Saturday, June 19, 2010

A question of leadership

I thought I might post some of the stuff that gets bandied about in e-mail discussions because it's always interesting to get other perspectives than just one or two. :) So the first one was a question about how does one explain to a new owner how to teach their dog to take the cues from the owner - what training is necessary, what is effective to teach a dog like an Australian Shepherd who may have a reserved temperament and some guardian instincts to respond appropriately.

My thought is leadership isn't a training technique or set of exercises to teach so much as a way of living with dogs and relating to them which also incorporates training. A dog that is awake and breathing is watching and learning at all times, not just when we decide we're training.

So if you want to be a good leader, you must first be someone worth following. Some traits I'd associate with a good leader might be confident, sound in judgement and decisive but also things like fair, clear, consistent, trustworthy, flexible, responsible, approaches problems with thoughtful consideration and an ability to listen and consider other viewpoints. Someone with "people skills" ie they can read and respond to those around them, play up their strengths, motivate, focus them and are savvy at diffusing problems before they become problems. If there's a external problem, they take responsibility for it and will go back their people up if need be so they are reliable also. Much of this translates well to dogs. These can mostly be learned but is a more difficult and longer process because it means we must be aware of our own ways of behaving to change them and confront the basic assumptions and perceptions that create them.

I do use various training techniques of course. I start obedience, body handling, trust games and a conditioned relaxer from day one. There are games I play which would constitute training (in that they educate) but are just part of life vs. sessions set aside to train. With dogs with problems additional counter-conditioning, desensitizing, teaching alternative behaviours etc is done as appropriate to the individuals needs. Learning to do this is easier as they're just mechanical skills really, assuming you can read the dog and are willing to listen to it's feedback.

Training alone falls short though. It covers a few minutes a day in a constructed situation. While what they learn in it (sit, down, stay, come) IS undoubtedly valuable if the dog experiences 5-10 minutes a day training on one task but an owner who is inconsistent, unreliable or unpredictable in the dogs view the other 1400 some odd minutes a day you cannot expect it to be effective, especially in an intense moment when it counts most. If you want the dog to defer to your judgement or stand down where it's perceiving a threat, you need to have proved yourself to have consistently sound, reliable judgement and an ability to deal with problems in your dogs eyes with the little things that happen every day. Otherwise why on earth should the dog trust your judgement when it's own perceptions and senses are telling it there is a real threat and it's owner hasn't handled it?

To me this is also why a good temperament is a fundamentally sound and resilient temperament with strong nerves and Aussie's in particular their guardian nature is based in being level-headed, intelligent and uncannily discerning and able to moderate their responses to the situation. A dog that can moderate it's response is in control of itself which in turn eliminates dogs whose responses are based in fear or anxiety. It may still misinterpret what is a threat but it's in control enough that it is (neurologically) able to defer.

I also think we don't always appreciate what a big ask it is to ask our dogs to defer to us. It takes a lot not to just react based on what your senses are telling you is dangerous, even if the other person may know something you don't. Contrastingly, if we're wise we also trust our dogs and consider what they're telling us to see if it's truly in error or if they're picking up something we're not.

I do expect my dogs to defer but I also have a very good deal with my dogs - if I never put them in a situation where they'll need to bite to defend themselves and they won't. In my mind, I as an owner must be my dogs first advocate in a world where we will run across other dogs and people who may be well intentioned but ignorant as well as rude, obnoxious idiots.

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