community educator, writer, herbalist
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love school with sumi: what is pack leader energy?

karuna with her dogwood flower mala.

karuna with her dogwood flower mala.

“Animals don’t follow unstable pack leaders; only humans promote, follow and praise instability.” —Cesar Millan

i believe the relationship between humans and dogs has a lot to teach us about being disciplined and balanced leaders - both for our dogs, but also for our people and for the earth. when i first heard this concept, that “humans are the only species that will follow unstable leadership,” it really struck me.

donald trump is a blaring, large scale example of this. but i’m certain we could look inside our own liberatory circles and see a promotion of instability. leadership which chooses contempt of others over connection. leadership which reinforces their position of power without accountability to those who work for them. leaders who don’t provide organizational structure or derail group meetings for their own agenda. i sense this is a condition of living as humans with complex relationships to oppression and privilege, as well as generational trauma and grief left unattended.

i believe there are also many examples of disciplined leadership in our communities; groups who model core principles we see in wolves: that (1) if you take care of the pack, the pack will take care of you and (2) a pack leader is one that acts from a place of what’s good for the collective. i watched a documentary recently where the mother in a den of arctic wolves would travel three days with the other adult members of the pack to hunt for food. she would then travel another three days back to feed the baby wolves. when she returned, she regurgitated whatever animal the pack had killed, for her babies to eat. other members of the pack did this for the baby wolves as well. witnessing that kind of sacrifice will bring me to tears because of how much principled integrity it must take to show up like that. this may be the norm for wolves, but i don’t take it for granted with humans. even in this small example, what sticks out to me more than sacrifice or suffering, is that embodied and instinctual commitment to taking care of each other. i believe dogs have something to teach us about returning to this instinct.

dogs as teachers

in 2015, i began taking new actions to be a more assertive, loyal, trustworthy, and disciplined leader in my community, when i committed to focusing on my personal growth through politicized somatics. yet right in front me the whole time was my dog, karuna, who i overlooked as having so much to teach me on this leg of my journey.

though we’ve been together for four years, i’ve only recently gotten very curious about the relationship between humans and dogs. it never occurred to me that dogs are one of the few species that have evolved alongside us and have really learned how to understand human behavior for their own survival. cesar millan, famously known as the dog whisperer, talks about this in his books and says that dogs could be some of our best psychologists because they communicate primarily through energy and are always reading ours.

i hear folks with dogs often say that their dog is their shadow or their familiar. i’m often struck by how my dog, karuna, will bark at people i have challenging relationships with. it’s like there’s an invisible chord connecting my body language to her and she’s the mouthpiece for us both.

through all my cesar millan dog studying the past several months, i learned that dogs are all instinct. actually humbling myself and watching my dog when she reacts in aggressive ways has been incredible. even just paying closer attention to her daily behavior, i can experience that chord between us on a deeper level. for non-dog owners, imagine having a being who instinctually understands your body language and absorbs it. with karuna, i’m learning that i don’t actually have to speak commands like “sit” or “lay down” out loud. if i can just say it with my body, with my presence and body language, she’ll react and do it. i swear this feels so witchy! but the bond between dogs and humans is really magical - and also a really interesting case for how much impact we can have with just our presence alone.

being respected and trusted by my dog has become paramount for me. i’m sure there are a lot of dog training schools of thought that are in conflict with each other, so full disclosure that i’m working with cesar millan’s methodology. and what cesar tells people over and over again is that training dogs is mostly about re-training humans. dogs who don’t see their human as pack leaders, will act out and try to restore balance by showing dominance. a dog asserting their dominance can look like them waking you up, entering and exiting doors in front of you, or jumping on you.

dogs like and respect routine and ritual. direction and consistency from strong human leadership is what provides a feeling of balance for them. incorporating daily ritual with karuna into my life has been a game changer for feeling brought back into balance. maybe it’s my earth moon, but something feels really nurtured internally for me when ritual exists. karuna provides a built-in accountability system because i know it’ll make her anxious if i don’t stick to our routine. having her there means i have opportunities everyday to practice taking new actions that feel good for the both of us. i suppose rituals really shows dogs that they can trust you and is like your loyalty in action. how might this translate to human relationships?

big pack leader energy

“Never, ever correct an animal out of anger or frustration. When you try to correct your dog out of anger, you are usually more out of control than your dog is. You are fulfilling your own needs, not the animal’s—and in a profoundly unhealthy way. Trust me, your dog will sense your unstable energy and often escalate her unwanted behavior instead. Remember, your dog is your mirror. The behavior you get back is usually, in some way, a reflection of your own.” —Cesar Millan

one of the concepts in dog training where i have a big learning curve is that you should never correct a dog out of frustration and anger. dogs won’t respond to that and it will actually result in them trusting you less. listening to my cesar audiobooks, he kept coming back to how humans must lead with calm and assertive energy.

being skillful with my anger has been a challenge for me. and anger aside, i feel an automatic level of pressure and stress when i am in the presence of other people. interestingly enough, because i’m her human, karuna’s behavior challenges are being fear aggressive with other dogs - something i believe she’s picked up from absorbing my stress response. when we’re walking and she sees another dog, she immediately lunges forward to attack it and begins snarl-barking. i rarely see her do that with humans, but this morning we were walking and a white woman coming from the other direction on the trail started walking directly towards us and enthusiastically talking to me about karuna’s backpack. her chattiness was unexpected, as well as her walking right up to us, and karuna lunged and barked at her like she would another dog. i was surprised karuna had done that and as we walked away i told her that ‘just because people are a little wacky, it doesn’t mean you gotta turn up on them!’ in that moment, i realized i should really take my own advice.

i’ve sat with why cultivating calm and assertive energy is a challenge for me. in the human world, i believe there is a place for anger - so this is by no means an argument against anger which can be a very dignified emotional response to harm. what’s tricky for me and subsequently karuna, is being able to turn that fear aggressive response off when we’re not in harms way. many of my folks who are also practicing somatic therapy might relate to this work of creating more choice than our conditioned tendency (adaptations of flight, fight, or freeze) allows for.

i’m still working with karuna every day on her/our fear aggressive behavior. inevitably we pass a handful of dogs on our morning walk, and each time i calmly and intentionally ‘nip’ her ear with my hand like another dominant dog might. i then say, “you’re safe” over and over again until she calms down and the other dog passes. again, she doesn’t know what the words mean but i’m hoping she can feel the energy behind them. in therapy, i’m doing the same thing with myself. i’m holding that angry energy that lives in my heart and slumped chest and saying, “good job keeping me safe.” my therapist has been really insightful in sharing that trying to act as if the anger isn’t there or to operate on top of it does not allow for flexible adaptability. the lesson here for me is that i really have to love and affirm myself into new behavior. i can’t hate, criticize, or force myself - or others - into taking new actions. to me, that is also a sign of being a pack leader. someone who can establish rules, boundaries, and limitations while also loving us into our own transformation.

i’ve been training my gaze to look for people who i see have the trust, respect, and loyalty of animals. i feel like pack leader energy is to have a right-sized sense of your place in the world. not above or below anyone, even if you hold a dominant role as a leader. to act with honesty, consistency, and compassion, even and especially when you have power over others - people, animals, or the land. and i long for this to be the new standard for our species.