Is Being Your Dog’s Follower as Important as Being Her Leader?

"If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable...

“If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.”

–Herodotus, a fifth century Greek historian and philosopher

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how often dog owners are told, in no uncertain terms, “you must be a leader to your dog.”

I agree with this principle, for the most part. I do think it’s good if humans are able to illustrate, through our own behaviors, to our dogs that we are reliable, consistent, and worthy of our dog’s trust. All training should focus around establishing and maintaining our dog’s trust.

Last year, I went to San Fransisco for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers annual conference (Oakland, actually). I had the immense pleasure of hearing one of my training heroes, Turid Rugaas, present at the APDT conference. Turid reminds me of Karen Pryor in that she is soft-spoken, unassuming, and a lady whose graciousness, experience, and knowledge commands the full attention of everyone in the room.

One of my favorite things about Turid’s presentation was that she provided me with the opportunity to see dog training as it is viewed in another culture, that of Turid’s native Scandinavia. In the course of her presentation, Turid said something to the effect of, “you Americans are control freaks with your dogs! You want to control when they look at something in the environment, for how long, when they look at you, when and if they are allowed to sniff something interesting in the environment, how quickly or slowly they walk, etc.”

I see what Turid is saying. As a culture, we Americans tend to be pushy, demanding, type A, control freaks. We want what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. The concept of, “we must be leaders to our dogs at all times,” really does fit nicely in with our fast-paced, control freak culture.

I am hesitant to post this, imagining what will probably be a passionate backlash from those who may disagree with me, but I will say that now I’ve had many months to reflect on Turid’s presentation, I have come to decide that perhaps, just maybe, we should try to let our dogs take the lead more often.

I’ve seen pet owners try to tell me what their dog likes, despite their dog’s vehement disagreement. “Oh! She loves working for kidney beans!” says the emphatic owner as her dog turns away from the offered “treat” in disgust.

Some people take their dogs for a walk without ever really respecting or understanding what it is that’s so valuable about the walk TO THE DOG – the human sees the walk as a chore to be checked off a task list (“We must cover x amount of terrain in y amount of minutes, z times daily), while the dog sees the walk as an opportunity to gather important information from the environment (checking their “p-mail”).

Some owners take their dogs to the dog park because it is “supposed to be” fun for them. This same dog, when released out of the car at the dog park, may try desperately to get back into the car to get away from the situation or display stressful body language throughout the entire time at the park, while the owner pats herself on the back, “Dogs are supposed to like the dog park. See how much fun he’s having?”

Some owners never, under any circumstances, ever want their dog to dip her head toward a blade of grass or a tree that may have been marked by the neighbor’s dog. Heaven forbid a dog likes to stick her nose in the entrance to a woodchuck’s burrow, chase after a squirrel, or prefers steak to stale, dry kibble.

In no way is this blog entry intended to discourage pet owners from being effective and consistent leaders to their favorite canine. This blog entry is intended, however, to be a request to all pet parents – try following your dog every once in a while. Just watch her. See what she loves. Listen to her when she tells you she dislikes something or is uncomfortable.

Let her sniff the fire hydrant on your walk. If there is a safe environment where you may allow her to do so, let her tree a squirrel every now and then. Occasionally, when you take a walk, let it be a walk where you are fully engaged in your dog’s goals as opposed to your own – what does she want to get out of the walk? If it’s stopping every few steps to have a sniff or eat a blade of grass, let her. If she wants to splash around in the creek for a minute, slow down and allow her to do that. If your dog needs a bath anyway, the opportunity to roll in something yucky can, disgustingly enough, be a very effective and potent reinforcer.

The biggest (only?) downside to dog ownership is that our dogs live so much shorter lives than we do. One of my personal goals as a dog mom is to allow my dogs to live as much “doggy life” as possible in those years, having doggy experiences, doing things that matter to dogs. The more “legal” or better yet, encouraged, opportunities dogs have to do “doggy things,” which may include running off leash, chasing squirrels, checking “p-mail,” playing with other dogs, stuffing their heads down into woodchuck burrows, digging a hole in the dirt, etc., the happier and thus, better-behaved our dogs will be.

In my own humble opinion, it is every bit as important to learn to read and follow signals your dog gives you as it is for your dog to read and respond to your own signals. We are only blessed with our dogs’ company for a very short time, and allowing them the opportunity to be dogs and do “doggy stuff” as frequently as possible will allow us and them to maximize the memories and enjoyment of our shared times together.

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