01/27/2017: Rules and Boundaries

When I work with Abe (and my horses), I make sure I am positive in my attitude and methods, clear in my communication, consistent in my expectations, and patient in everything I do. I want the experience of working with me to be positive and, most importantly, fair to the animal.

However, even though I am positive, that does not mean that I don’t have rules and boundaries that I expect my dog and horses to follow. I absolutely do. Communicating to the animal that a boundary has been crossed or that a behavior is unacceptable doesn’t create fear in the dog as long as you’re fair and consistent! If you go overboard with an excessive correction, overuse it, and/or are inconsistent in your expectations (sometimes it’s okay, sometimes it’s not), you will create a fearful, anxious dog. What qualifies as “excessive” also depends on the dog! Abe, for example, is very sensitive to noise. Loud noises really bother him, and thunderstorms make him curl up on my pillow for comfort (we’re working on that). An excessive correction for him would be loud yelling.

In a dog that’s already fearful and anxious (like Abe!), structure will help the dog thrive! When Abe first came home (or any new dog, for that matter), he didn’t know what was expected of him, so he was anxious and apprehensive. Abe has a natural tendency to timidness, so anytime he’s unsure, he gets worried. Giving him a daily routine, structure, and clear expectations allows him to relax into his new life and live fearlessly. Now that I’ve had him for two months, he’s so much more relaxed because he knows what’s expected of him!

So if it’s okay to have rules and boundaries, what happens when they break the rules or cross the boundaries? That depends. Let’s look at a few examples.

When I first brought Abe home, I knew from the beginning that he would not be allowed on the furniture unless he is invited up by someone sitting there. So while he can’t just jump up on the couch on his own, I can ask him to join me if I’m sitting on the couch, and that’s okay. In the beginning, as he was learning this rule, he made mistakes. Being positive doesn’t mean that I can’t tell him he made a mistake; it just means that I am calm and fair in my communications. When he jumped up on the couch uninvited, I would simply get up (if I was sitting on the couch), tell him “off,” and get him off the couch by grabbing his leash and walking away (in the beginning, he always had a short leash on for this purpose). No leash pop, no angry voice, nothing. Then I would sit back down and repeat if necessary. Once he stopped trying to jump up uninvited, I would verbally praise him, wait about thirty seconds, and invite him up with an excited “c’mon!”

Similarly, in the beginning, I did not allow Abe up on my bed; he slept in a soft-sided crate at the foot of my bed. He didn’t even really try to get up on my bed in the beginning because I didn’t give him the option. If we were going into my room, I told him “crate” and sent him in. I never closed the door of the crate, but I did close the door to my room. There wasn’t really any other place for him to go, and he enjoys his “den,” so he stayed in there. After a while, I started allowing him up on the bed, BUT he had to go into his crate, wait for me to settle, and only come up when invited. To teach this, I followed the same procedure as before, but instead of saying “off,” I said “crate.” He now knows the routine and doesn’t require the verbal cues anymore. We go in my room, he lies down in his crate, I get settled, and I just say “Abey” if I want him up with me. And up he comes. I don’t always let him up, and in that case, he stays in his crate. Sometimes he’ll hop up for snuggles, but once I turn the light off to go to sleep, he goes back to his crate for the night on his own. I guess he must think I’m a bed hog! 😉

So that’s how I handle mistakes when I’m teaching new things. But how do I handle behaviors that I consider against the rules? Again, it depends. There are two main ways to handle it, depending on the behavior. You can 1. Teach the dog an alternative behavior that is incompatible with the undesired behavior, and/or 2. Correct the behavior. My preference is to attempt to teach an alternative, incompatible behavior, but sometimes I need to correct.

Here’s another few examples.

Abe LOVES to be outside, and he also gets super excited when I get home from work. When I get home from work, or when I put my coat on to take him outside, Abe becomes a big wiggly mess. He hops around and jumps up on the door (the door to outside or the door of the exercise pen he’s kept in while I’m at work). This isn’t a behavior that is dangerous in any way, so I taught him an alternative behavior to help decrease its occurrence. When he gets this way, he doesn’t get to go outside or get out of his pen until he sits quietly. I ignore the wiggling and jumping and simply get his attention and ask him to sit. Nothing happens until he does. When he sits, the door opens!

Abe also got into the habit of nipping at me when I tried to touch his feet. He would accept the first few touches, but then he would get overwhelmed and nip. At first, this was out of fear; his biting was intended to get me to stop because he was scared. The nip meant that I had made a mistake by going too fast! After the bite, he would try to get away and sometimes even lift his lip and/or growl. Because it was out of fear and the nip was my fault, I let him tell me when he was uncomfortable and would stop the touching. I continued with his training and slowly got him used to touching his paws, but he continued to be mouthy. Instead of a nip, he started lightly mouthing my hand instead to get me to stop touching his feet. After the light nip, there were no signs of fear… He learned that a nip would get me to stop touching! Once I determined that he was no longer mouthing out of fear, I needed to stop the behavior. There aren’t any alternative behaviors that would keep his mouth busy while I touch his paws; I already ask him to sit for the paw touches, and the nip doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s not sitting anymore. So I needed to correct the behavior to eliminate it. I use the same verbal interrupter (a sharp “hey”) across the board to quickly communicate that the behavior is against the rules and unacceptable. No physical corrections, ever… Just the sharp verbal interrupter. I’ve only ever had to do this once or twice. He quickly got the message and no longer uses his mouth inappropriately.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: I am NOT a professional in any way. I’m working with a positive trainer and do a lot of research, but I recognize that my expertise is in equines, not canines. It’s a learning process for me as well as Abe! If there are questions or anything that anyone would like to discuss, please let me know!

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