Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Does leading a dog come more easily to men? ~ with Ola Zalewski of Paws Above

As a first-time dog owner of Riggins, I was determined to bribe my way into the leadership role with praise and liver treats. But as anyone who has read Golden Boy knows, Riggs wasn’t so easily swayed.  He wasn’t food motivated, and praise left him cold.  The only toy that stirred him was a flirt pole, and that generated the wrong kind of energy (prey drive!). 

So I wandered from trainer to trainer in search of the key to unlocking this dog’s potential—and ultimately, my own. What I learned is that one size does not fit all as far as training is concerned, and that many roads can lead to a “good dog.” 

Since I’m not a natural leader and Riggs didn’t care to please, I had to change my mind about corrective training techniques. Riggs matured and changed his mind, too.  When he decided in favor of liver treats, I moved to what I consider a hybrid approach.  Now, I try redirection first, and correct only if that fails. As time wears on, correction is rarely needed ~ and I’ve become resigned to smelling of liver treats forever (although some may complain it's a romance-killer!).

Feedback on Golden Boy suggests I’m not alone in my training challenges. In fact, lots of owners—particularly women—have commiserated.  That’s why I corner every dog trainer I meet and ask the same question: Does leadership come more easily to men?  

Today we’ll hear from Ola Zalewski of Paws Above training.  If you missed Ola’s earlier interview, check it out here.  Feel free to ask Ola questions in the comments below, some of which we may address in future blogs.  

Thanks again, Ola, for your patience with Riggs and me! 

1.    What is the “secret” to being a strong leader to our dogs? 

I don’t think there is a secret, per say.  We just need to make a conscious effort to understand their language. Dogs primarily communicate with each other using body language, eye contact, different tones of voice, and touch.  When you know how to read them, you can create exercises that mimic their ways of communicating and let them know you are higher ranking than they are.  I have studied how dogs move around each other and in different environments.  This has led to a strong understanding of what they are communicating, and allows me to take charge.  I realize that some people don’t have a natural knack for this.  In fact, so many people have asked me about it that I decided to develop a new confidence-building workshop.  In this class, people will work with a group of dogs they’ve never met before.  It will take them out of their comfort zone, but as they work on controlling a group, they will gain leadership skills.  Practice makes perfect!

2.     What is the impact of NOT showing the leadership a dog needs?

Dogs live in a hierarchical system.  The term “pack” is falling out of favor these days, but regardless of what you call it, these are social animals and they must have a system of hierarchy.  If the top guy leaves or dies, the rest of the group figures out the next leader.  It’s in their nature. Dogs respect and follow higher ranking individuals. If your dog sees you as equal or lower ranking in relation to him, you will likely see undesirable behaviors such as jumping, biting, mouthing, and even aggression.  Now, this does not apply to every dog, but many of them.  If you take charge (as you should—you do pay the bills!), you’ll reach a nice balance and your dog will ultimately behave better.

3.    In your experience, do women have more of a challenge in leadership than men, and if so, why might that be?

Ah, this is a very common complaint I hear in classes!  Women frequently comment that their male partners have more success than they do in getting the dog to behave well.  I attribute this to the fact that men are usually taller and deeper-voiced, and may be more dominant by nature.  In my experience, dogs tend to be more respectful around men—although there are lots of exceptions to the rule.  Similarly, dogs challenge a child faster than they do an adult, probably because they are smaller, with higher-pitched voices.  Women have been raising this issue with me for as long as I’ve been in the business, and that’s one reason why my classes are predominantly filled with women.  It makes me really happy to see women stepping up to the plate!

4.    What can dog owners do from the very start to be a strong leader?

The best strategy is to do your homework BEFORE you even get a dog.  Learn about the breed that interests you, and then do your research about training and the services available in your area.  Get references from a vet or other dog owners for professional dog trainers.  Call and chat with them, or drop in to watch a class.  

Once you have your pup, it’s critical that you follow through on what you want.  I don’t have children, but I hear that leading a dog is similar to parenting.  If you bark commands or corrections at dogs all day, or get frustrated and yell, it will not get you far.  I recommend giving a dog one verbal command, and if it doesn’t obey, follow through with the behaviour you want.  Say the dog is on the couch.  Don’t yell “off” 50 times until you’re out of breath.  Say it once and then take the dog’s collar and lead it off the couch.  Following through on what you ask helps the dog learn what you expect, and, in my opinion, is fairer to the dog. 

5.    If our dogs are already not listening or obeying, what steps do you suggest?  

I would immerse myself in any resources I could find, whether it’s books, videos, seminars or classes.  Never has there been more information available on dog training, and much of it is free with the click of a mouse! 

It’s important to understand that there are two main schools of thought on training, and they largely conflict with each other.  In a nutshell, there are trainers who believe in positive reinforcement only, and others who believe correction has a place in dog training.  

The only way to know what’s right for you is to do your research on schools and classes.  Read reviews.  Talk to people.  Go with the methodology that makes you most comfortable and is in line with your own beliefs.  There is no “right” choice, only the choice that is best for you personally and ultimately works for you and your dog.

Ola Zalewski lives on a 100 acre farm with Jeff, 5 dogs, 35 chickens, and 4 goats.  Visit Paws Above here or on Facebook

Please follow the Animal Magnetism blog if you'd like to receive updates as they're posted. If interested in being interviewed, contact rideoutsandy@gmail.com.  And if you haven't read Golden Boy: How to raise a dog all wrong and end up all right, what are you waiting for?!


  1. I really wish I could find someone locally that does the confidence building class, it sounds like such a great learning experience and a lot of fun. I'm sure you notice a huge difference with you clients when they are with their own dogs and when they are with dogs they don't know.

  2. Yes! I developed this course specifically because I saw a big gap in this area. I want people to have an opportunity to try things they have never done before, with a cheerleading section to boot! its so much fun

  3. Thanks, Ola. Not sure why you are anonymous, here. Really wish there had been a class like this for me years ago! Great idea!