Training is a partnership

Poster927Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to attend a webinar for the Academy for Dog Trainers hosted by Certified Animal Behaviorist and dog trainer extraordinaire Kathy Sdao. She facilitated an excellent discussion on the importance of  training nomenclature – in particular, how we should describe the relationship we have with our dogs.

Thanks to faux science dog training television programs and deeply entrenched dog behavior myths, many dog owners and trainers resort to the word “dominance.” Some use it so much, it appears they are afraid that without a shock collar and a tight leash, their dogs will not only display “dominance,” but will take over their household in a reign of terror. Science has fully debunked the dominance myth (discussed here), but that doesn’t mean people still won’t cling to the label.

Leadership is another word that is gaining momentum in the dog training community. Compulsion trainers like it because it’s a thinly veiled euphemism for the so-called need to use a firm hand on dogs. In other words, owners must be the pack leader to avoid subordination from their dogs. Force free trainers use the word leadership it because it implies something different than dominance, a relationship with more equality and less force.

But, as Kathy Sdao accurately pointed out during her webinar, the leadership label is also fraught with problems. To be a leader means that someone else is the follower. The presence of a leader implies a hierarchy. The non-leaders “defer” to the leader. Someone still has the bulk of control.

To quote James O’Heare in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, “The term leadership means something different to everyone, and often the meaning is not conducive to proper training … By setting up a paradigm or model in the owner’s mind that someone should be the leader, we imply that someone else should not be, and it can simply sow the seeds of an adversarial relationship between owner and dog” (175).

Leadership and dominance protocols are frightfully complicated. I’ve seen owners paralyzed in training sessions out of fear that such-and-such behavior implies their dogs are dominant, or that doing such-and-such a thing will weaken their leadership roles with their dogs. (As an aside, I received a pamphlet in the mail recently that advertised a dog behavior change book. One of the bullet points informed me that if a dog places his paws on my shoulders, my dog is dominant. In that case, my 11.5 pound chihuahua is poised to take over not just my household, but the entire world. Where do people come up with this unscientific muck?)

Training should not imply a power struggle. It should not place unnecessary and unscientific protocols on a behavior change program. When training dogs, we should do just that: train the dog.

I believe a better word to describe the relationship we should strive for when training our dogs is a partnership. The dictionary defines partnership as: “A relationship between individuals or groups that is characterized by mutual cooperation and responsibility, as for the achievement of a specified goal.”

When I work with a dog, I view the dog as my equal. He teaches me just as much as I teach him. We are two distinct species, working out a way to communicate with each other despite speaking different languages. There is no power struggle between me and the dog I’m training. We’re on the behavior change journey together. No dominance. No leadership. No imposed social constructs. Just training and communication. Just partners.

True, effective, long-lasting behavior change is a partnership based on trust, love and science. And it works.

By Maureen Backman, MS
– Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at