Leadership problem is a term widely used withing trainers, owners and enthusiasts. While there is certain method to madness so to speak, assuming dogs see their human as a leader is false and proven wrong in multiple studies. But what is human to the dogs, then?
What exactly is hierarchy, then? How does it work?
Hierarchy within dogs
Hierachy within dogs in general is way more complicated that was assumed earlier. Early assumtpions considering hierarchy are based on the behavior of caged wolves, and in closed spaces aggression is prone to increase as the tension grows. Because the resources are limited and tension levels are high, strong dominant animals behave aggressive while less dominant, submissive animals show increased and exaggerated amount of submissive signals, trying to survive in the situation.
When wild wolves were studied, it was revealed that the leading pair of wolves behaved far less aggressive towards their subordinates, and that the leaders changed their hierarchy based on the task at hand. It was also noticed that low rank wolves did, as a matter of fact, stand up for those higher in rank when they had food and their pack members tried to snatch it. This mechanism is essential for any animal that wants to stay alive.
Dogs, according to some new studies, have more stiff hierarchy than wolves, meaning dominant animals tend to be dominant in most situations, while submissive animals are submissive and follow their lead. However, dominance and high rank don't mean aggression and aggressive leaders are seen less trustworthy. Dogs that would be submissive in any other situation might be aggressive and challenge their leader, if their leader has not earned their respect.
In my own pack this is clearly seen with my oldest dog Mr. Arthritis and my second oldest dog Mr. Hyperactivity. Mr. Arthritis is skittish and nervous, and no matter Mr. Hyperactivity is naturally very submissive and kind, boys fought a lot and would still do if kept in the same room. This is because no matter Mr. Arthritis is oldest, dominant and prone to try to lead other dogs, he is not kind. He is aggressive and he can't be trusted. Therefore even the most submissive of dogs stands up against him. He does not deserve his status, so he is challenged. This is something to remember specially when one has dogs that fight. It isn't always the younger one trying to climb up the ladder and dominate more resources. It can also be that the previous leader is seen unstable and therefore the pack tries to dismiss of him/her.
To understand hierarchy is to understand where it is based on. The problem with old leadership theory is that it assumes dogs are born with a mysterious ”will to lead”. This is not true. Dogs are born with the same basic instinct to survive as any animal in the world, including us humans. To understand why some animals act ”like leaders” and try to control others is to understand what benefits this behavior has. Why ”leading” is beneficial for the individual, and why some individuals try to ”lead” more than others?
The benefits of leading are often having more resources and spreading genes in the form of getting to mate. In social species, however, specially in species that usually live with their close relatives, the survival of their pack means survival of their own genes, whether or not they are the ones reproducing. This is why wolves, and dogs, have false pregnancies, for example. Their ability to produce milk and their will to care for puppies that are not their own benefits their family unit. Their own genes.
While getting to mate is considered to be a resource, food is far more important for an individual (tell this to intact male dogs living in same household with bitches in their heat). Dogs also find toys as a resource, though this behavior is far less prominent in old breeds that are still closer to their wild cousins.
What is the connection with leadership and resources, then? Well, leaders get more things. Being dominant, meaning being more active in claiming resources and less active in giving a damn about what others say about it, is being greedy. Dominant dogs want more than their submissive counterparts. It is not clear what exactly causes the individual to be dominant and what makes it submissive, but the difference is there. The varying amount of dominance is what causes the hierarchy. Leader dogs are always more dominant dogs. They want more, and they demand others to respect that. To understand this is the key when trying to understand how leadership works; leaders have resources. Dogs don't want to dominate just because of utter will to become supreme world leaders. They are simply greedy with resources. Submissive dogs are not as greedy. They submit, being comfortable with less. They lack the will to get more than what they need, and considering they have all they need, they simply choose to give up to their more dominant companions. This lessens the tension in the pack.
There is no will to dominate persons or individuals. Leading dogs don't go around kicking their subordinates just because they are leaders. They claim resources. A pack consists of different levels of dominance. No matter dogs as social creatures also have emotional lives and they form friendships and likes and dislikes, the basics of pack hierarchy is based on different levels of dominance over resources.
This is only to make it simple to understand. I am not talking about emotions here nor the relationships dogs form with each other or with their people. As social animals they are able to feel affection, they form friendships and they can even risk their own life, and their resources, to save what is dear to them. We only talked about hierarchy, now, and how and why it is formed.
Where do we people stand, then? If hierarchy is based on dominance over resources, what does it mean to ”be a leader to your dog”?
Dogs with people
Dog as a species has developed ways to communicatre specifically with people, and they are born with natural talent of reading our gestures. This was proven in a test with wolf puppy and pet dog puppy. While puppies of wolves, no matter if they were raised with people from the very beginning, were eager to solve problems themselves and search food based on the scent, dog puppies were prone to follow where the human pointed, and they relied on their sense of smell after that in case the direction pointed to them was wrong. Dogs are also reported by scientists to react to expressions of people, and they were able to connect smile with positive things no matter showing teeth is often a sign of distress and/or aggression within dogs.
All described above is based on the fact dogs have been living with us for quite some time. It is beneficial to them. Dogs have evolved to work with us because this means they benefit from it as a species and as individuals. We are not ”part of their pack” as dogs. We are part of their pack as people. Dogs understand we are not dogs, and they don't treat us like they treat other dogs. This also busts the myth of you as a human being having to act like a dominant dog, growling over your piece of meat. There is no real need to ”bump up your dominant status” by performing acts that boost your ego. Walking from the door first, eating first, forbidding dogs from coming to your bed. Dogs don't see this as ”leadership”. You can of course teach your dog all that if it makes your life easier, but in no way does that make you more leader. You are not part of their pack as a dog, so you are not in their pack hierarchy as one either.
In a way, this makes things hard. If you are not seen as a dog, how can you ever be an authority to your dogs? Well, in a way you can't. Since you are not a dog and therefore you are not part of their hierarchy, you are never seen as ”the alpha dog”. You can, however, cheat a little bit. You can claim your place as the most respected one by controlling what those greedy, opportunistic dogs want the most; precious resources.
By controlling the resources you control a dog, whether or not it is dominant or submissive. When a dog learns doing a favor to you means getting some resource it wants, it will eventually start to live up to your will. The same happens with submissive dogs; they get extra resources by doing what you say. Your leadership over your dogs is based on benefit. Make yourself beneficial for your dogs.
Obviously, dogs as social creatures also understand the basics of respect. Demand respect. Your resources are yours, and you give them when you feel like it. Dog can't just come and take it. There are also some things your dog can't do, and you must be persistent when you teach it to avoid this behavior. Our relationship with our dogs is more than just ”I scratch your back if you scratch mine”, but it is important to understand why dogs try their luck as teens or why they are disobedient sometimes. They are not trying to climb over you and be leacers because they just want to. They simply want more resources, and when you control those resources and make yourself beneficial for your dogs, they are far more likely to willingly follow your instructions.
There is no leadership problem, because you are not a dog and your dogs don't see you as one. If your dogs don't respect you, in most cases you are not beneficial to them, meaning doing what you say gives nothing to them, they are afraid of you (they may do what you say but they do it without joy, just to avoid punishment) or they simply don't know what you ask of them. Make sure your dog knows what you expect from it, make sure it is praised when it does the right thing, and make sure it knows you are the main source of all good and fun, and it will do what you want it to do.