Q: You talk a lot about “rules, boundaries, and limitations.” What are they, and why are they so important?
A: They simply mean teaching a dog what it can and cannot do. In the wild, a mother dog will correct a puppy immediately when it behaves inappropriately until the puppy learns the rules of the pack. This is what we should be doing with our dogs in our homes as well — correcting them immediately when they break the rules, creating places where they can and cannot go, and redirecting them from unwanted behavior.
They are very important because, without them, a dog will make up its own rules, boundaries, and limitations, meaning that the dog becomes the Pack Leader instead of the humans. A dog without rules, boundaries, and limitations will never be balanced.
Q: What misbehaviors do you see in dogs without them?
A: The better question is which ones don’t I see? It depends on the underlying temperament of the dog, but failure to establish rules, boundaries, and limitations can lead to all kinds of bad behavior. A fearful dog can become anxious and destructive. A dominant dog can become aggressive. A happy-go-lucky dog can become over-excited.
Without rules, boundaries, and limitations, you can get separation anxiety, excessive barking, inappropriate chewing, aggression within the pack, biting, pulling on the leash, and on and on.
Q: How do we create rules, boundaries, and limitations for our dogs?
A: First and foremost, we have to always project calm, assertive energy. A dog will not follow unbalanced or excited energy, so yelling at them when they do wrong never works.
Ownership of territory is very important. Dogs in the wild claim space by first asserting themselves in a calm and confident way, and then communicating this ownership through clear body language signals and eye contact. In the same way, you need to claim your space in the home, and then you need to be consistent.
For example, a frequent problem people have is dogs rushing to the front door and barking when somebody knocks or rings the bell. In order to solve that problem, the human needs to establish an area around the door that belongs to them and not to the dog. That’s the boundary, and the rule is that the dog cannot enter it without your permission.
I’ve taught a lot of people how to do this and, when they do it right, a dog that used to love to bolt the second the door was opened will not move even if the door is wide open and the human walks outside.
You can also reinforce the rules by making your dogs wait calmly before they get a reward. When it’s walk time, wait until they are sitting calmly before the leash goes on, then you go out the door first while they have to wait until you give them the signal to follow. When it’s time to feed them, make them sit or lie down quietly and away from you, then make them wait until you’ve set the bowl down and signaled that they can eat.
To a dog, waiting is a psychological challenge and a form of work, and it reinforces the idea that they get rewards from you on your terms, not theirs. It also helps them learn to move into a calm, submissive state naturally when you’re about to give them something they want, so it associates that state of mind with a reward.
Q: Rules and boundaries make sense, but how do you define limitations?
A: Rules are the “what” and boundaries are the “where.” Limitations are the “when.” There may be perfectly appropriate times for your dog to bark, for example, but this doesn’t mean that she should keep doing it for a half an hour after the mailman comes. Your dog may love chewing on his favorite bone, but not when you’re trying to sleep. Your dog might want to play fetch all day long, but you only have half an hour.
Creating the rules and boundaries will then enable you to impose the limitations. When it’s time for your dog to stop chewing the bone, you should be able to reach right down and take it with no opposition, and when it’s time for your dog to stop barking, a simple correction should stop it.
As with my exercise, discipline, and affection fulfillment formula, rules, boundaries, and limitations work together. Establish the rules and set the boundaries in order to be the Pack Leader, and then you can impose the limitations any time you need to.
Q: What do you think is the number one reason that people don’t give their dogs rules, boundaries and limitations?
A: Because they’re afraid of hurting the dog’s feelings. Especially in America, people tend to give dogs nothing but affection, affection, affection — but when a dog gets that, it has no rules, boundaries, or limitations. It is rewarded no matter how it behaves, so it has no incentive to behave well.
What I try to teach people is that your dog won’t hate or resent you if you make them sit quietly before meal time or won’t let them into a certain room or onto a particular piece of furniture. Your dog wants to know what behavior you expect from them, and wants the satisfaction of working in order to get it.
The happiest dogs are the ones that know what they can and cannot do because it means they do not have to go through the effort of being the Pack Leader. That’s not their job. It’s yours.
Can you imagine what it would be like if people raised their children with nothing but constant affection and no guidelines on how to behave? We don’t seem to have a problem with setting rules, boundaries, and limitations for our kids and never worry about hurting their feelings when we do it.
Our dogs need this even more than our kids because we can’t explain it to them intellectually, we can only show them through our energy and body language. But, unlike our kids, at least our dogs won’t constantly ask us why they can’t do something. They’ll just accept the rule once it’s been established and enforced consistently.