He’s right. A good pet dog would have.
Whether you walk on two legs or four, honoring someone else’s personal space is a universal sign of respect among social creatures.
I like demonstrate this the first week of my beginning obedience classes by standing uncomfortably close to one of my human students. Once I’ve crowded the person to a visibly irritating extent I ask them how they feel. Replies typically run to some combination of: “Uncomfortable.” “Irritated.” “Like I want to move away.” “That you’re a very rude person.”
While most humans have an innate understanding of the rules of personal space within our own species, we tend to fall miserably short when it comes to applying this important idea into the way we live with our dogs.
There are strict cultural rules about how we interact with strangers, friends, relatives and loved ones in space, but puppies and babies are exempt from those rules. If a strange toddler jumps into my lap and kisses me, I’m probably going to react more in delight than disgust. A random teenage boy who takes the same liberties will not get the same kind of reaction.
Because it takes more than a decade for an innocent baby who doesn’t understand social rules to morph into a teenager who flouts them, it makes perfect sense to us that the two creatures should be held to different standards. The problem is that a dog makes this transition almost overnight.
And so we forget to teach our dogs to respect our personal space.
We keep dogs partly because they have a charming tendency to reward our attention with lavish affection. Touch is a vital part of the human – canine relationship. Problems arise, however, when we blindly accept physical contact from our dogs in all situations.
Like the rude teenager who crowds you into a clothes rack at the mall and laughs as he clears the sidewalk with his skateboard, a pinball dog has no respect for the rules of shared space. Pinball dogs are the rude, pushy beasts who knock over furniture and small humans, jump on visitors, trample flowerbeds and otherwise wreak physical havoc on nearly everything they come into contact with. Some of these dogs are good-hearted but socially inept while others understand the rules and choose to exploit them for their own evil purposes.
Barbarian or boor, a dog that crashes through life like a four-legged demo derby champion isn’t much fun to live with. And like a pushy teenager searching for boundaries, he’s not really comfortable with the situation he finds himself in.
Dogs are social creatures. They have an innate sense of the importance of courtesy. As I’ve written here before, Peggy Post’s “Emily Post’s Etiquette“ includes several pearls of wisdom applicable to modern life with dogs. I especially like this bit from the introduction:
Etiquette must be active. It isn’t enough to know what to do. Courtesy matters only when it is translated into everyday behavior – not just put on for show when it’s convenient. The rewards of an active commitment to everyday courtesy are myriad, though not often tangible. There are also important personal rewards that some people may not even be aware of, including the self-confidence that comes from knowing what to do in new or difficult situations; a positive reputation with others; and personal relationships that are more congenial, even in times of stress, because the people involved treat one another with respect.
Teaching and maintaining a formalized set of behaviors (i.e. rules of etiquette) to your dog gives him a roadmap that helps him navigate an often alien human world. It’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give him.
“Yielding” is a fair and gentle way to teach your dog to respect your personal space using methods he understands naturally. Teaching your dog to “yield” is incredibly simple. All you need to do is use the side (not toe) of your foot or outside edge of your leg (not the point of your knee) to nudge him out of your way. This must be accomplished with gentle but insistent nudging, never a kick or poke.
As you nudge your dog say “Excuse me”. Repeat the phrase with each nudge and keep nudging him with an even, insistent cadence until he moves. Once your dog moves, praise him and step through the space he was occupying when you started the exercise. Only make him move once. If you pester a dog with incessant nudging and make him move repeatedly you’ll either convince him that you’re a clueless dolt or incite him to the kind of rousing body slam games you were trying to cure in the first place.
Practice the exercise several times a day in a calm, matter-of-fact way. And once you start doing Yielding exercises with your dog stop stepping over or around him when he’s in the way. Considerate people will move out of your way when space requires it, you should expect the same kind of courtesy from your dog.
If you have a very large dog or one who is skilled in manipulating the law of inertia in his favor, begin by practicing yielding when the dog is sitting or standing. If you’ve got a small dog or one who’s naturally more polite and conscious about space you may want to start by practicing the exercise when the dog is lying down. (And if you have an aggressive dog – get professional help before you embark on any kind of training program.)
Your goal is to teach the dog to calmly and agreeably move out of the way without being nudged.
It may seem like a silly and somewhat pointless exercise, but Yielding is an important part of my training program. Once your dog understands that he needs to move out of the way when you say “Excuse me” you’ve got a way to stop him from jumping up on you because a dog cannot possibly move politely out of your way and jump up on you at the same time. Yielding is a convenient way to teach the dog not to cut in front of you when he’s on a leash. You can also use it to move a dog off the furniture and to stop him from jumping up on counters. And asserting your space is a great way to reinforce the “Leave it” command and teach a dog to wait at doors.
Yielding teaches a dog to think about what he’s doing with his body and how it affects those around him. It’s an important part of proper human-canine etiquette. And it’s an incredibly easy thing to teach your dog to do. So – what are you waiting for?