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What is Good Leadership? Love, Direction, Communication, and Understanding

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc

"Leadership" is one of those hot button words in the companion animal world that divides owners as to its meaning or if it is even relevant. Part of the confusion is that the word is heavily co-opted by those who subscribe to long ago debunked ideology that dogs need to be physically dominated or else they will over-run their owners. “Leadership” has been an excuse for people to physically and psychologically abuse their animals in the name of training -- sometimes knowingly, but likely more often done inadvertently.

But is that what leadership is really about? Is leadership even relevant in a companion animal-human relationship?

I say that it has always been relevant, and is more relevant now than ever. We expect our pets to take a larger role in our daily lives than in previous generations. This is something that may not be easy for many pets, particularly with the unique challenges of modern suburban living environments. They generally encounter far more stressors than in previous generations, are met with higher expectations from us, but perhaps enjoy less freedom/autonomy being confined to homes and perhaps small yards.

I will admit that I have a reflexively negative reaction to the word “leadership” as it is heavily misused by others in the industry as code for physically or psychologically abusive training tactics. Yet, much of what I coach owners to do is to lovingly provide direction, institute reasonable boundaries, understand their animal’s communication, and to enhance better mutual communication. These are all actions that exemplify a good leader.

No other animal naturally craves the affection of humans or reads our body language and emotions like dogs. Likewise, even as they have been (and are still) used in working roles, their physical and emotional needs require attention similar to that of a parent caring for a child.

Leadership has undergone monumental changes in the organizational world over the past several decades. Organizations have realized the immense value in building positive connections and trust between leaders and their workforce. It is no longer about instilling fear as a tool of coercion. Let us look at the traits of a good leader, parent, military leader, or even a boss. Let’s also look at what makes a terrible leader. There is significant overlap between what make a good parent, what makes a good boss or organizational leader, and what makes a good dog owner/pet parent. Most of us have experienced bad bosses or possibly bad parents. Some of us have had ones who caused severe psychological distress, sometimes lasting years after the horrific experiences. A bad parent or a bad boss has significant control over the lives of those living/working beneath them, leaving them somewhat helpless to alter their situation. They can make someone’s life a living hell…and they do. They do this through heavy handed approaches:

· Inflexibility

· Unrealistic expectations

· Lack of communication of expectations

· Unwillingness to teach

· Lack of boundaries

· Terrible pay/benefits

· Do not identify or find ways to meet their worker’s needs to get the job done

· Take no responsibility for the final outcome (unless it looks good for them)

· Do not motivate

· Do not provide suitable feedback

· Treat workers as replaceable and of little value

· Lack of work/life balance

· …and more

We are asking animals to choose to do things for us – things that may not have meaning to them, unless we find ways to attach meaning for them. We have a significant role to play creating motivation, healthy relationships, and clearly communicating expectations. We must teach them in a way that is meaningful and achievable to the animal as an individual. Animals need flexibility in our approaches – they are different individuals with unique needs and capabilities. We have to set realistic behavioral expectations based on the animal we see in front of us at this moment and what is a reasonable prognosis for a best outcome for this individual animal. We have to create boundaries for the animal to abide by, but we first must set our own boundaries by not expecting unreasonable things. We have to identify what they need from us to do what we ask, meet those needs appropriately, and also compensate them fairly and appropriately. We also need to create healthy relationships so there is a desire and a willingness to please, not distrust, fear or resentment. We must be clear in setting boundaries and expectations, and do what we promise. Most of what animals do for us is not just about the “pay” but about the relationship. In our workplaces, it is the employee who decides what is fair and whether they feel their efforts are valued. If they do not feel valued, may give half-hearted efforts or no effort at all. We must also not have over-reaching expectations because a work-life balance must be achieved to keep happiness and satisfaction. If employees are not happy, it affects the entire functioning of the organization. If children’s needs are unsatisfied and they are unhappy, if affects the entire family dynamic. If a pet is unhappy and unsatisfied it will likely be apparent through behavior issues. Understandably, this can have long term psychological and behavioral consequences.

