I was assisting during a Canine Good Citizen class with my 2-year-old American Bulldog, Tex. Tex and another unaltered male in the class had reacted with some tension between them, so I was closely monitoring their interaction as the class progressed. At one point I had to walk past the dog on the left, so I put Tex to walk on leash on my right side.
When Tex was a pup he learned to walk, as many dogs do, on the left side. Unfortunately, I was not a dog trainer at the time and he was the champion leash puller of all time so it took three months to get him to loose leash walk. All the while with him on my left and that became what he expected.
As we began to go to public places and parks I began walking him on my right side instead of my left to avoid the zooming bicycle riders and joggers and other dogs. Initially Tex would try to cross over to the left side like he was trained but I would give him a slight leash correction (no jerking, just a little pressure on the collar) and gave the command of “Don’t cross that trail.”
So as we walked past the dog in the CGC class Tex (walking on my right) showed interest, the two dogs made eye contact and Tex started to move in the dog’s direction, I gave him the leash correction and gave him the “Don’t cross that trail” command. Tex complied even though the unaltered male began to pull on its leash and growl. Later the other dog’s owner walked up to me and asked me how I trained Tex to do that.
I really did not have a clear answer for her. But as I started to ponder how I should have answered that question it all came down to one thing. I was Tex’s leader. There had been no “don’t cross that trail” training sessions. I didn’t teach him “Don’t cross that trail” like I had taught him to sit, down and stay. Those skills were accomplished in training sessions using treats and commands in a repetitive way in a controlled, nearly distraction free environment.
The command for Tex not to cross the trail was “on the job training” and it became possible, and it happened so quickly, because I am his leader. He learned from a young age that focusing on me and following my instructions was an interesting and rewarding thing to do and as a result he picked up on things quickly. He “vibed” with me. Even though I did not use food treats when I taught him this skill he was eager and interested to do what I asked of him for only calm, verbal praise.
You can spot a dog with a strong leader easily. They are a pair that seem to have a vibe going on. Almost like the dog can read the owner’s mind. The truth is the dog has learned to pay close attention to their leader, has grown accustomed to their mannerisms and finds the owner interesting, challenging and rewarding.
People come to us with a variety of dog behavior issues and they ask our help to bring about the behavior they want to see out of their dog. Different training techniques are required for different situations, but one thing stays constant. Leadership.
How do I stop my dog from barking? Be their leader.
How do I stop my dog from pulling on the leash? Be their leader.
The basic commands of sit, stay and down can be accomplished by formal dog training and rewards. They learn quickly that if they perform a certain skill they will be rewarded with a tasty treat. But to change unwanted behavior in a positive way or to teach your dog more abstract skills it helps to be your dog’s leader.
Remember that leadership has nothing to do with dominance. Leadership is showing a dog what it CAN do, and dominance is showing a dog what it CANNOT do. Being a strong, interesting and rewarding leader is a positive thing. But how do we do that?
The good news is that you CAN be your dog’s leader and it can be fun. In fact, most dogs want us to lead; freeing them up to just be a dog and exist in the world in a carefree state. They will relax knowing that you are there to handle whatever situation comes up.
Doing exercises every day like “Sit, Down, Stay,” “Watch Me” and “Leave It” focus the dog on the owner. Getting a reward and verbal praise for performing these skills make following the owner’s instructions a positive thing, making the owner an interesting, positive leader. The more times you command your dog and they follow your command and they get rewarded for it, the more of a leader you become.
“But my dog already knows how to Sit.” That’s great! Still practice it every day! Every time you and your dog have a positive exchange your relationship gets better, and you become a better, more interesting and rewarding leader.
But if your dog seems bored with Sit, change it up. Chances are you taught your dog to “Sit” directly in front of you. Try kneeling on one knee and giving the “Sit” command. Try turning your back and giving the “Sit” command. Try giving the command while you stand in your bath tub. Try giving the command laying on your back, sitting on your sofa, from the other side of a screen or glass door.
Do this with all the skills your dog knows in short and fun training sessions of about ten to fifteen minutes every day. Ten extra minutes a day is not much time to have an engaged, interested dog that will look to you for leadership in all of life’s challenges that it throws at us. So, set your alarm fifteen minutes early every morning to give yourself the time to get your dog’s treats ready and get set for a fun training session. Set aside another 10 or 15 minutes in the evening time as well. Sure, life will intervene, and you will miss sessions but that is ok, do it as often as you can.
This keeps your dog guessing at what you might do next and makes you more interesting and that will increase your dog’s focus on you in a positive and rewarding way.
So, find the skills your dog knows and use them every day, change up the delivery of your commands and the conditions in which you give the commands. You will see your dog look to you for guidance and reassurance in every situation.