Monthly Archives: January 2016

Alpha Leadership: What it Really Means!

wolves.jpeg

This photograph has gotten a fair amount of attention, and has been subject to a healthy debate on what a “pack leader” is among undomesticated wolves. The caption is as follows: “A wolf pack: the first 3 are the old or sick, they give the pace to the entire pack. If it was the other way round, they would be left behind, losing contact with the pack. In case of an ambush they would be sacrificed. Then come 5 strong ones, the front line. In the center are the rest of the pack members, then the 5 strongest following. Last is alone, the alpha. He controls everything from the rear. In that position he can see everything, decide the direction. He sees all of the pack. The pack moves according to the elders pace, and help each other, watch each other.”

Among dog trainers, a conversation immediately flared on the notion of an “alpha” leader. Many assert that “science” has disproven the validity of wolf-dog comparisons, and argue passionately that reviving any discussion of (or giving credence to the notion of) an “alpha” pack leader is detrimental to dog training.

We’re not going to wade into that debate. Our purpose in sharing this photo its caption information is because we think it’s beautiful and it illustrates one of the core principles that guides Western States K9 College and its trainers: that every group whose members wish to function and thrive together must recognize a leader, and the most effective leaders are rarely barking orders at the front.

The most effective leaders are strong in their convictions, act in the best interests of the group, and lead by ensuring the group’s continued organization, cooperation, and fulfillment. Sometimes, the leader may need to zip around front to assess risk, other times check the status of those in the middle, and sometimes they’re at the back taking in the big picture.

We believe in pack leadership, absolutely. But too often, at least in dog training, the term has been used to connote a dictatorship. Someone who, for whatever reason, is the Chief Micromanager and Order Giver. The one who believes chaos and even violence will ensue if dogs pass through a doorway first, for example. Or Fluffy gets on the couch.

We simply don’t believe that, and our experience has convinced us that true leadership is founded in earned trust. “Alpha” pack leaders emerge because they build connection, proved through practice and demonstrated by consistent results. We are true leaders when we inspire, inform, encourage, and hold accountable. But also when we allow our strong members to show strength, and when we support our weak members. When we know them enough to know their individual strengths, weaknesses, desires, and abilities, and work to strengthen each pack member according to their needs.

The true “alpha” in the pack has no use for dictatorship, dominance, or suppression. And neither do we.

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Lunging, Barking, Pulling, Snarking: Leash Reactivity, What it’s All About

It’s a baffling phenomenon – a dog who under “normal” circumstances is delightfully social. She can welcome new friends into her home, enjoy a glorious game of tag with canine acquaintances at the park, even thrive at daycare. But when that leash snaps on, WATCH OUT. A beast emerges that is angry, defensive, suspicious, even dangerous.

Leash reactivity is one of the most common reasons clients contact us, and it can be a real challenge to resolve. There’s an array of contributing factors and suspected causes behind leash reactivity. Perhaps the dog was attacked on leash, or has some other reason to feel unsafe or vulnerable tethered and restrained. Perhaps the dog has learned to interpret the sight of other dogs/people/animals and the leash/collar pressure with a level of excitement she doesn’t know how to deal with, and the excitement builds into frustration which manifests as a tantrum. It may be that the dog has some guarding/protective tendencies.

While it can be useful knowing as much of the dog’s history and personality as possible, we find that the approach we recommend remains consistent, and we want to share an overview with you here.

*Diagnostics: We always take a close look at the relationship between the reactive dog and her person, to see what’s at the core and how it functions. We look for ways we can help clarify things for the dog – to help the dog understand with greater and greater certainty that she is safe, to establish routines the dog can recognize and participate in, and to instill a sense of responsibility and accountability. Many times, if the dog has questions about her person’s role in her life – maybe humans are there for love and food, but not safety and guidance – improving consistency and clarifying expectations in the home improves the dog’s experience outside on leash.

*Setting the stage: Too often, we meet leash reactive dogs who are placed in scenarios where they have little option but to react. They don’t have enough time/chance to learn what the fundamentals of a leash walk ARE before they’re sent out to face distraction after distraction. A dog who pulls on leash right out of the gate, whose handler is more a tag along nuisance than a companion, can hardly be faulted for focusing outwardly and impolitely when confronted with beings or situations that overwhelm them.

When dogs come to us for board and train to work on leash reactivity, we spend a good bit of time teaching/brushing up on the basics. To do that, we often start at the most distraction-free, boring environment we can find (school or church parking lots after hours are glorious places, with lots of boring space, no grass to scent, and little traffic). We give the dogs hours and hours of practice on what it feels like to walk on a loose leash, the rewards for making eye contact and connecting with their handler, demonstrating how different it can feel to walk beside their handler and include the handler in her experience. Once we have our foundation re-built, we can work on introducing distractions, but at levels the dog can process and cope with. This is a process, and it takes as long as it takes. The key is that we give our dogs plenty of successes before we increase the level of challenge.

*Providing guidance: As we’re introducing distractions, we want to be sure our dog remembers we’re there with them, and that she can look to us for guidance. Some dogs respond to verbal reminders (a “look” or “watch me” cue, for example); others seem to go a little deaf and need a physical reminder (a leash jiggle, leash pressure upward, a change of direction); some need both. Whichever the form of communication, timing is the most critical thing, and this is where many well-intentioned dog owners need help. Our rule of thumb is that the earlier you can start providing guidance, interrupt and redirect focus, and remind the dog of your partnership out there on the walk, the better. If at all possible, start asking the dog to remember you BEFORE she starts her escalation cycle – before the first ear twitch or wrinkled forehead, before the body stiffens, and most definitely before the barking or lunging.

*Breathe: When you have a leash reactive dog, one of the biggest challenges will be your own state of mind. The more anxious you are, the more you are bracing for the next explosion, the more you’re communicating to your dog that there’s actually something out there to be anxious about. Remember that first step, the boring boring boring time when all you’re doing is practicing reconnecting and refining proper positioning in that huge empty parking lot? Part of that exercise is for the handler, too. It’s about having a ton of repetitions under your belt where you’re letting go of anticipatory junk and reprioritizing partnership, position, and purpose. It’s about learning to breathe again

If you need help with your leash reactive dog, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re available in person along the Wasatch Front in Utah, and around the globe via phone/Skype/FaceTime. Don’t keep struggling. Your dog can improve, and you can grow closer together in the process.