When I was a little girl, all the boys had street names, Shorty, Lefty, Spike, Curly.  They weren’t quite as colorful as sports nicknames or even Mafia ones, but they were colorful all the same.  That was before TV, before cell phones, before the wheel, for godssake.  And it was before language got cleaned with Clorox, bleached of all its clarity, all its nastiness.  Sure, it wasn’t nice to call the fat kid Fatso and there were worse names people were called.  It wasn’t perfect back then.  But, in a way, it was more real.  We had a bully on our block.  A fat kid, actually, but not one anyone would dare call Fatso.  Even without the offensive label, he’d beat up anyone who came his way.  But no one committed suicide from his bullying.  No one joined in.  No one back then bullied anonymously.  If you were a bully, you were a bully and everyone knew it.  They knew they could walk the other way or cross the street.  The bullies back then never showed up in your inbox.

I always thought that being alpha to your dog was merely being the leader.  In fact, the phrase I used was “benevolent but alpha,” advising people to use the mildest correction that worked when training, often, almost always, the word “no.”  But alpha, which my old friend Capt. Haggerty said was “a stage presence,” has been bleached out of the language.  And so has the word “correction.”

I stopped reading every dog book that came out – I am, by force, very selective now – when someone wrote a book called Never Say No to Your Dog.  Really?  I hope the book’s followers never have children, though it seems many of them have.

I believe that dogs crave and need clarity and that the judicial use of NO and OK offer it in a wonderfully digestible way.  I believe that whether or not you think dogs are like wolves, but different, or unlike wolves because they compete in dogs shows and eat canned food, DNA aside, every dog still needs a smart, loving, gentle leader (no matter what word you like or don’t like to use.)  And here are the two easiest ways to assume that role.

Teach your dog a sit stay.  In learning to execute a neat, reliable sit stay, dogs learn how to learn.  They learn how to listen to a language not their own and understand that the funny sounds have meanings.  Who knew!  And when they look at you and plant their cute butts, they are saying you are in charge and that working with you is fun and exciting.

Play a Follow Me game.  Got a new puppy, an untrained rescue, a dog you meant to train but, hey, there was good stuff on TV?  Fine.  Walk around your house encouraging your dog to come with you.  As he grows to enjoy this fun time with you, have him hop on the bed, go around the back of some chairs, go in and out of the kitchen.  Toss in a sit.  Toss in some soft conversation.  Toss in a lots of stops for petting and kisses.  Good job.  You lead. He follows.  You’re the leader.   Being benevolent but, um, the leader is the best gift ever you can give your dog.  It always has been and it always will be.