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Leadership Redefined: Advocating For Your Dog

“Leadership” – few words have been bandied about more in the world of dog lovers and dog professionals. Books have been written, TV shows have been produced, training protocols have been developed and videos have been dedicated to promoting the concept of leadership in the human – canine relationship. The thing is, leadership can mean many different things depending upon who’s doing the talking! In the absence of consensus regarding the meaning of leadership, we are left with a profound lack of clarity, focus and direction. This void in agreement on the true meaning of leadership can be confusing, particularly for our dogs.

So we ask ourselves: Am I a good leader? Are love and leadership synonymous? Are leaders supposed to police their dogs every moment and be ready to instantly redirect their errant behavior? Is leadership unkind? Does it require using a loud firm voice? Can I cuddle my dog and still be a leader? Can I be a leader if I don’t have a pack? If my dog sits on my foot, does he think I am not his leader?

Ruh roh – time out.
Let’s flip this thing on it’s side and ask, instead, what qualities should a person embody in order for YOU to regard that person as worthy of your trust, as someone who has your best interests at heart ?  How do we attain a dog’s trust, loyalty and compliance ? Finally, and most importantly, does the dog have any say in the matter ?

I suggest making a bold move – let’s put the term “leadership” on the back burner for a moment and talk, instead, about becoming your dogs advocate!

Traditionally, an advocate is a champion, a supporter, a crusader, a spokesperson, a cheerleader. An effective advocate must know their charge’s needs, hopes and desires. In fact, without such knowledge, an advocate cannot be successful in their endeavors.

Advocacy, therefore, requires astute observation and empirical familiarity with one’s subject. In the world of dog training, this boils down to maintaining an inquisitive, flexible mind, taking the time to fully understand who the dog standing in front of you is at any given moment, and responding by guiding the dog appropriately. Being your dog’s advocate implies that you are committed to involving your dog’s point of view in every aspect of their training. There is nothing “boiler-plate” about advocating for your dog and creating a partnership with them.  In contrast, leadership has historically been described as dominion, power, rule and command. These aspects do not necessarily call for the inclusion of relationship-based model of dog training. Acting as your dog’s advocate and becoming truly trustWORTHY in their eyes requires a variety of skills. Equally important is our devotion to being empathetic; our interest in what our dogs are telling us; commitment to humility, generosity, and fun; and finally, skillful use of authority. We must remain dedicated to developing a mutually respectful, on-going relationship.

Trust is developed in the moment to moment interactions we have with our dogs. Recently I was working with a nervous dog who suddenly began to display signs of stress and trepidation. I immediately made some small yet important changes in my handling of her, and she worked brilliantly for the rest of our session. Soon after our session, this same dog chose to lie down at my feet rather than at the feet of her owner. By doing so, she showed her burgeoning trust in me. What a wonderful foundation for our future work together!

The practical aspects of learning who your dog is and how to advocate for him can be honed over time with attentiveness and education. I like to use as few words as possible when working with dogs, relying instead on body language and proximity. Consistency and remaining unfazed while your dog is in a state of anxiety allows us to model for our dogs the behaviors we would like to see them adopt. A brilliant trainer-friend of mine often says, “Just watch the dog – she will tell you everything you need to know.” The more we adhere to this wise advice, the more fluent and clear our communication and helpful responses will become.

A few tips for considering advocacy in dog training: Study books about canine body language. Attend workshops taught by people who ascribe to the relational model of dog training. Enjoy the process of getting to know your dog. Incorporate specific activities that let your dog know you are watching out for him. For example, a powerful practice is to place your body in between your dog and the motorcycles roaring by if the noise tends to make him nervous. Let your dog know you have her back! Get to know your dog’s stress threshold. If walking by the neighbor’s house causes distress for your dog at a distance of 10 feet, create more space for your dog and walk by at 11 or more feet.  There are exercises you can do to help modify your dog’s stress threshold – Kayce Cover has done some remarkable work utilizing Conditioned Relaxation and Cycling Phases. Your dog will appreciate your sensitivity.

Remember that our worthiness as our dog’s advocate needs to be reestablished daily. Like leadership, advocacy requires consistency – we must thoughtfully demonstrate to our dogs that we are worthy of their trust and promise them that we will advocate for them each and every day of their lives.

Susan Raymond – voted Best Private Trainer in 2015 in Bay Woof’s “Beast Of The Bay” contest – is the owner of Calm K9, located in Port Costa, CA. Susan specializes in training dogs with various behavioral issues and her personal dogs Swiffer and Cowboy are an integral part of the training! Susan can be reached at (925) 408-8593 and through her web site

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