As humans, we don't like being told what to do. Sure, we will readily follow when it is par for the course (such as at work), or, of course, when we agree with the direction we are being led. But the last thing we want is to have someone telling us what to do, often and unnecessarily- even if the orders essentially make sense. Micromanaged workplaces, for instance, are likely to be filled with frustrated, low morale employees.
Dogs, however, are wired to be told what to do, and crave leadership, not the ability to make choices. The recognize their human pack members as bigger, smarter, and more powerful than themselves (we provide food, shelter and safety with what must seem nearly magical skill- even the best canine pack leader can’t go and buy a bag of kibble), and readily give us pack leader status. But often, dog owners’ human desires for personal independence are incorrectly transposed to their furry family members, on the assumption that ‘If I don’t like being told what to do, certainly my dog doesn’t, either’. This tension between human and canine attitudes toward authority can be the source of many dog behavior issues, as compassionate dog owners mistakenly worry about giving their furry charges freedom that they not only don't want, but see as evidence of living in a poorly led, and therefore unsafe, pack.
Note that consistent, firm leadership does not in any way mean arbitrary, cruel, or physically violent leadership. Dogs see bad leadership, no matter how properly (to their mind) firm, as signs their leader shouldn't be leading, and will display distress (and resulting issues) just as readily as when leadership is completely missing. The role of the pack leader in the wild is to tell the rest of the pack what to do in all matters that relate to pack survival- hunting, protection, pack interaction, and breeding primacy. They don't arbitrarily impose rules on their underlings in areas that don't matter- except perhaps if the pack member in question is showing signs of not following orders related to important tasks. Even then, such 'I'm going to remind you who's in charge, because you are acting like you don't get it' instances of discipline are largely peaceful and don't involve risk of real physical harm to the pack member being told to get with the program. For instance, pack leaders will occasionally tightly control the movement of such an unruly pack member, making them stay in one location for an extended period, regardless of what they may prefer to do, communicating their demands non-violently, but firmly, using body language and sound (growls, for instance) to impose their will.
Why do dogs act like eager little soldiers, itching to follow commands, happy to subsume their individual desires to those higher in pack status? Quite simply, to dogs, a strict, tight social hierarchy, controlled by an extremely confident, consistent leader, equals safety. Wild dogs (and by extension, their domestic brethren) have evolved a strong, strict social structure for one reason- it keeps them alive. The pack as a collective is powerful, able to hunt much larger prey with consistent success. It also presents a strong defense through a united front, causing much larger predators easily capable of eliminating an individual pack member to not only think twice, but usually treat even an individual dog as a potential danger to be avoided, on the assumption that the pack, which is often able as a group to turn the tables and kill the larger predator, is ready to come to the defense. In these life and death struggles, there is no room for individuals to make their own decisions. The canine hunting style, usually dependent on doggie endurance to run their prey to the point of collapse, doesn't work without pack cooperation. While a few pack members hound the prey closely, literally nipping at its heels, others save energy by pursuing at a greater distance, ready to take over the job of harrying the prey animal as those leading the chase tire. Collective defense also doesn't work if individuals react to a threat by running away and preserving themselves. The pack needs to defend by meeting the threat as one many headed organism capable of not only defending itself against even large, dangerous opponents, but of possibly turning the tables on an overly aggressive predator.
So how do humans show leadership to their furry followers, resulting in relaxed, secure feeling dogs much less likely to engage in negative behaviors? Here are two approaches that will give your little furry soldier a sense that you are clearly and confidently in charge, and that they don't need to fret over instinctual fears that there is no captain steering the pack ship.
To a dog, a leader that accepts 75-80% adherence to orders is no leader at all. In some areas, there should be no flexibility on your part in terms of rule following, especially if the dog in question is new to you and you are developing your relationship, or if there is a history of consistently ignoring your commands. Of course, there is a large complicating factor here in that 'disobedience' is often actually miscommunication- the dog would eagerly do what you want them to, but they simply don't understand what you're trying to tell them to do. For instance, I have a mostly wonderfully trained young charge in 5-month-old Fred (or Muttman Jr.). He is completely housetrained and has been so for several months, is rock solid in his sit/stay commands, is unfailingly respectful in terms of not using his teeth on me in any circumstance, and quickly learned tricks such as shake and 'quiet'. In terms of heeling, though, he is a marginal disaster- pulling, switching sides, and generally not following the model of his furry siblings, who heel well. This is not his fault- it is clear from his enthusiastic adoption of other rules that I simply haven't gotten the point across to him yet on what he is supposed to do when I say 'heel'. In fact, it is my problem, as I seem to struggle to find time to work with him individually- with several hours of one-on-one work (which will happen sooner or later), I am certain he will be heeling like a champ.
So, the best areas to establish consistency are the straightforward, obvious commands, where confusion on what you’re asking for is unlikely. Sit and stay, for instance, are not particularly ambiguous- when your furry person sits on command, they sit on command- saying ‘sit’ is followed by butt hitting floor. Stay is also clear- once your dog gets that you want them to stay where they are when you give the command, there is no question whether the command is being fulfilled. Repetition is your friend with these simple commands, and will nail these ideas down quickly and firmly. Once your pup gets the picture and does it right, repeat, with enthusiastic praise or a reward to clearly indicate that they are doing exactly what you want. Ideas like being gentle when taking treats are also easy to impart consistently- if they get nippy, no treat for them, as well as a firm 'no' to further communicate what they are doing wrong.
And most importantly, don't reward when there is a fail, ever. You may think 'oh, well, my wonderful furry person tried' and reward a poor effort- your dog will read this as 'ok, I thought my human wanted me to do something, but clearly all I have to do is look cute/hungry/sad, and they will give me a treat'. And not only will it destroy any progress made, it will plant the seeds of 'Ok, is there anybody in charge around here? Do I need to worry that poor leadership means I am in danger?' thoughts, leading to all kinds of possible bad behavior, as the dog tries to assume the vacated role of leader, because in the pack model, someone has to be in charge.
Make them work for it
In the wild dog world, nothing important is free. When, for instance, a kill is made, the leaders eat first- other pack members eat when the alphas signal it is allowed. Protocols like this reinforce pack relationships, specifically that the vitally important leaders are firmly and unequivocally in charge, and are fulfilling their task to keep the pack machine running smoothly and with minimal internal strife.
The easiest way to enforce this 'you gotta work to eat' idea, and constantly reinforce that you are in fully in charge and capably managing their pack, is at doggie meal time. Every time you deliver a meal (and this is a good argument against free-feeding, beyond that it tends to result in overweight dogs that cannot be motivated by food because they are already stuffed), make your furry charges do some kind of work. The logical task is to require that they sit and stay before being released to eat- it also makes for more easily managed mealtimes. This not only mimics deeply engrained canid behavior, where the pack leaders unequivocally control who eats when, it also highlights of one of our most impressive abilities to the furry mind- the ability to magically produce tasty food consistently and in quantity. By being asked to follow a simple command before being given a tummy full of food, you reinforce that you're fully in charge as well as being a super talented hunter who can produce plenty of food on command. And therefore, naturally the revered leader beloved by your furry followers.
For your dog’s (or dogs’) sake, be their leader. They would much prefer to take orders, than live in what they see as a chaotic, and dangerous, world, where the biggest, most talented members of their pack inexplicably refuse to do their natural duty and take charge.
(© Paul Randall, 2017)