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What is a leader?

For my purposes as a dog trainer, it means the one who provides direction; the one who takes responsibility for making “it” happen; the one who takes care of the emotional well-being of the other.

Unlike dominance, there is nothing unpleasant about leadership or being led;
indeed, most of us are more than willing to accept the direction of a good leader. Our dogs are no different.

For the purposes of this discussion, leadership has two components; handling events in the moment and making decisions for the future.

On its most basic level, as I am presenting it here, how might we use this concept to help us become better dog trainers and owners? To make better decisions for our dogs when there is no time to consult a book or call our mentor?

Let’s start by considering leadership as it relates to a parent-child relationship. In this case, visualize a child who is just becoming verbal. An older toddler; two or three years of age.

You take your child into a situation and something happens that you would prefer not to see again. What do you do?

You go to the park and he tries to take a toy from a smaller child. What do you do?

You go to the park and he starts yelling at, or trying to hit, another child (who threatened to hit him the day before). What do you do?

You go to the park and he starts yelling at, or trying to hit, another child (for no obvious reason at all). What do you do?

You take your toddler to a local talent contest and he freezes up and does nothing. What do you do?

Really think about each example. Don’t worry about the fact that you might not put your child into any particular situation or that you may not spend time with children at all; simply think about it as if it is happening, and now you need to react.  What do you do RIGHT NOW?

Do you stand around, watch, and see what happens next? Go catatonic because you’re not sure what the “right” answer is? Hope for the best and smile pleasantly when your child looks to you for direction? Are you silent? Are you paying enough attention to even be aware of what is happening? Hand over a snack and continue to stand in the same spot?

At this time, I am not going to answer these questions for you. To a large extent, how you handle any of these situations is a function of what you believe about parenting. Depending on your philosophy, that response might vary from taking the child further away, to distracting him, to having a quiet conversation, to smacking him.  But in all cases, one presumes that you understand that whatever happens now cannot undo what happened; you’re reacting – damage control.

What you do next, after you get through the initial event, will also vary. You might decide to try again with very close supervision or assistance. You might decide to avoid the situation. You might decide the situation cannot be handled at this time and the best thing to do is go home. But whatever you do next, you will have reacted in some manner and then made a follow-up decision. Hopefully, with an eye to preventing a recurrence.

I would like to believe that no parent would simply stand around, hoping for the best, paralyzed with indecision because they cannot remember exactly what the correct steps are, smiling and nodding at their child while doing nothing at all. Any of those decisions would scream lack of leadership, and if you did parent in that manner then soon enough your child would stop looking to you for help at all.  At the ripe old age of three, your child would figure out that they were on their own…good luck with intelligent decision making at that age.  Your child may become a bully, they may become a victim or they may turn out just fine! But odds that your young child can make the right decisions without intervention aren’t very good – which is why we supervise and provide leadership for them.

The most important thing that a leader does is get involved when needed; when the “other” is being controlled by emotion, then a leader with a clear head needs to step up – right now. Whether you decide to stand quietly coaching your child or yelling at them for their behavior after the fact, you don’t disengage. You don’t leave them on their own. You don’t act helpless like you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t stand and watch with curiosity, fascination or horror – doing nothing. You don’t whine and complain about how good all of the other children are, and your child is the only one who can’t behave, while watching the misbehavior escalate.

That is because responsible parents lead their children; they take responsibility for setting a direction in situations beyond the child’s capacity, and then they make it happen. As a leader, you might make a good choice or a poor one, but you do something.

Your dog is the same. Be a leader.  You might make a good decision in the moment or not, but make sure your dog knows that you’re paying attention. Better yet make sure your dog knows that he can count on you for support while he learns how he is expected to behave.  In the moment, what should you do?


If you do this, your dog will learn to look to you faster and faster over time when they are unsure about what to do.  Get involved.

And then, after you’re out of the moment (management), then we try and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  That’s training – for both children and pets.  That is when we can ask trusted friends for input.

