Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Pick up ten books on dog training and you’ll find ten different opinions: you should always eat before your dog; dogs should never be allowed to sleep on your bed; you should always go out of doorways before your dog; and, you should never let your dog walk ahead of you on leash. That’s an awful lot of “always” and “nevers.” And they all have one thing in common: they’re meant to teach your dog who’s in charge.
I've just finished feeding my dogs, and I haven’t eaten yet. Are my dogs gleefully celebrating this obvious clue that they’re about to inherit the kingdom? I doubt it. It might shock you to know that at my house—the house of a professional canine behavior specialist—my dogs often eat before I do. And, hold on to your hats, they sometimes go out doorways first. Sometimes—gasp!—they even walk ahead of me on leash. The trick is, it’s up to me when those things happen. If I open the back door of the house, I don’t mind if my dogs race out ahead. That is, most of the time I don’t mind. If I’ve got something in my hands or there’s another reason I want to exit first, I’ll give them a cue to wait, or let them know with my body language to hang back. But when we’re going out the front door for walks, all bets are off. I expect them to sit on a mat and wait until I’ve clipped their leashes on, and then wait until I open the door, look around, and give the release word. The routine never varies, as we have rattlesnakes out here and I do a careful porch scan each and every time before we go out.
Everyone’s rules will be different, based on their lifestyle and needs. It doesn’t matter what your house rules are, so long as you have them. Just as one parent’s mandates on curfews or borrowing the car will differ from another’s, some owners allow their dogs to sleep on their bed, while others don’t. Although our dogs aren’t allowed in our bedroom at all (my husband’s choice), I don’t have a problem with anyone’s dogs sleeping on their bed so long as there’s no aggression or related behavior issues, the dog is invited up, and there’s no snarkiness when they’re asked to get down.
Rules and boundaries are important, but some people are just working too hard. A man who emailed me years ago always spit in his dog’s food before serving it, to prove he was boss. (All I can think of is that dog’s incredulous expression and the canine equivalent of “Eeuuuu!”) A woman I know of always chews a cracker before feeding her dogs to show she’s eaten first and is therefore in charge. The thing is, we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs, therefore we control all the good stuff. We can open doors; clip on leashes for walks; open containers of food and treats; and a lot more. Sure, I eat before my dogs do—sometimes. Our dogs are allowed on the couch, but only when I’ve put a large, woven blanket over it first. Those are our choices, and the way we run our home. Your mileage will vary. But don’t believe all of those “you musts” that are still floating around out there. You absolutely should be the one in charge, but it’s not about following someone else’s ideas of what’s right for all dogs. It’s about setting your own rules, creating boundaries, and teaching your dog to respect them.
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