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Book Review
Leader of the Pack
by Nancy Baer & Steve Duno

Review by: Kate Connick, June 2003

Nancy Baer & Steve Duno's Leader of the Pack is a breezy and affordable, 137-page paperback book aimed at helping the reader to assess their relationship with their dog and to achieve leadership in that relationship. I must admit that wolves, per se, hold no particular appeal for me, and wolf-pack style training paradigms often make me roll my eyes. Nonetheless, this book is a good one and one that I'd recommend to anyone who feels they've lost their dog's respect, lost control over their dog, or need a sense of perspective as far as what their role should be in their relationship with their dog.

Once you get beyond the wolf pack metaphor, this is basically a solid little training and husbandry book that elaborates on "NILIF" (nothing in life is free) protocols for dealing with pushy, dominant, and aggressive dogs. The authors discuss how to control food, space, and social interaction. They give specific training exercises to teach such things as recalls, leash manners, and greeting and doorway behavior. Further, they discuss in general terms the unemotional, fair, firm but kind custodianship that is best respected and accepted by a dog.

Concepts and training exercises are explained well in a very readable writing style that is neither stuffy and academic nor patronizingly simplistic. Each chapter begins with an italicized passage that shares a slice of wolf life. The authors then explain the parallel to pet dog behavior, often further illustrating their point with case studies from their own practice. They then explain the training and management moves that an owner can implement to address potential problem areas. Anyone with an easy-going, biddable dog may find the suggestions austere, even offensive. But that is not the target reader of this book. The book is written for the owner who is having issues with recalcitrance, and this book is likely to be well received by that audience.

The authors advocate such things as house lines (indoor leashes), plant misters, tethering, basic obedience, food treats, and no-pull harnesses or head halters. In spite of the historically unfortunate heritage where wolf-pack paradigms have been used to justify physical, confrontational styles of training, these authors use very non-confrontational, gentle, humane methods. One won't find Alpha rolls in this book. Withdrawing attention, withholding privileges, or tethering a dog in a time-out are about as "violent" as Baer & Duno get.

The authors assert that 6-8 weeks of this program, combined with attendance at an obedience class, will ameliorate many problems of disobedience and dominance aggression. They do, however, sensibly urge the owner of any seriously aggressive dog to seek firsthand guidance from a qualified trainer/behaviorist.

In terms of specifics, their recommendations include such things as feeding scheduled meals (not free-feeding), requiring performance of a sit or other command before being fed, having a dog earn all treats, and having the owner eat before the dog (without being pestered by the animal). They discuss how to teach a dog not to be food possessive.

The authors recommend that owners control a dog's access to all toys and resting areas, not allowing the dog on any furniture, nor allowing it to corner itself under furniture or against walls. Free access to the house is restricted, as well. Owners are expected to maintain an upright posture and not permit jumping, mouthing, leaning, or other intrusions on their personal space. Exercises are presented for teaching leash and doorway manners, "leave it," and elimination on command.

In sum, the authors assert, "All areas of interaction must be choreographed by the owner." The authors also stress the onus of meeting a dog's needs. They urge the owner to take care to not set the dog up to fail and to keep the animal healthy, safe, well fed, properly exercised, and generally to be kind and attentive to it.

The wolf pack paradigm itself does raise several obvious questions. Any critic would argue that a dog is not the exact same creature as a wolf and is not necessarily bound by the same social customs. Nor is it necessarily realistic to think that one can accurately approximate wolf pack behavior in a household setting. Further, one could readily challenge the authors' portrayal of wolf behavior itself as underestimating the complex and sometimes paradoxical nature of social behavior. Does one really want to be or need to be (or is it even possible to be) a pretend-wolf in order to live successfully with a dog in a household setting?

To focus too closely on these questions would be to miss the value of the book. I'm going to bypass these concerns, because I don't think it is necessary to address them. As presented by the authors, the wolf-pack paradigm is a poetic metaphor that simply illustrates the ideal of calm, kind, firm control and leadership, as well as responsible stewardship. One could use the same lupine metaphor to discuss corporate business or classroom management, and few would nitpick the analogy. The reality of whether the wolf model is totally accurate is moot if one simply accepts it as a colorful way to highlight themes of leadership, fairness, and cooperation within a social group. There may be some validity to their comparisons, but even if you reject that possibility, the book is no less useful.

The greatest drawback with the wolf pack paradigm is that it will be less palatable to some readers than an approach that presents dogs as, say, lab rats or "fur babies." If anything, I think that the authors' portrayal of wolves is overly romantic. I think that they're more credible discussing dogs, but the wolf analogy works reasonably well in the way they present it. Certainly there will be readers who enjoy the metaphor and benefit from the imagery it suggests.

This book is a handy guide to reaching a healthy, balanced, kind and responsible relationship with one's pushier, more controlling, more dominant type of dog. The methods presented are humane, and the tone is helpful and instructive. That being said, if one isn't having problems, the book's advice may be overkill. It doesn't hurt to read it, but the average pet owner will not need to follow its protocol in order to get along with their dog.


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Leader of the Pack by Nancy Baer & Steve Duno.
Published by Harper Paperbacks, 1996. ISBN: 0061010197

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