Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

Julie Forbes is an expert in dog behavior and training, and owns the company Sensitive Dog, where she offers private lessons to people in Seattle.Julie Forbes is an expert in dog behavior and training, and owns the company Sensitive Dog, where she offers private lessons to people in Seattle.

The conversation of working and living with dogs is one that often includes establishing boundaries and control, as well as motivation and friendship.

It is a broad conversation of leadership.

I question the established beliefs of what leadership means to our dogs. Leadership ideals tend to fall back on the “alpha” model, and I am regularly asked to coach people on how to successfully establish oneself as alpha.

My clients tell me, “I know I should be the alpha,” or ask me, “How do I establish dominance with my dog?”

Clients often share with me in our first meetings, “I try not to let my dog go through doorways first” or, “I know we are supposed to eat our meals first, but it’s hard to do with the family, so we haven’t been very good at that.” One of my favorites is when I’m meeting in someone’s house and the dog hops up on the couch and their owner looks sheepishly at me and asks, “Is this bad?” They expect me to tell them that they need to keep their dog off the couch in order to establish leadership. I reply by asking them if they have any issues with aggression with their dog around the couch, for example does the dog growl at them if they try to sit on the couch next to them or move them off the couch. If they say “no,” then it’s generally not a problem!

These specific ideas of going through doorways first, eating meals first and not letting the dog on the couch are examples of the understanding that a lot of people have of what leadership means to dogs. It is such a narrow and disconnected view, and it really doesn’t give dogs much credit for their understanding and awareness of context, and relationship dynamics.

These alpha models were taken from what we know about how wolves function as a pack in the wild. Of course there is value in understanding the behavior of dogs’ ancestors, but dogs are: 1. Not wolves and 2. Not living in the wild. Social structures don’t have to be so rigid with our dogs, because survival does not literally depend on them, and hasn’t for thousands of years. An exception would be if your dog is so severely aggressive toward you that your safety does depend on rigid structure.  This is rarely the case, and certainly beyond the scope of this article. If you live with a dog like this, you need to work with a professional, in person. No exceptions.

Being a leader with your dog means you are in a position of power; you are an authority. I can’t think of any examples where the leader is not the authority. That is fundamentally the role. You are directing those who follow you. This requires a certain quality of presence.

Miriam-Webster defines “authority” as “the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.”

It may seem that I am stating the obvious, but authority is not just obtained for no reason. At least not with non-human animals! It is also certainly more complex than going through the doorway first or eating first. You have to generate a certain quality of presence.

Think of an authority figure in your life. Who do you take direction from? Who do you work for? What gives them the right to direct you and tell you what to do? What motivates you to follow them? More importantly, who gives them the right to tell you what to do?

There are a lot of possible answers to this question, I suppose. This is a big topic.

“Who gives a person the right to tell you what to do and expect you to do it?” My answer is: YOU DO. You are the one who ultimately gives a leader their power because you agree to follow their lead. You are compliant.

Think about how leaders in your own life behave. How do they interact with you? What is it about that authority figure that has you do what they ask of you? How do they motivate you to work for them? How would you describe their presence? Do you enjoy their leadership? How do you feel when you are asked to do something? Do you give them your best work?

Authority asks for compliance. Dictionary.com defines “comply” as: “1. to act or be in accordance with wishes, requests, demands, requirements, conditions, etc.; agree (sometimes followed by with): They asked him to leave and he complied. She has complied with the requirements.”

Seeking compliance rather than blind submission means leading from a more egalitarian perspective. Valuing and respecting the will and desires of the ones you are leading is inspiring to those who follow you. Leading in a way that inspires productivity, rather than demands it, is not only pleasant, but is sustainable.

When starting to talk with my female clients about how to establish a leadership position with their dog, I am sometimes met with hesitation. My clients tend to think that this means they have to be hard/harsh toward their dog – something they are not comfortable with, nor interested in doing.

Because leadership structures for working with dogs (and corporate America, institutionalized religion and politics) are fundamentally masculine models developed and established by men; I question if the answer to teaching women how to establish and maintain a leadership position with their dog (or their employees), is to teach them how to lead like men? I doubt it.

