Is there a difference between Dominance and Leadership?


by Nikki Finn Loudenslager

For those of you who know me well, it’s no newsflash that I am unsupportive of dog trainers who advocate punishment and aggressive behavior towards our 4-legged friends. Anything from ignoring commands to destructive behavior, jumping up to pulling to on leash and even defensive behaviors such as growling, snapping and biting are incorrectly deemed as an attempt to be leader of the pack and therefore we (the human factor) must step in as the more dominant being. It is usually the poor pup that ends up losing in this scenario. Either due to his innocent doglike reactions or making an attempt to communicate he is not comfortable with a situation, he is punished in such a way that would be deemed abuse if he were a human child. Bewilderedly, such abuse has remained socially acceptable when dealing with animals, even though we are all sentient beings.

What may surprise you though, is that I’m neither a fan of the dog trainer often referred to as positive reinforcement. Those who do not recognize any behavior as an attempt of dominance, for any reason, and only believe in mindlessly rewarding the behaviors that we want from our dogs. For the mere fact that I promote the use of motivation (often in the form of food), I am likely to be placed in this category by those who have either wrongly assumed, or maybe due to miscommunication on my behalf. However this is not the case. Instead, what I strive to teach is honest leadership. I’m not sure what label that gives me as a trainer. Still, it wasn’t until I recently read a book titled The Five Roles of a Master Herder, that I realized what I have been unknowingly describing for all these years, is a sophisticated herding technique, used by African Tribes for centuries.

What does a natural born leader look like? This is often what I describe as a true, albeit rare, “Alpha Dog”, however the same can be said for an effective human leader. They exude an air of confidence that is unmistakable. They are sophisticated in their communication style and do not need to use force or intimidation to get their point across. They are nurturers that build trust and visionaries that take their followers into pastures new. They are kind and calm in their demeanor and take time to listen to what others are trying to say. They can motivate the group to complete tasks with ease. They are knowledgeable about their environment and do not lead their group (or partner) into danger. And yes, if the occasion calls for it, they have the ability to step up their assertiveness and get the point across, but this is rarely done so in a predatory manner (that is to cause harm) and even then, only as a last resort if all other attempts have failed. Regrettably, what we have come to assume as effective leadership leans more towards the dominant role – more of that of a bully. People and animals that demonstrate such behaviors, behaviors that include power plays that push others around to get their demands met, do so from a place of insecurity. They view motivation as weak and prefer to offer punishment as a consequence. You may have heard me talk about behaviors that our dogs demonstrate such as pinning, charging, and controlling resources as “bully tactics”. Such beings are afraid of appearing weak in the group (because they are actually feeling powerless themselves). In short, they strive to control their environment and anything in it, with fear. But we do not need to become them to change their behaviors. Instead, we need to lead by example.

Trainers that misuse the dominant role often resort to being the aggressor. In an attempt to communicate to the dog who’s boss, they endorse the use of electric shocks and prongs, leash pops, ear biting, pinning, hanging (the list goes on). But they are missing the point. They have mistakenly observed a dominant (insecure) animal attempting to control a situation and not a leader, usually because the leader is the quiet observer at the back. While these forceful tactics may work short term, they are not effective long-term. They do not promote trust or a relationship built on willingness and respect. No being willingly follows a “leader” behaving like this, unless they are severely weak themselves or have no choice in the matter.

So is there a difference between dominance and leadership? No doubt. In fact the difference is night and day. When I imagine a world where leadership is truly understood and employed, I see one of peace and happiness – for all beings. That is my vision for all future human/dog relationships and will remain my motivation as a dog trainer serving this community.

Happy holidays and may 2018 bring you and your beloved furry pal peace and happiness.

Nikki Finn Loudenslager is a professional dog trainer and offers personalized dog training through her business, On The Right Track Professional Dog Training. For more information, visit