Follow the leader

Follow the leader

In my world lately, I’ve been an emerging leader for a much smaller, but not any less important role – taking care of a puppy.

For the past six months, my wife and I have been slowly training our dog Indy, sometimes unsuccessfully, to listen and follow our lead. It’s mostly worked, except for the literally hundreds of times when someone comes into our house or a squirrel happens to be anywhere near him.

I have had experience with dogs, but never had a dog of my own. So for me, it’s a study in leadership, and not in the traditional way. It’s all about getting the dog to listen to you – duh, which I suppose is the definition of being a leader. But I also think my wife and I approach it differently, and perhaps it’s a gender thing.

Indy, short for Indiana (as in Jones), is a 6-month-old chocolate lab-Australian shepherd mix. He has mostly lab mentalities, but still has the energy and smarts of a shepherd. However, he’s so food-oriented that he began sitting patiently almost instantly, without being asked. It was a good start for training.

When my wife and I adopted Indy in June, I took a supporting role in caring for him. I was working full time in Greater Portland, while my wife was working at an inn an hour north. So in his formative weeks, I was only with him three days a week. This meant that my wife was really the leader. He would follow her around everywhere, and when I called him it was about 50/50 whether he would listen.

But when it came time for formal training, I began to notice some differences between how men and women can approach training their dog. For me, it’s the cool, relaxed approach. If I’m calm, he’ll sense that and also be calm. For an easily excitable puppy, that doesn’t always work.

My wife takes the stronger approach. When I asked her recently about her training methods, she said she thinks her ability to be stern comes from her experience with horses. Compared to wrangling a horse, she said, a dog is easy.

It could be that my nonchalant approach to training is pretty standard for men. Sara Sokol, the owner of Mr. Dog Training in Bath, told me she thinks it’s simply more important to most women that their dog is properly trained. Sokol said most of her clients are women, which is usually the case in dog training classes.

“In my experience it tends to be more important for women that their dog is well trained, while men seem not to care as much if their dog pulls and jumps up on people,” she said.

However, I’m not sure I fit into this category either. Indy, ever the people-lover, gets overly excited when new people approach, and he still hasn’t got over his habit of jumping up. But I wouldn’t say I’m fine with it.

Another trainer, Jordan Tepper of Westbrook, agrees that women tend to more easily take the lead role when it comes to training a dog.

“I have noticed that most of my clients are women, except when it comes to working with a family,” he said. “If a couple is with me to train their puppy, the woman is usually the most active participant, but if a family is with me then the man typically tries to lead by example during the lesson.”

During a series of recent training classes with Indy, it was noticeable how men and women interacted with their dogs during different exercises. One couple, who brought a pair of dogs to the basic obedience class, sat next to each other, but trained their respective dogs. However, when the man’s dog wouldn’t listen, the woman would chime in, usually with positive results. Is it really that much harder for us guys? Or is it something else?

“I find that dogs respond more to women’s voice pitches more than men’s,” Tepper said. “Dogs will respond better to excited high-pitched tones, which a woman can produce. If a man with a low-pitched, grumbly voice tries to give a cue in a distracting situation, a dog might not be as responsive.”

From now on, I’ll try my high-pitched voice – but not too much.

Sokol added that, when motivated, men can usually produce great results in training because they tend to be less verbally communicative.

“Dogs actually do better learning from people who talk at them less,” she said. “Women seem to have long conversations with their dogs when teaching/training them, where men tend to get to the point without discussion.”

In the end, however, both trainers said, as long as the dog owner has a good grasp of learning theory (which trainers can teach us), it really shouldn’t matter if a dog is learning from a man versus a woman. So, here’s to all the emerging dog leaders of the world.

This past month, a new frontier in leadership has arrived for me, as well – fatherhood. Perhaps Indy can help me with this one.

Indy, a chocolate lab-Australian shepherd mix puppy, appears to be leading Andrew Rice.

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