If people are interested in this, we can look at each of the above topics in future blogs, and consider our options.  You will discover that making good decisions for your dog is actually not that complicated when you consider your behavior as a function of leadership (decisions in the moment) followed up by training (to set up success into the future).


About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

10 responses »

  1. Very interesting. I do not have children, but I am a teacher of grades 8 -10 in the B.C., Canada school system. I have actually used some of my learned knowledge of working with my dogs in the classroom. For example, instead of chastising or correcting improper behaviour, I strive to reward students who stay on task, do their best, try to improve etc. A bit of a reverse from the example you have used, but on the same track. It works. This could be a very interesting discussion.

  2. With my dog, IN THE MOMENT, I would do pretty much the same thing, whether it was a behavior such as barking, starting to leave the ring (I work off leash with no ring gates in my canine freestyle sport), or trying to interact with another dog when not released to do so: I would quickly and fluently use 2 simple tools I’ve learned from you, Denise, and from some other great teacher-trainers like Kathy Sdao. I practice this same human behavior chain so that’s it’s almost unconscious for me, in The Moment of stress. So, the chain is this:

    1.Cheerfully interrupt – I use a small sound or a breath blow which I’ve rewarded 10,000 times for focus. If the dog is too far away to hear that, I use a whistle with the same reward history.

    2. I immediately cue a well known behavior with lots of reward history that I know has an extremely high chance of success, most often a target to my hip with a hand cue – this brings the dog close to me and a hand cue does not require the dog to process human language in a moment of high distraction for him.

    It’s just that simple for me. I’ve had to practice the human behavior chain a lot because I tend to freeze up when things don’t go as I expect! 🙂 Dogs can act in ways we don’t want SO INCREDIBLY FAST that we humans are often stunned right into “paralyzed” by the speed with which things changed. I’ve found that getting out and about with your dog in mildly distracting environments is a great way to practice the process so that the human has the behavior chain in place for higher level distractions such as working off leash with no ring gates or having to function in close proximity to other dogs and people.

    It would be fun and informative to have a longer blog with video posts that you choose from submissions which show various patterns that people use for these “in the moment” decisions. That would give some concrete choices for people to train that fit their individual situations and their individual dog. Just go to any big store parking lot or dog park parking lot (of course, you decide how close you get to the various distractions and, of course, on leash!) and you can easily make a video of how you, the human, react to your dog’s distracted or undesired behaviors.

    Thanks so much for all the wonderful blogs, Denise, and for the way you challenge us to think. I learn so much from each of them!

  3. Very interesting and insightful. I would love to read further in-depth blogs on this topic.

  4. Cathy Nirenberg

    I would love to learn more about this. I am learning to read my current dog and how he reacts to different situations. I want to develop our mutual trust and teamwork as best I can. Reading about how others handle situations like this will give me more “tools” to work with for MY dog. Every dog and every situation is different, so handling will of course depend on the dog and the situation. The more “tools” in my “toolbox”, the better I will be able to handle situations like this.

    Thank you for all the wonderful information. I have been having so much more fun working with my dogs since finding you and your website(s). and of course my dogs are much happier and eager to work.

  5. Awesome comparison. I use the parenting model all the time with my students. It really resonates with my parents & gets those who aren’t, reflecting ahead about their current situation with their dog & perhaps, their future as parents. A double plus they way I see it.


