In nearly every situation I find as a trainer, the very first step to resolving behavioral issues is creating boundaries. The easiest way for us to envision what this means, and intuitively implement them, is to remember that most dogs have the intelligence of a 3 year old child. A child this age must be taught that she cannot bolt out the door into the street, eat anything and everything she wants, stay up all night, climb book cases, throw tantrums to get what she wants or knock things off the table for fun. These behaviors come naturally to children, but they are not only inappropriate, but can be dangerous. Because a child this age cannot yet rationalize why something is inappropriate, and therefore self-correct their own behavior, it is our responsibility to ensure that 1. They do not have access to these things or permission to do the inappropriate behavior, and 2. They are corrected when they do them anyway. This is the way children stay out of trouble while simultaneously learn that what we say goes and slowly but surely those behaviors begin to resolve themselves.
The thing is, children have restricted freedom until they are older and mature enough to begin to understand their behaviors and therefore can self-correct, where a dog remains a 3 year old for it’s entire life. This means a dog requires the management we would have of a toddler for 12+ years. Most dogs are much, much easier and less time consuming than a human toddler, but some dogs are absolutely on par. The very high drive breeds like Belgian Malinois, working line German Shepherds and most gundogs means that their owners are living with the seemingly never ending movement and curiosity of a toddler, but a toddler that will absolutely destroy your home, bite your children and become insanely neurotic when they are bored. Just like a bored toddler will wreak havoc, so too will a dog. Fortunately, most dogs are not quite that demanding, but the management of their behaviors to keep them out of trouble remains exactly the same as it would be for a small child.
A difference between a 3 year old and a dog is how we communicate with them. Most 3 year olds have a good grasp of language and are able to understand fairly complex concepts like “you cannot climb the bookshelf because you could fall and hurt yourself”, and this explanation is something sufficient at curbing the behavior, at least in the moment. Dogs, however, do not speak or understand verbal explanation. Instead, dogs understand physical restriction of freedom and, mercifully, will learn to respect those boundaries without much insistence from us once we teach them to. The ever-popular phrase “because I said so” is not always the best to use for children, who are more likely to curb their behavior when they have an explanation of why it is inappropriate and the consequences, but for dogs it is EXACTLY what we are teaching them, and unlike children, they accept it without question. It makes sense to them and they surrender to it very quickly. A child is much more likely to stop climbing bookcases when they understand that they may be hurt as a consequence than if they simply hear “because I said so”. To a child, that phrase is completely arbitrary and it will take them a while to finally get it, and harsh punishment is often required. But to a dog, this method is exactly what they expect and therefore it is fair and species appropriate.
So what are boundaries for dogs?
In short, whatever you want them to be. As a trainer, it is always my recommendation that when training begins you implement very strict freedom restriction: no getting on the bed or furniture, no unsupervised free time, no eating without explicit invitation, no pulling on the leash, no barking or whining or aggressing when they are frustrated, limit access to the kitchen, no moving through doors before you, etc. These micromanagements are necessary for the dogs to get the picture: you make the rules, not the dog, you control the good stuff like food and affection, not the dog, and you mean it. Every. Single. Time. What happens is that the dog fights back hard for about a week, and then they surrender. You will know when they surrender when they no longer fight you on the leash, or jump on the couch even though you are trying to push them away, or bolt out the door. Once these behaviors are repeated without prompt, then you get to decide which you want to keep and which you want to give some slack to. For example, if you don’t mind the dog being on the couch with you, then once they understand that they cannot jump on the couch themselves, you begin to allow them to come up ONLY when they are invited to by you. And the moment they begin to abuse this privilege and go back to obnoxious jumping, you go back to square one and try again. Eventually, they will get it. But this takes practice, and patience.
But that is so mean! / But he loves sleeping with me! / Dogs should be free!
The first thing out of almost everyone’s mouth… Dogs have the intelligence of a 3 year old, learn from boundaries like a 3 year old, but are absolutely not a 3 year old. Dogs are not human. This is not saying that they are less-than, it simply means that they are a different species with wildly different needs, rationale and understanding of the world. It is disrespectful to your dog to treat them as such, and it is unfair to them when they are then punished for expressing the behaviors that result from that freedom. You may think it is mean or cruel to enforce this restriction, but truly it is mean and cruel to not enforce them because of the emotional stress they experience (not to mention your own too) when they are constantly being punished for behaviors you have unintentionally told them is perfectly acceptable. In addition, dogs with unlimited freedom tend to have a lot of anxiety. Dogs thrive on routine and instruction, they are wired to look to humans for solutions to problems and to let them loose to problem solve on their own is a very stressful thing for them. A dog with strong boundaries and restricted freedom is calm, has solid impulse control and is able to think through situations before they act. It is essentially the equivalent of the maturation of a child – boundaries mature our dogs emotionally. So it is truly an unkindness to allow this freedom because it is what we would want, and it is disrespectful to have the ethnocentricity to assume our way of doing things is the right way for dogs as well.
