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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Leadership Starts in Your Mind


Nancy was having trouble with her two Malamute mixes bolting through the chain-link fence gate that separated their fenced yard from the rest of the yard. When Nancy wanted to take one or both dogs out for a walk, they tended to charge right past her into the driveway. On more than one occasion, they'd seen deer and taken off through the woods, ignoring her calls to come back.

When I visited her house to help her with the situation, I could see the trepidation in her body language. She gingerly approached the gate and unlatched it. "Stay back. No....get back. Stay...stay..." she told the dogs, although neither one was listening because their energy and focus were already on getting out the gate and nothing else.

Her body language and timidity in her voice were already telling the dogs that she was not a leader...that they didn't have to pay attention to her. She was, in their eyes, not worthy of their time or interest at that point. Only one thing mattered: getting free!

After five minutes of work on strengthening her body language so that she would emit CONFIDENCE, Nancy had the dogs' respect. Basically, she opened the door and authoritatively walked into the pen as if she owned it...which she, in fact, did! If a dog blocked her path, she walked right into the dog, not around it. She made the dogs yield to her. She didn't have to yell...in fact, she did better when she said NOTHING. Suddenly the dogs found her much more interesting and compelling than the world outside their pen. It was as if a new, bigger, smarter dog had just entered the pack to take charge and take care of them.

Most of the time, dog owners are in a reactive mode. They wait until the situation with their dogs is already out of hand, and then they try to fix the problem by yelling a command in a shrill voice, or by waving their hands or swatting toward the dog. This peaks-and-valleys type of "discipline" is confusing to dogs, who tend to eventually tune it out. They're looking for stability in their leaders, not histrionics.

Like so many folks, Nancy had been struggling just to get leashes on her dogs and get them outside the gate without having them get away from her. Once outside the gate, with the dogs pulling her arms out of her sockets, she would try to regain control. It didn't work. The dogs were physically stronger than she was, and they had a head start on the situation. But when Nancy learned to ENTER the pen in a "leadership" frame of mind and body, the dogs were like putty in her hands. She TOOK control before the dogs got OUT of control. She MAINTAINED control as they exited the pen, and as they began their walk together.

Being your dog's "leader" is something you must mentally practice 24 hours a day, until you FEEL like a leader all the time. What the mind can imagine, the body can accomplish. Even when you're not with your dog, "see" yourself in charge. Mentally rehearse various scenarios with your dogs, in which you are the benevolent leader. When you begin to truly see yourself as a leader, your dog will see you that way as well. The relationship between you and your dog will deepen and strengthen, since you are now adding a new and wonderful element of STABILITY to their lives.
Cesar Milan, "The Dog Whisperer," says, "Calm-assertive leadership is the only leadership that works in the animal world. In our own world, human beings have followed leaders who have coerced us, bullied us, acted aggressive toward us, and filled us with fear in order to control us. But even among humans, research has shown that calm-assertive leadership--primal leadership--is really a better way to go." [From Be the Pack Leader.]

"Unfortunately, dominance seems to have become a dirty word in the United States...The fact is, dominance is a natural phenomenon that cuts across social species. Mother Nature invented it to help organize animals into orderly social groups, and the ensure their survival." (Cesar Milan)

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