What are some fundamental leadership styles and philosophies that bring in feminine qualities? In a culture where men are equated with masculinity and women are equated with femininity – aren’t we robbing both sexes of the beauty of balance between both?

Most women (and I would assert men, too) respond well to a balanced style of leadership that focuses on relationship and connection, not just hierarchy and intimidation.

I want dogs, and the people who are working with them, to feel good and be present to love and support. It is also important that dogs experience an appropriately high expectation of their performance and clear boundaries.

The word “dominant” has such a negative connotation. Guess what – so does the word “bitch,” which is a double-unfairness to women.  If you are a powerful woman, you are easily labeled a bitch, which means you are unlikeable, cold, and not capable of being soft, compassionate and loving.  It is not a compliment to be called a bitch.

What a crock!

I believe women can be powerful and assertive and that they don’t have to be “cold bitches” in doing so. Men are expected to be assertive, and are raised and praised for exhibiting leadership qualities. Girls are labeled “bossy” or are told they aren’t being “ladylike” if they have a strong presence.

However, when you see a woman correcting a child or being in control of her children, she isn’t labeled a bitch. She’s being a MOM. Motherhood is a socially acceptable role for women. When the same woman asserts herself with her friends or co-workers, or with men, then she has to be careful; otherwise people won’t like her… because now she’s a bitch.

Let’s open a conversation about leadership and dogs that includes clear boundaries and authority, along with partnership, empathy, respect, love and fun. A powerful female doesn’t have to be unpleasant in order to hold a position of authority – and neither should you. Balance is key.

In contrast to the old, hierarchical pyramid structure of management, author Sally Helgesen describes a different model developed by women in her bookThe Female Advantage – Women’s Ways of Leadership.

In the old pyramid structure, the place with the highest power is alone at the top.  The single top point expands in population size as you move down to the base. The largest number of people is at the bottom level of the pyramid. In order for the person at the top to maintain that position, they must keep everyone else below them.

Helgesen describes a different model that looks more like a spider web. Think of the center spot as being the place of most powerful influence, and circles around that point get bigger and bigger, the further out you get from the center, representing larger populations. Then imagine lines that reach out from the center, connecting all the circles, like a web.

This contrast in leadership structure represents a fundamental, general difference in men and women, and in the masculine and the feminine. Masculine thinking is linear, like a ladder, and can be very effective in certain settings. The feminine being is all encompassing, like a web. There is simply no top and no bottom. Top and bottom don’t exist in the feminine web model. Masculine leadership wants to be at the top, feminine leadership wants to be in the middle of everything.

In the web model, instead of reaching down, we can reach out in all directions.  Interesting, too, is that in the web model, the stronger everyone is in the web, the stronger the one in the center is, rather than the strength of others being a threat to the one at the top of a pyramid.

What can happen to those who are drawn more naturally to a feminine “web” model for leadership is: if they don’t generate themselves powerfully enough, they get swallowed up and lose themselves. This happens when people, commonly women, overly nurture and don’t balance the strong instinct to nurture with clear boundaries. This happens in family dynamics and dogs are part of the family, too.

Motivate your dog to listen to you by working with them to be confident decision makers that feel good about the work they do, while being clear who is at the center of everything and, therefore, the one in the leadership position. Here, we empower others while expanding our own power.

The web model, when done well, creates less conflict, because everyone has space to be the best version of themselves. If one person at the top keeps trying to hold everyone down, tension will only build among the ranks and at some point, it will spill over into conflict, and someone will try to overthrow the leader, or just leave all together.

I find my clients, mostly women, more readily embrace this redefined model of leadership with their dogs. They feel relieved that they don’t have to have a militant relationship with their dog and also are now able to practice generating a more powerful presence in a safe context: their relationship with their dog. Sometimes this stronger presence, now established with the dog, makes its way into other areas of her life. Empowering women with their dogs, and in their lives, is one of the most rewarding outcomes of the work I do. It is an honor.

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Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

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Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

Woman’s Best Friend: Clarifying Ideas of Leadership and Authority with Your Dog

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