The role of a good leader cannot be overstated. Leadership in modern organizations focuses on creating goals, connecting with team members through good communication, motivating the work force positively, creating safe working environments, and identifying and utilizing the individual strengths of team members. Building authentic connections with the work force informs leaders to enable good decision-making. Leaders earn respect by sharing responsibility through setting reasonable goals and limits, keeping their word, and operating transparently. Modern leadership is about flexibility and adaptability with a mindset focused on fostering cooperation.

Organization leadership was not always this people-oriented, but it was driven in this direction over the decades because it enhances smooth functioning of the organization, thus increasing productivity. Modern parenting has gone through similar changes. The parenting of yesteryear focused on teaching children to fear their parents to coerce behavioral conformity. This has been replaced with a relationship-centric way of setting boundaries while teaching children in nurturing and safe ways. Modern parents are to be trusted by their children, not feared. Replacing the words “team” and “work force” with the word “family” encapsulates modern approaches toward children and family dynamics.

Why have these modern attitudes of “leadership” not spread much into the companion animal world, where leadership is focused on fear and punishment? It has long been a part of our practices at the professional organization and clinical level, even if not adopted largely by pop culture. Organizations like the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) all advocate this type of humane and cooperative approach toward animals. They have repeatedly publicly warned that using fear and punishment increase stress and problem behaviors, including aggression, resulting in poorer outcomes. They wholeheartedly promote positive reinforcement training and advise against the use of fear, punishment, and coercion. Unfortunately, that has not consistently been adopted by the unregulated animal training and behavior industry. Instead, any behavior issue is frequently treated by unqualified “trainers” as a dominance issue that requires heavy-handed correction of what the animal is doing wrong. How would you feel if that is how your boss treated you?

Let’s replace some of the words with “companion animal” in the paragraph from further above that encapsulates modern leadership:

The role of a good leader cannot be overstated. Leadership in modern companion animal homes focuses on creating goals, connecting with animal family members through good communication, motivating the animal positively, creating safe home environments, and identifying and utilizing the individual strengths of the animal. Connecting with the companion animal informs pet parents to enable good decision-making. Pet parents/owners earn respect by sharing responsibility through setting reasonable goals and limits, keeping their word, and operating transparently. Modern leadership in companion homes is about flexibility and adaptability with a mindset focused on fostering cooperation.

A good leader provides understanding and direction through communication, caring, and devotion.

Good human leaders may be born with special qualities suited to the role, but are also typically nurtured over many years before assuming such positions of authority. Military, government, and organizational leaders are frequently identified early in their careers for potential leadership positions and prepared for those future roles with key assignments, mentoring, leadership training, and smaller leadership roles. In the military, junior level officers are often given low levels of authority where they handle administrative levels of day-to-day operations of a small unit. They are not expected to be subject matter experts, but instead learn to listen to those with decades of education and experience to help inform their decision-making. They are sent to training throughout their careers to develop leadership skills, and based on their abilities, given higher levels of command and responsibility over warfighters. There is significant emphasis on being an informed leader who listens to others and has authentic connections with those on their team. Years are spent preparing for such roles. Leadership is not established through force or dominance of those beneath them, but rather by connection to those within all organizational levels.

I have been at many different ends of this throughout different roles I served in my careers, particularly my decade-long career working in military/government roles. I was the line-level intelligence analyst/officer working under several layers of higher-level management. Later, I was a senior-level subject matter expert informing the highest levels of military and government leadership in their decision-making. For a couple years, I was the lead planner in charge of designing and executing military exercises involving thousands of warfighters and several nations, spending significant amounts of that time at deployed locations. It was critical to mission success to learn how to engage with others to understand the needs of senior leadership, the unique problems of individual units and their warfighters, to understand their training needs, and to gain their buy-in with decision-making regarding what would ultimately happen during the exercises. Not to say that it was easy. It was not a cake walk at all. I entered into that position as a young female working in an operational, largely-male dominated environment without prior military service. Respect was not just given. People say to “act like a leader” and others will follow. But how does an effective leader act? Respect had to be earned by demonstrating the skills of a good leader -- not just by wielding and exercising power. Being a good leader was more about soft skills than anything else. As one can imagine, it was a bit of a learning curve! I had largely been more of a follower in my previous roles. I needed to rise to the challenges of a leader appropriately and felt like I was in over my head at first. The skills that were not there were ones I had to quickly acquire or risk mission failure. Being a leader is not about stroking one’s own ego and feeling important. Others will choose not to follow or will give half-hearted efforts to leaders they do not respect. It is about having humility regarding what you do not know, understanding the complexities of situations, and seeing the value in others to seek out their input to guide decision-making.