    Sent from my iPhone


  6. As I read your theoretical examples of what would I do if my child was in a predicament, I found myself stuck. I froze. Nothing came to mind. I raised two boys when I was very very young, and I was overwhelmed with that responsibility. I didn’t have a group of mothers to help me think things through, yet as I think back, I can remember certain incidents similar to those you described. I did react in the moment, without hesitation. That means when I was actually in a particular situation, I did react and I never froze, or thought twice about my reaction. It was the theoretical examples that I had trouble with. Reaction is immediate, but sitting here trying to come up with an answer gave me too much time to waffle, and second guess myself. (My children grew up just fine. )
    My problem appears to be with “what if” part of post. It seems to me that I can’t “think” about what I might do. I have to react quickly, and then evaluate my reaction afterwards.
    I began training dogs when when kids were in middle school. I had awesome trainers and friends who taught me a lot. This is when I started having tools to put in my toolbox. I am still learning every day, and my toolbox is big, but not full.
    I have often thought about what would be different if I had this box of tools when my kids were little.
    I am very interested in this blog, and would like to see more: thoughts from you, and thoughts from other people, also.
    This discussion is very intriguing, and thought provoking. I hope to see more posts and replies in this vein.

  7. I would love to read more about this subject. I am in my mid 60s and have a miniature poodle from when she was as 8 weeks old. She is 1 year 9 months old now. She has always been very confident (unless confronted by a larger barking dog. In which case she will run behind my legs) and I have always believed in positive reinforcement training. I have raised and trained my dog using this method. She is super obedient when out and off the lead with a 100% recall, even when distractions are all around her. I worked very hard with her to achieve this good behaviour. However my raising her with mutual respect has backfired in the home situation. She started to Resource Guard at age 8 months old and this behaviour has escalated so now she growls at me when she doesn’t want me to do something she doesn’t much like. She hates to be groomed and I am trying to find out if something has happened at the groomer because this behaviour has only been happening since the last two grooms. However, as you can imagine, trying to get any groomer to admit to something happening to make my dog fear grooming is impossible. I checked out the salon concerned well and it has good recommendations. Something has happen because my dog won’t allow me to brush or comb her let alone bath her. She hates the hairdryer too. It’s has got to the stage where I can’t even touch her ears without her growling at me. She lets me comb her back and tail and that’s about all. I am having a pretty tough time with her and I am at a loss what to do. I took her for a check up to the vet I trust and they had no trouble looking in her ears. It transpired that she had an ear infection but that’s gone now and I still can’t do anything with her head or ears with out her growling and snapping at me. Our vet has referred her to a behaviourist but it’s taking time and I feel I should be doing something now. She is looking very unkempt too. She must be feeling hot as well with a grown coat and the heat we are having. Some behaviour is hard to cope with and if you were met with a snarling dog that is normally very affectionate and loving under other circumstances, what would you do in the moment? How would you handle it? I love my dog but her behaviour is making me depressed. I would love to read your ideas on this please. Thank you very much.

    • YOu definitely need to see a dog trainer – what you’re talking about isn’t really suitable for an internet diagnosis and is not the result of positive training methods.

      As far as the grooming I would simply shave her for now. Might not be pretty but solves the problem while you get a better handle on the situation.

  8. Thank you very much for your reply. We have a vet behaviourist coming to see her tomorrow. She has most definitely been trained using positive reinforcement only. Our vet told us many miniature Poodles Resource Guard and I have met a number of people with mini poodles who all say their dog Resource Guard too. We were handling that and we were winning with positive reinforcement training. However this new problem has arisen since she was groomed around 18 weeks ago. I didn’t link it to the groomers until the last time she went there which was over 8 weeks ago. After that groom she growled at us if we as much looked at her for 2 days. It was like she blamed us for taking her there. Up until now we have had no problems with grooming her but now we can’t get near her with the clippers nor scissors. She is a wonderful dog, very affectionate and loving and obedient, but it’s the grooming we are having difficulty with. The grooming salon is well respected but something has happened and we can’t find out what.

    We have never subscribed to the other type of training and we have had other dogs in our time and all were raise with positive reinforcement training. She passed her puppy training class that is Kennel Club approved with flying colours. And we have carried on training her in the same way. We know it’s nothing we have done, we love her dearly and wouldn’t even shout at her. She is a sensitive dog and we recognise that and treat her accordingly, but we will get a better idea when the vet behaviourist sees her tomorrow.

  9. Pingback: Denise Fenzi on Leadership | Little Brown Dog Blog

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