The art of canine – and human – leadership

What causes a dog to view his an owner as a leader? And can this apply to politics as well?

I've been thinking a lot about political leadership lately. I guess most of us have. It's hard to know what qualities we will need in a leader to face the unknown with us in our changing world. I often think about it while I'm walking in the woods.

It's a fine day at the Moose Lake State Park in northeastern Minnesota. I am walking behind my golden retriever with six feet of leash between us. I call him Tyler. I named him when he was 3 months old. As soon as he was old enough to walk on the leash, we were on the way to becoming very good friends.

We've been walking together for five years now, three or four miles a day, with me plodding along behind the dog, whispering commands or tugging lightly on the leash to signal a stop or a change of course.

I'm in charge of the social side of our treks. I say hi to passers-by, read park regulations, avoid other dogs, and find suitable drinking water. Tyler runs the sensory department. If there's trouble on the wind, or a skunk is in a log, he's aware of it with hackles up and tail wagging long before my inferior sense of smell or hearing detects a threat. When Tyler slows down, I slow down. We take turns at the helm; he's on the alert when we cross the otter trail, and I take charge when we meet a hiker.

I was thinking about this the other day when I met a man and his German shepherd on the trail. They were a beautiful pair. He whispered commands, and the dog snapped to it. The animal was on a leash, of course, but at the man's heels, not out ahead breaking trail and sniffing the wind like Tyler.

When I complimented the training, the man said that he was simply reminding the dog that the human was the boss. "In nature," he said, "the alpha male goes first – always." Tyler and the shepherd were sitting. Tyler was looking at the lake, sniffing the wind. The shepherd was watching his master, his eyes glued to the man's face.

It was quite a sight. The animal had certainly been rigorously trained.

Noticing that I was impressed, the fellow reminded me that domestic dogs once socialized in packs and that our animals are still most comfortable – and probably happiest – when they are served by strong leadership. Dogs, he said, want to be ruled by an alpha figure and are troubled when their owners try to turn them into four-legged humans.

The suggestion is popular these days: A dog that is raised in a household of a slack or uninformed pet owner becomes uncomfortable with its ill-defined role and may become an antisocial animal.

I can see some truth in that idea. However, as we learn more about animal behavior and our relationship with pets becomes less instinctive, we have to be careful not to spend less time with our dogs. We can learn a lot from the way they behave with us.

Tyler accepts my leadership. I am his pack leader, for example, because, for one thing, I know how to operate the tool that opens a can of dog food. I can predict rain, darkness, and dawn. Tyler stands in awe of my incomprehensible ability to whisk us from one state park to another at 70 miles an hour. I can make a snowshoe trail that he can walk on when the snow's deep, and he can depend on me to find someplace warm and dry at the end of a cold, wet day in the woods. I can remove burrs and can also explain the aurora borealis, for which he respects me, I think, more for my enthusiasm than the actual knowledge.

And I can make fire. Some nights while we sit around our campfire, I watch my dog staring into the flames, his eyes following rising embers into the deep, black sky where they disappear. When the moon rises above the horizon, Tyler growls, and his eyes show fear. He will come over and sit with me because I am not afraid of the moon, nor do I fear fire – or the whistling wind, for that matter.

I think the dog experts are probably correct when they say that we humans need to bring some leadership into our relationship with canine friends, but we also need to remember that these animals have the ability to sense the world around them in ways that we still don't understand.

Dogs have checked us out and have been living with us for about 15,000 years according to archeologists, and they seem to be pleased to be in our company. I think they know a leader when they see one, and it probably has less to do with a collar, leash, and alpha commands than simple respect for someone who can provide hearth and home – even when the fearsome moon rises, the wind blows, and the fire sends burning embers into the night sky.

When I think about it, that's the kind of leadership I admire as well.

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