By Sean O’Shea from www.thegooddog.net
One of the biggest challenges I experience in working with clients who are having issues with their dogs is helping them to understand why rules, structure, and leadership are absolutely essential to creating a well-behaved and balanced dog.
Most owners have a very strong opinion on what fulfillment to a dog looks like, and it usually entails loads of affection, loads of freedom, and a suspiciously small amount of rules, structure, and leadership. Inevitably I start sharing analogies in the hope of connecting the dots of what I believe to be fulfilling to dogs in a way that will resonate with their human experience. Anyone who has worked with me has probably heard me use the “policeman driving behind you” analogy, as well as many others.
The other day, while walking the pack, this one popped into my head…I think it’s a good one!
Let’s use the LA riot as an example of what can occur when humans are suddenly faced with a massive leadership/authority void:
As the beginnings of the riot got under way, it wasn’t long before authority (the police presence) almost completely disappeared. As soon as people realized there was no longer a police/authority presence (read: a threat of significant consequences for poor choices), lots of interesting things occurred:
Some people, who realized no one was there to protect them, and that they were highly vulnerable, became highly stressed, nervous, and fearful (many small business owners, for example). These people very quickly became proactive – using guns and firing on anyone that they perceived to be a threat. When one feels vulnerable, and no one is there to protect and advocate for you, the incredible stress and fear will cause you to make decisions you absolutely would not make in a different situation. And the interesting thing is, just prior to the riot, most of these people who lived in close proximity to each other co-existed mostly peacefully. But now, suddenly, with the disappearance of authority, both were attempting, and succeeding at killing each other.
Some other people, once they noticed that the authority presence was gone, decided that all of this chaos was a fantastic opportunity to engage in some uber-exhilarating, adrenaline-spiking fun…like robbing, looting, attacking/beating innocent folks etc. For some folks, when authority is on hiatus, fighting and engaging in violent, unlawful behavior is a fantastic, but obviously toxic release for their frustrations.
Other people simply acted out in obnoxious, petty ways, thumbing their noses at what used to be the rules – not necessarily doing major harm, but definitely getting into some general knuckle-headedness. Why? Because the lack of structure and authority creates both excitement as well as stress…and physically acting out is a nice release and reset for this stress and excitement. It’s a way to balance back out.
The upshot here is that many, many people, influenced by stress, panic, fear, adrenaline, or exhilaration, due the obvious authority vacuum, began to make very different decisions than they would normally have, had an authority presence been, well, present. We like to pretend that we human beings are quite a civilized and sophisticated bunch, but the truth of the matter is, when authority, structure, and rules disappear, the politeness of human society takes a pretty immediate vacation.
Ok, so how exactly does the LA riot tie into the behavior of our furry K9 friends? It ties in in an unbelievably strong parallel:
When dogs perceive a leadership vacuum, here’s what we see – nervous, fearful dogs, who have no leader to advocate for them/protect them, and are keenly aware of the chaotic, unpredictable environment they live in, become highly stressed, anxious and fearful, and eventually will start to do just what their human counterparts above began to do – become proactive in their attempts to keep themselves safe. They begin to make poor choices, and start to view every dog as a potential threat, regardless of the other dog’s intentions. Many will simply attack first and ask questions later.
Other dogs, once they feel the void, will start to bully and attack anything that moves. Why? For some it’s because it’s fun and exhilarating. It offers a major adrenaline dump, and is a great release for their frustrations – and as I mentioned above, a nice reset for the stress of chaos. For others, bullying is the best way to cope with and camouflage their own insecurities, anxieties, and fear. Either way, when there isn’t an authority figure sharing limits, or consequences for poor choices, reactive behavior, whatever it’s origins, simply happens.
And then you have your basic knucklehead dogs – they sense the leadership void, and they’re not necessarily fearful or serious bullies, but once again the stress of no rules and guidance will cause them to become hyper, pushy, destructive, jumpy, and well, a giant pain in the butt…thumbing their noses at your lack of authority, in an attempt to balance out and reset.
With me so far? Ok, so here’s the real kicker: as soon as authority (the police presence/National Guard) was restored to the Los Angeles area, the majority of issues, conflicts, and poor behavior simply disappeared. I mean, quick like. Yeah, there was some residual bad feelings and isolated issues, but once again, with the presence of authority and consequences for poor behavior/choices present, things went from absolute chaos, danger, and mayhem, to relative peace, quiet, and harmony – and if it wasn’t always harmony, it was at least a begrudging tolerance. And guess what, it’s the exact same thing with our dogs.
When I walk into a home where there is absolutely no authority, and chaos reigns supreme, and the dog is engaging in any number of serious behaviors (from attacking other dogs, to attacking people, to nervous/insecure behavior), I know that once I create a relationship of leadership, authority and respect, structure and rules, the dog is going to immediately change his behavior – he will start to relax, become more comfortable, and make better choices, simply due to the presence of a believable authority figure. Remember, leadership creates comfort! When leadership, guidance, structure and rules are present, along with consequences for poor choices, behavior changes…almost instantly!
Remember, both K9’s and humans become massively stressed, fearful, unpredictable, and even dangerous when leadership, rules and authority are on holiday – and that both species will behave in ways we never would when our basic needs for security aren’t provided for.
As Cesar Millan says: “Your job as pack leader is to protect and direct” I think that sums it up pretty efficiently.
In reality, this stuff isn’t rocket science, and is fairly easy to implement. If you’re not sure how to go about it, contact a qualified professional for guidance. (Drop us a line here at The Good Dog, we have a great list of talented balanced trainers across the U.S.) And please, don’t let a riot go down in your living room…be your dog’s authority figure!