Do not expect your companion animal to give you de facto respect either. First demonstrate that you are a leader who is worthy of it.

In the animal world, both nature and nurture are involved, but it is fundamentally different for particular domesticated species. In terms of dogs, they have undergone strong human selective pressures in breeding over hundreds of generations to create dogs who perform specific behavioral motor patterns in response to environmental stimuli without any training. Due to this, they are likely to have strong aptitude for certain roles – as they were quite literally born into these roles – where they are excellent followers, assertive decisionmakers, those who look for guidance, or those who are supposed to operate freely and independently without human support. Like in humans, it is best to identify these natural strengths early on. We must be flexible in shaping specific roles in situations where individual animals can operate successfully, understanding heir strengths, limitations, and their training needs. We have to step back and become learners ourselves when we bring animals into our homes. We have to become good listeners/observers to understand their needs and connect with them, providing them what they need to be successful with the challenges we are presenting to them. This also makes me think about how sometimes animals have more information than we do and we empower them through training to make decisions based off of the information that they have - which we do not. Think about guide dogs who learn not to lead a handler into the street if there is incoming traffic or obstructions blocking the path. Think about a medical alert dog, or a dog trained to notice and avoid snakes based on detecting their camouflaged presence via scent. Sometimes we have to take a step back, explore the world from the animals' perspective. We must value them for their strengths and find ways to empower them to exercise greater independence through loving direction (carefully planned positive reinforcement training).

How does it look to provide quality leadership to your companion animal?

· Be flexible in your approach, predictable and consistent

· Have realistic expectations based on the where your pet is at that the moment, and what can be achieved with your pet as an individual

· Provide as much helpful information as possible about what behaviors you want

· Empower your animal by preparing them to make independent decisions (via training). Be willing to teach and adjust approaches as needed to meet the learner’s needs.

· Have boundaries of your own to respect the animal’s needs/preferences

· Provide handsome rewards, recognizing that what you may want your animal to do may not be what they would prefer to do in that moment – gain their buy-in

· Identify ways to meet your animal’s needs to set them up for success. This is particularly important to revisit if your animal is struggling in training or real-life scenarios.

· If things go wrong, have humility and take responsibility for the final outcome.

· Motivate your animal to want to work with you, doing things that maybe would not be their first choice of activity at that moment. Set up tasks so that they get it right! It is de-motivating to get it wrong and getting corrected.

· Motivate and take accountability. Provide ample praise/reward when they get it right! If things go wrong, take responsibility and guide them back on course without correcting them. Set them up to get things right! Take responsibility when things do not go right.

· See the unique value in your pet. Treat your animal as unique and irreplaceable, and something worthy of your investment of time, money, and love.

· Give them as much autonomy and independence as possible. No one likes micro-management.

Provide work/life balance. Do not expect perfection. Do not expect your animal to always be “on the job”. Allow them the time and places to indulge their desires, just as we also need to do so as humans.

· …and more

Identify your animal’s strengths and natural roles as an individual. Be prepared to meet their (changing) needs and carve out suitable roles for them as individuals when finding solutions to problems. Solutions to behavior problems are unique to each problem and unique to each individual dog/owner team. Ultimately, recognize the difference in power dynamic. Be prepared for a lifelong relationship of communication, cooperation, and compromise with your animal, whether your animal is a pet, a sport dog, or a working companion-type animal. Good leadership is always needed.

To sum it up, what makes a good leader? = Love, Direction, Communication, Understanding, and Devotion

Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.

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