will I hug the dog, let alone consider a correction. 


Establishing such a relationship doesn’t have to take a lot of time—it can be done very quickly if we’re skilled.  If I am skilled, a dog finds out in short order—and this should sound familiar—three amazing Things About Me:  1) I’m safe, 2) I’m not going to do or make the dog do anything unpleasant, distressing or scary and 3) I can and will give them access to the resources that they find most pleasurable—in return for certain favors.    (This assumes that the dog is socially-savvy and not burdened by baggage of fear or mistrust; if they are, it’s a longer, sometimes much longer, process.)  A dog reasonably well-versed and comfortable in the ways of humans can read me in a heartbeat, and we can build a good working relationship in a very short amount of time. 


Does the dog now view me as his new Pack Leader aka Mommy Figure?  I doubt it.  More likely the dog is pre-disposed by thousands of selective breeding to readily accept a social relationship with a human being and has experience practicing various Juvenile Following strategies successfully in the past.  This may incline the dog to give Juvenile Following a whirl, but it’s up to me to sell it by reinforcing the crud out of it.  Unlike Mom, or the owner, I don’t have weeks, months or years of—hopefully—pleasurable associations in the bank to draw on.  So I have a rule:  never ask the dog to give me more behavior than we have relationship.  If I’m going to ask a dog to do something difficult or slightly scary or unpleasant, it’s going to be after I’ve deposited enough funds (that would be food and fun, yes) in the training account to cover it and still be ahead.  Since I hate spending “relationship money” when I don’t have to, my first choice is always going to be—can I make this simpler, more pleasant, less scary?  Sometimes I can’t—if a shelter dog must have a vaccination or has to be taken somewhere they find stressful--I may not have good options.  In those cases, I’ll make a note to revisit that scenario later, to repair it and improve it for the future.


The key point here is—intimacy grants permission.   If intimacy is absent or violated, permission can be revoked.  We all have met people who, after three minutes of small talk and one dinner date, start hitting us up for favors or money or unload long-winded and tedious complaints about life.  The behaviors they express might be appropriate in other relationships, but they exceed the intimacy bank account they’ve established with us.  Some of us are more tolerant than others, but we’re rarely comfortable with it and we usually dump them at our earliest opportunity.


Dogs, alas, can’t always avoid the impositions of strangers, and they can’t—physically, at least—dump their owners.  They do dump us mentally and emotionally if it gets bad enough.  When we become in their eyes untrustworthy, unsafe or scary, when we pile on demands that the dogs experience as unpleasant, when we fail to provide access to the things they find pleasurable and important, Juvenile Following tendencies do what all behaviors do: start to extinguish for lack of reinforcement. 


Coming in the next Part:  Strategic Following

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