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Changing the actions, aptitudes and attitudes of dogs and their people
Why Do Dogs Need Leadership
An Historical Perspective
To understand what a dog NEEDS as it applies to human leadership, it’s important to consider that dogs are
domesticated wolves. Wolves have a highly sophisticated method of communication. It is non-verbal and highly
effective at exchanging information about limits, boundaries and standards for behavior. Dogs do not spend time
sharing resources in exchange for “good behavior”. So, using treats and rewards in training is not as effective as
establishing rules through warning signals and reinforcing expectations with consequences for behavior, which is the
way that wolves (and domestic dogs) behave with each other.
Most wolves relinquish their rights to reproduce in order to be part of a family pack structure. That is how important
it is, to a wolf, to live in a balanced hierarchical society with strong leadership. For the most part, only the Alpha male
and female get to reproduce, and all other wolves spend their resources raising their cousins, half-brothers and
sisters or nieces and nephews. This is not typical in the natural world where, typically, animals survive simply to
reproduce themselves. This is a very important aspect of wolf society that must be understood. Although there are
small conflicts between lower ranking pack members, wolves try not to get into serious fights with each other.
Wolves make a living hunting large prey and the survival of the whole pack could be compromised if individuals went
out on the hunt damaged by a serious conflict in the day prior to the hunt. The whole pack could fail to eat if
conflicts were resolved with battles that seriously injured individuals. So, wolves use non-physical warning signals
(body language, growls, showing of teeth) to communicate their expectations and the warning is only followed by a
physical consequence (bite) if the offending wolf does not head the warning. The bite is not flesh tearing, for the
most part, but is delivered around the head and neck with exacting force to get the point across but not seriously
This is true of domestic dogs, as well. In a well balanced pack, dogs do not make damaging physical contact, rip or
tear flesh to resolve conflicts. They warn first, typically with a growl or a grimace. Only if the offending dog does not
head the warning does he receive a physical correction for the offense. The correction is meaningful. It is above the
threshold to often permanently change the dog’s behavior. If the correction “works”, then the dog will heed the
visual or auditory warnings in the future and not require another physical consequence for negative behavior. So,
leaders or higher ranking individuals warn first then always deliver the correction for offending behavior. This is how
our dogs expect us to behave if we want to present ourselves as good, fair leaders.
Although for most of them they will never become an Alpha wolf, all wolves carry the genetic code (to varying
degrees) to become a leader. If a wolf leader is killed, another wolf can and does take its place as leader. If the wolf
leader is only maimed but no longer physically capable of leadership (thus making the pack weak), the leader is killed
by his own pack and another wolf takes the place of Alpha. So, all wolves can be submissive to the pack hierarchy as
well as become a leader, if they are next in line for the position. All wolves recognize the importance of having a
highly competent leader, so much so that when they see weakness in leadership, they do not wait for nature to take
its course, but kill the weak leader, instead.
This subordination to leadership was instrumental in the process of turning wild wolves into domestic dogs.
Because they would submit to a human’s authority, wild wolves could be tamed and then artificially selected to
become partners in the hunt, protection, herding or vermin control duties. Wolves that displayed extraordinarily
good skills at, say, retrieving were bred together to create retrieving breeds. Wolves that displayed exceptional ability
to hunt by sight became the sight hounds. So, man used the available genetic diversity in wild wolves to select for
specific qualities and, in time, created unique “breeds” of domestic dog. Although they are highly related to them (in
behavior and genetic code), dogs are not wolves. There is a very basic difference. Along with selecting FOR desirable
working qualities and heightened ability to submit to human authority, man bred away from the genetic code that
allowed a dog to become a true Alpha. It was important that, in the absence of sound leadership, our domestic dogs
did not feel compelled to kill us and take over our homes. So, today’s dog, while designed to NEED leadership does
not have the genuine ability to become a leader in the absence of leadership. Most of the naughty, conflicted,
aggressive, “dominant”, obsessive compulsive, fearful, anxious, neurotic, negative behaviors that dogs display are
due to a poor or absent leader. Therefore, it is critical that we assume the role of fair, sound, competent leader for
our pet dogs. Without it, they feel insecure and conflicted and often misbehave. We owe it to them to be fair, calm
and assertive leaders.
© 2006 Tammie Rogers - all rights reserved. For permission to reprint email
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