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The Reluctant Leader






When you come across a client with a dog that is very reactive in public, chews everything he can get his teeth on, steals food from the counters, barking at everything that passes the house or yard and are generally inappropriate around people you have found a Reluctant Leader. This is a term that I employ to mean a canine that is in charge of the household but would rather not have this responsibility. The dog that exhibits only one of these behaviors is not, however, a Reluctant Leader. The display of most of these behaviors combined should be your first clue that you are dealing with a dog that has stepped up to the plate because the guardian simply has not. Domestic dogs are still pack animals, while I don’t buy into the Dominance Theory of every dog vying for top position in the pack, I do believe that dogs need and desire a very clear hierarchy within their pack. For dogs to remain emotionally and behaviorally healthy they need a pack with a clear leader. When dogs experience a pack lacking this hierarchy you will find a dog exhibiting anxiety type behaviors as they carry the stress of taking the role of leader reluctantly. This is the Reluctant Leader Syndrome.

Two tell tale signs of a household or pack with the ladder skewed are a dog that is free fed, meaning they have free access to their food all day and the dog that sleeps with their guardian in their bed, possibly even under the covers. It is my opinion that these practices are perfectly fine for the dog that has a secure place within the pack and is comfortable with their rung on the ladder. These are also two pretty simple routines to change for the guardian. A clearly defined breakfast and dinner time and a soft bed of their own on the floor will help any Reluctant Leader to begin to realize they can take the crown off and hand it over to the species with opposable thumbs ~ us. Other simple things that guardians can change are how they interact with their dog. Most likely this particular dog has problems with over reacting to stimulus from the outside world, excessive barking at next to nothing. Almost invariably this is also the home where the guardians holler at the dog, “No! Quit it! Stop Barking! Shut Up!” What is actually happening when we succumb to this instinctual reaction for humans is the dog believes we are barking with them. The dog thinks to themselves, “See? You are barking too! We need to protect the perimeter! There must be something horrible out there if you are barking too! Bark, Bark, Bark!” By ignoring this behavior and redirecting at the appropriate time, we as humans are instilling that we have everything under control and Fido can relax and be our pet. A dog that seems to not be aware of her own space, chronic jumping, using their teeth on our skin or clothes are all habits of the Reluctant Leader. These are also probably the homes with people that move out of the dog’s way instead of vice versa. A dog that receives consistent feedback when jumping will simply not stop jumping. We need to make it clear to the guardians that while pushing the dog down and saying “No!” does seem like punishment to us, it is still reinforcing the behavior. Just as the human toddler will increase the frequency and intensity of the temper tantrum when acknowledged, so too will the jumping dog as long as reinforcement is given. Ignoring the jumping and redirecting at the precise time with a reliable sit will certainly help this Reluctant Leader to get the message. Dogs that are still mouthing people’s skin and clothes well into adulthood need to be redirected to an appropriate toy and be taught that this is unacceptable behavior according to us humans.

It is not necessary to employ archaic techniques to be our dog’s leader. We do not have to yell at our dog, perform the alpha roll or use electric shock to get the message across that we actually do have everything under control within our pack. Very simple changes to the routine and how we interact with our dog will produce the most reliable, lasting results. By giving guardians the understanding of their dog’s basic emotional needs you will have a happy client and a less stressed dog. And that equals referrals!



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About the Author

Christy Andrews CPDT-KA, Pet Perfection
Waterman, IL 60556
815-264-5006

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