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).