Being Your Dog’s Leader

Have you ever considered whether to walk your dog on your left or your right?

My old American Bulldog, Tex, always walked on my right side. I had him do this to avoid passing bicycles, joggers, and other dogs. Any time he would try to cross over to the left side, I gently extended my leash-holding hand out to the right, and gave the command, “don’t cross that trail.”

As we walked past a particular dog at the park and Tex showed interest, I moved the leash slightly and gave him the ‘don’t cross that trail’ command. The dog’s owner then asked me how I trained him to do that, to which I didn’t really have a clear answer.


After we parted ways, I started to ponder how Tex learned to walk on the right side and it all came down to one thing: I was Tex’s leader. There had been no “don’t cross the trail” training sessions. I did not teach him to not cross the trail like I had taught him to sit, get down and stay. Those skills were accomplished in dog training sessions using treats and spoken commands in a repetitive way. The command for Tex not to cross the trail was on-the-job training, but it became possible because I am his leader.  It was behavior modification that accomplished this.

People come to us with a variety of dog behavior issues, and they ask our help to bring about the behavior they want to see out of their dog. Different training techniques are required for different situations, but one thing stays constant: leadership.

How do I stop my dog from barking? Be the leader.

How do I stop my dog from pulling on the leash? Be the leader.

The basic commands of sit, stay and down can be accomplished by formal dog training and rewards. They learn pretty quickly that if they perform a certain trick, they will be rewarded with a tasty treat. But to change unwanted behavior or to teach a dog more abstract skills, you must be unquestionably the dog’s leader and modify their behavior over time.

In the dog world, there are only two positions: leader and follower. If you are not one, you are the other. And with almost every dog behavior problem I see, the problem is that the dog does not recognize the owner as a leader. This can be because of the youth and inexperience of the dog, or it can just be a learned behavior of not taking the owner seriously.

So how do we become our dog’s leader? It begins when the alarm clock rings in the morning.  Canines in the wild never stop posturing and they never allow a breach of etiquette. Positive tactics like “No Free Lunch” and the controlling of food put us in position to lead. You can easily spot a dog who has a strong, positive leader. They are a pair that seem to have a ‘vibe’ going on… almost like the dog can read the owner’s mind! The truth is the dog has learned to pay close attention to his or her leader. They have grown accustomed to the leader’s mannerisms because doing so is fun and rewarding.

Exercises like “watch me” and “leave it” focus the dog on the owner.  Also, the importance of a fun leashed walk cannot be overstated.  Short, fun, and high energy training sessions every day teach the dog that it is a GREAT thing to follow the owner’s lead.

No matter how domesticated your dog, they still react with instincts.  We, as owners, need to learn the skills to tap into those canine pack instincts to bring about the behaviors we want.

The good news is that it is not impossible to be a dog’s leader. In fact, most dogs want us to lead.  This frees the dog up to just be a dog and to exist in the world in a carefree state.  They will relax knowing that you are there to handle whatever situation comes up.

So, find the skills you need to become your dog’s pack leader and use them every day.  Do not practice them; use them.  You will see your dog look to you for guidance and reassurance in every situation.