Some boundaries for your dog:
Remember that the follow are the Training 101 steps, and once the dog begins to submit to these rules, you can begin to allow the behaviors you find acceptable but only with your permission. You may be ok with your dog being on your bed, but he cannot choose to get there on his own. The dog must be taught to ask for permission and to only do so when you allow it. This means if you want breakfast in bed, you don’t have a dog flying into you at will, or when you have guests over that your dog doesn’t make a flying leap onto their laps without their consent.
Also keep in mind that implementing the following is not easy. You must be willing to push your dog off the couch 100 times in a row if necessary. Some dogs are very stubborn but know that as long as you remain consistent, they will learn. I haven’t yet met a dog that didn’t eventually accept these restrictions.
1. No getting on furniture or bed.
This is actually a really important one for a few reasons. First, it is annoying to have a dog jump on you unexpectedly or knock over kids on the couch or whatever and it is your damn home, and you make the rules, not them. But even more insidious is when dogs begin to feel that they have the right to be there, and when you decide they are getting down, they aggress. This is known as “resource guarding” and it is extremely common. Your dog basically says “no way” when you try to move them and they can growl or even bite you. This can progress to be not only when you try to move them but when you get on “their” furniture at all. Your dog may decide that it is his couch, and nobody else is allowed. Including children or other pets. This is a further problem when the dog decides that you and the couch are his and if anybody else comes close they will aggress. You see this a lot with beds and a dog not allowing the owner’s partner or kids to get in bed with them. This is a totally unacceptable behavior and has the potential to literally be deadly, especially for other pets.
2. No free lunch.
Dogs love to eat, and they are constantly begging for food. This pulls at our heart strings and our instinct is to offer them food just like we would if our children were begging us to eat. The reality is that, assuming you are feeding them, our dogs are not starving to death. Dogs are like bottomless pits and many will eat and eat until they literally vomit (and then proceed to eat the vomit and then beg for more food). This does not mean that they are hungry, it does not mean that their worlds will collapse if we don’t allow them to have what we are having or having a treat whenever you walk in the kitchen. These things can be given while adhering to this boundary, but they must only be given when they ask out permission in the form of sitting or another simple behavior. The dog also shouldn’t be allowed to snatch the food out of our hands or bombard us with their bodies until we give it to them.
3. Limit affection/touch/excited voice/eye contact.
This is a tricky one to implement. It is not often talked about and it is also really hard for us to enforce because we feel that it is mean. But, ready for it? Dogs are not children. Go ahead and do that a few more times. A child may feel sad, left out or neglected if they aren’t given a hug or kiss when they ask for one, but dogs do not. Dogs love affection, but they actually don’t require it AT ALL. When watching doggy best friends, the most affection they show each other is the occasional grooming of an ear or mouth. Otherwise, they are completely joyed and content simply by being in their presence and playing occasionally. Our dogs demanding our attention is not because they are lonely or feeling neglected, they do it because they love it. But we can’t always have everything we love, and the reality is that when dogs are touched vigorously or spoken to in an animated baby voice or are given prolonged eye contact, they become very excited and their drive goes through the roof. That drive will make them freak out with enthusiasm, but it also accompanies anxiety, and that anxiety is often redirected in the form of aggression. Additionally, like with furniture, your dog will begin to guard your affection. When another creature then comes into your vicinity, they may react badly to them. That creature may be another pet, or it may be your kid or spouse. Affection is something very enjoyable to a dog, and they tend to guard things they enjoy from anybody else. This overt and constant affection can also cause aggression towards other family members/pets even when it is not happening in the moment. Dogs that get a lot of attention tend to go on a sort of ego trip and it can lead to a lot of behavioral problems, some of them being very, very serious. Instead, you can offer these things when the dog asks for them politely, or at other times when you feel particularly lovey towards them. This should happen 2 or 3 times a day max while the dog is in training.
In conclusion, boundaries seem cruel, but it is really a cruelty to avoid them. Nearly every dog who is euthanized for aggression, when in a home that enforces the above boundaries, is completely healthy and happy. So, so many behavioral problems that lands dogs in shelters can be literally cured with these and a dog that doesn’t act out is a calm and happy dog. It is a disservice to neglect these practices because we would feel bad if we experienced them. Dogs are not human, they experience the world completely differently than we do, and their emotional and physical requirements are also very different. Put ethnocentricity aside and respect dogs for their own personal culture, which thrives on boundaries.