Reflections on Power and Control

When we become aware of feelings of discomfort within our dogs or ourselves, this uncertainty can appear as passivity or paralysis. The uncertainty may also be expressed by procrastination, an over-reliance on management or the direction from a teacher or 'guru'. A subtler expression is a tendency to stay within our own, or our dogs comfort zone.

Whilst any of these may be the perfect strategy to manage a certain set of conditions, overly used they can lead to frustration, boredom and giving up. In the worst case, they can lead to the onus being put on the dog to decide how to react, in a situation for which they have no experience or training.

In my life I have mostly experienced power as perpendicular; a ladder. Power has been presented as a vertical movement, up and down. Canine dominance theory is an example of this type of thinking, when the human being is warned that the dog will get above them on the rungs of the ladder, unless they follow a set of rules.

Another expression of perpendicular power in the dog training world, particularly in the media and social media, is the 'do what I do, or tell you to do' dog trainer.

This dog trainer may be presented as a stereotype, the female matriarch or dominatrix; the male kindly father figure or tough guy gang leader.

At first this type of approach is perfect, taking the burden of decision making away from the shoulders of the overwhelmed or novice. At some point the needs change and a teacher reinforced by learning rather than power, will adapt their approach.

Assertiveness teacher Anne Dickson talks about this perpendicular power and describes four main categories which I have found useful and would like to share:

Legitimate Power

Anne describes this as any power that is 'conferred through the particular social or civic arrangements of the culture in which we live. So, whether you're a queen (over one's subjects), a parent (over a child), a manager (over a department) or a teacher (over a group of students), this aspect of power derives from the professional roles that come with a job or appointment or birth right. We all experience having less or more legitimate power over others at various times in our lives'


We can use our resources to exercise power over other people and dogs.

Anne writes: 'Resources include wealth, key information, land, water, weapons, oil and technology... these resources give you power over others: without resources, we are powerless'


In the context of dog training, this is one area of abuse of power, that I have reflected deeply upon. Like many, I have been learning about dogs, their behaviour and by extension, human behaviour for a long time. This has required lots of hours of studying, practice and key skill development. I have accumulated a lot of knowledge and some expertise. I may have knowledge and skills that you would like to acquire or use to resolve your problem. It would be easy to abuse this lack of power, intentionally or accidentally*.


Not a form of power previously considered, but upon reflection it seems particularly relevant in this age of social media and celebrity dog trainers. We can all be vulnerable to the carefully edited video, television programme or advert for services and need to be cautious of taking a voiceless dog into any training/teaching relationship.

Anne writes: 'Genuine charisma describes the power and influence generated by someone's personal presence: their beauty, charm, moral integrity, holiness, sometimes referred to as force of personality. This can have a profound effect on others. Charisma can also be manufactured - as with the cult of celebrity - so it is then more the product of publicity and hype than grounded in any intrinsic personal qualities... we may be influenced into giving them our money, our votes or, in extreme cases laying down our lives for them.'

With greater opportunities to spend money learning about dog behaviour or spend time involved in social media discussions, developing the skills of critical analysis remains paramount. Some suggested questions

  1. What do you know about the author's ethos, qualifications and experience? Research any organisations they are a member of, or affiliated with. Who are their mentors, peers, associates.

  2. How does this production make you feel? Be honest, there is no wrong or right answer. If you aren't sure whether you can 'trust your gut' then you may find the book: The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker, a useful resource.

  3. Get in touch with the author or company and ask questions. In my experience teachers who are interested in your learning will answer, maybe not immediately, but they will reply.

Finding balance

Instead of a ladder, we can think about power as a set of weighing scales.

The power in the relationship between the dog and the owner, the trainer and client, the teacher and student moves backwards and forwards to keep the relationship in balance over the long term. This type of learning and sharing relationship encourages personal power within the individuals involved.

Unlike the perpendicular power described above, personal power resides within us and within our dogs. Even when our external conditions change, we retain this personal power and our right to defend ourselves, colleagues, students, clients and most importantly our dogs against abuses of power or coercive control.

One key way to build this personal power is through personal development: learning, thoughtful discussion, feedback and reflection. Find yourself a teacher or group of people who reflect your beliefs, value your opinion and are invested in your personal growth.

To quote horse trainer Alexandra Kurland 'get smarter, not stronger'.

*I have written more about this topic in this blog, published on the Learning About Dogs website

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