Excuse me

August 24, 2010 at 8:57 pm 11 comments

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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?

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kari  |  August 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    my dogs would just snore and make me step over them

    Don’t forget, we moved to http://dogisgodinreverse.com

  • 2. Krsiti  |  August 26, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Great post! Not that I haven’t heard you preach this before but always a good reminder. Now if I can just train my girlfriend to train the dog too 🙂

  • 3. YesBiscuit  |  August 26, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Timely article for me – thanks! I’ve been saying “Personal space” to the dog instead of “Excuse me”. I’m very literal.

  • 4. Melinda  |  August 26, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Oh, this sounds so easy! Worked like a charm with my ES gang.

    And then there was Jet.
    Every. single. day. we work on this. He is wonderfully obedient in many ways. He has learned numerous commands and will move out of the way *on command*. But I don’t think he actually understands that respecting my body space is about more than just obeying a command. Does that make sense?

    Was working him on some agility foundation stuff the other day and it dawned on me that he does not respond in any way to pressure on his path, which made me think that he has no sense of his own personal space and perhaps that is why he has no real understanding of mine.

    Any thoughts on how a dog’s sense of their own personal space relates to their understanding of/respect for human personal space?


  • 5. SmartDogs  |  August 26, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    I don’t think a dog can fully understand the idea of politely sharing social space until he gets a good sense for how to move around in and effectively use the space around him.

    I would work a dog like this in a lot of short sessions of navigating irregular obstacles like downed logs, stream banks, small boulders, cavaletti poles, etc. When working with agility obstacles I’d focus almost entirely on slow, mindful movement rather than speed. Contacts, small sections of weave poles, complex patterns of low jumps. Teach him how to look before he leaps, that should help give him the tools he needs to understand that he really can think coherently about where his body – and yours – exist in space.

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  August 26, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    “I’m very literal” – it’s one of the things I like best about you 😉

  • 7. Amy@GoPetFriendly  |  August 27, 2010 at 1:15 am

    I think we should also teach people to respect dog’s personal space. We have a Shar-pei that is fearful of strangers, and despite our requests people insist on trying to pet him. Having your personal space invaded can be just as uncomfortable for a dog as you demonstrate with your human students.

  • 8. Brenda in Ohio  |  August 27, 2010 at 8:15 am

    I have a Scottish Deerhound who is very much like Jet. I appreciate your suggestions on how to help teach him about the space around him.

  • 9. Melinda  |  August 27, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Jet is a labradork. We love him to pieces but I’m not really convinced he even *has* personal space! 🙂 We keep working on it though. Maybe when his brain sprout gets another full leaf…

  • 10. H. Houlahan  |  August 28, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    That’s interesting about Jet.

    He is one of the nascent teenage gang that I had to “walk down” when they were in custody, because of the way they would mob humans in an exceedingly rude, bordering on assaultive, way.

    One of his brothers was the Alex to this band of droogs. Jet was his lieutenant. It took me a couple minutes to walk down the leader, about ten seconds to deal with Jet, and then the other brothers just sort of faded away whistling, hands in their pockets.

    So they *can* perceive personal space if someone commands their attention sufficiently. And they were *very* aware if the effect their crowding had on humans. There was nothing innocent about this mobbing when it was all four boys in a pen together. This was their entertainment, and also an experimental method.

    But he’s not accustomed to paying attention to his own body, or keeping a sense of proprioception in his consciousness.

    Three reasons for that —

    Genetics. Can’t change those.

    Early environment — lack of environmental enrichment to teach him how to move through space, be mindful of his whole body, perceive all three dimensions.

    Development –he’s stil a dork, and will grow less dorky with time — but you can improve that process with the kinds of exercises Janeen suggested.

    Also, a couple weeks living with any ES bitch >5 years old would turn him right around.

  • 11. Viatecio  |  August 30, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Very good blog, and I agree with Amy. In addition to teaching dogs about OUR personal space, we need to start really cracking down on teaching other people (and their dogs, most of whom are probably on flexis or straining at the leash) our DOG’s personal space. NO you may not pet my dog, and NO your dog may not sniff my dog’s butt. End of story, and no apologies for hurt feelings. School of hard knocks, and all that jazz.

    I have a friend who really needs to read this, but even if she did, nothing would change…she is very permissive and her husband is very inconsistent…and they’re now adding a Rott/pit puppy to their menagerie of a Shih-poo and “pinball” GSD… *facepalm*

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