I often say that dogs can be our greatest teachers, with so many lessons for us, but only once we learn how to listen to what they’re telling us. They can teach us how to respect each other, how to accept and forgive, how to bounce back from adversity, and much more.

But the most important lesson is also the one that I see people failing to learn all the time. More than anything, your dog wants you to learn how to be a good leader, but you may be letting her down.

One of the biggest causes of dog behavioral problems is when the humans don’t take charge of things and it can get as extreme as the dogs actually running the household. I’ve worked with more than a few people who were virtually prisoners in their own homes because they couldn’t leave their dogs alone without coming back to destruction, or they couldn’t have guests over without their dogs going crazy or becoming aggressive.

It may sound ridiculous, but it’s more common than you’d think. The solution is also easier than people think — but in order to solve the problem they of course have to actually take the steps necessary and follow through.

The first step is taking charge. It sounds simple, but there can be real issues that prevent people from doing this. Sometimes, it comes down to fear of the dog. Other times, it’s due to a reluctance to be “mean” to the dog by correcting her. The first issue is resolved by building mutual trust. The second is resolved by understanding that a dog thinks differently than we do.

If you want to see how correction is really done, watch a mother dog and her puppies sometime. If one of her young is getting out of hand or breaking the rules, she won’t hesitate to put his whole head in her mouth as a way of saying, “Cut it out.” In fact, this is the entire reason for my “claw” gesture, which imitates the feeling of a dog’s fangs and sends the same message in a less drastic way.

And does the puppy react to this with anger and years of resentment? No. The puppy stops what it was doing, learns that mom doesn’t like it when he does that thing, and then moves on. Dogs do not hold grudges or take corrections personally. In fact, they probably appreciate a clear and calm correction because it tells them in no uncertain terms what behavior is not allowed, and so it simplifies the dog’s world.

Another thing I always say is this: Life is simple. We make it complicated. We complicate it by assuming the dog thinks like a human, or by making up a story about why the dog misbehaves. The problem is that you can’t “fix” a story. You can only correct an action. If you do try to fix things based on the story, you’re not going to get anywhere because your dog won’t understand what you’re trying to do. But, again, if you give your dog that clear and consistent leadership, she’ll get the message.

Remember: The vast majority of dogs would prefer to follow a leader because it’s just easier that way. By virtue of our minds and abilities, we should always be the ones in charge. Our problems with our dogs begin when we fail to take on that role. Your dog needs a boss and there’s no one better for that job than you.

Stay calm, and take charge!

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