"Properly trained, man can be a dog's best friend" ~ Corey Ford
Words are amazing. They can be funny, harsh, soft, delicate, dishonest, deceptive. They can create clarity, doubt, uncertainty, trust, substance. Words are our main choice of communication. Words are powerful. They can create a myth, a tradition that will go on for years, passed through generations as something that is true. Even if the original definition of those words have been long lost or proven inaccurate, we often hang on to them as a safety blanket, which we refuse to give up on. Which leads me to today's topic of teacher versus leader.
In the dog training world we often hear the word "leader", often referring to how the handler must be in their relationship with their dog: "You need to be a firm pack leader", "You need to establish your leadership and dominance", " You need to be a kind, yet assertive leader" or referring to training exercises as "leadership exercises". I don't , or should I say, didn't use to have an issue with the word "leader". This simple word is by no means a bad word, but it is how some people justify their handling of their dogs based on their definition of the word "leader", that now makes me automatically cringe every time I hear it. When a book, an article or a person uses the word "leader", my red flag instantly rises up and hits me on the head, which is always my cue to dig deeper to find the actual definition of the training philosophy and training methods discussed, before I can either approve or disagree with how the word was used. Your perception of this simple, yet powerful word is what lays the ground for your relationship with your dog and often defines the type of training you will provide.
You see, when we start labelling ourselves as leaders, we have to be careful what labels we then assign our dogs and the expectations that comes along with it. As a leader do you expect your dog to do whatever you say , just because you are the leader? As a leader, is there any room for errors in your household? If your dog is not listening, does that mean you need to be more firm in your leadership?
Your attitude and perception of just one word, will determine how you will approach your relationship with your dog and how you will overcome any issues down the road. That is how powerful one word can be.
Another great example of why we need to be careful with our words, are peoples (and even trainers) tendency to label dogs, that are not listening to their owners, with words, such as "dominant, lazy, stubborn, independent". When I hear a dog referred to with a negative label as the ones just mentioned, my red flag rises once more and slaps me hard! First of all, the word gives me absolute no information about the dog and , more importantly, it implies that it is all THE DOGS FAULT! These negative words indicates a conflict, owner versus dog, whereas if we were to label our dogs with words like "cautious, sensitive, exuberant, serious, intense, easily distracted", it gives me better information on how to approach a training sessions on the dog's terms to help set the team up for success together. Again, just words, but take a second and think about which words help create an approach and attitude you think is more likely to succeed?
So even though many might consider me a leader among my dogs, since I am the one setting the rules and they need to follow the rules, I also understand the importance of actually teaching my dogs what the rules are and how to set them up for success by always keeping my expectations fair. This is why I have decided that I like the word "teacher" a lot better than "leader". The word "teacher" implies a person trying to teach their student a new skill through motivated interactions. If the teacher does not succeed, it is not by default the students fault! No, Instead the teacher is willing to look for a different approach to help make the student successful. The teacher is taking the responsibility on his/her shoulders to try and find new ways teaching a specific behavior/skill/topic, taking into consideration the environment such as distractions , the amount of pressure applied, whether his student is tired, bored, engaged. Asking questions like "was my communication clear and easy to understand ?" , "how can I improve?", all with the goal to create strong communication skills that is helpful for the student.
As a trainer, it is never my ultimate goal to teach a dog to sit, lay down, stay on command. No, my goal is to make my students become teachers, whose first reaction when the dog "fails" , are to ask themselves, "How was my communication? Did something in the environment distract my dog? Where can I improve?".
When dog owners and handlers get this concept, there are no limits to what they can teach their dog(s), because they are building on the strongest foundation possible. A foundation where mistakes are allowed, teamwork is focus, and trust and confidence are additional benefits.
Be the teacher you wanted to have in school. The teacher that would encourage and motivate you, even when you failed. Be that teacher for your dog and I bet you will be surprised, how much your dog will actually teach you!
As a dog trainer and animal lover, my wish is to help educate the owners, so they can have a harmonious relationship with the animal(s) in their lives. A relationship based on knowledge, trust and respect.