What do you think of when you see the word boundaries? Do you see fences? Do you see yourself safe inside them, or trapped? Are you keen to see what’s on the other side? Or are you happy to stay in a very defined world? Maybe boundaries makes you think of ‘knowing your place’. Or of not overstepping boundaries in case you offend or displease someone? Whether a boundary is a physical distinction between two places or a more abstract concept, it can be seen as both positive and negative. Teaching our dogs boundaries can been seen in the same way. But how we teach those boundaries can have a huge effect on how they are perceived and received. Of how challenging them can be all consuming. Or how living within them can be a positive choice rather than an imposition.
Let’s start with the most obvious boundaries – fences. The main reason I bought my house was because it had a fenced garden and wasn’t really overlooked. With fields running behind the garden this fenced area would be perfect for my dogs. Fences keep my dogs safe. Stops them from running around the street where they could be stolen or run over. Stops them from bothering people or animals in the neighbourhood. Gives me peace of mind and gives them freedom of outdoor movement within their home.
I’ve found that different dogs react to the fences in different ways. For ease of explanation, and because I do’t expect you to know all my dogs, and foster dogs, by name, I’m going to split them into breed types.
The spaniels and terriers tend to patrol the fenceline. They check it for breaches. Holes or weak points where they could push or dig their way out of the garden. Opportunities to explore the wider world outside the boundary. On the whole, the labs and lurchers ignore the fences. They seem happy with the enclosure, not looking to see what’s on the other side unless invited. And the collie types have been concerned when a gate is accidentally left open or the boundary breaks. But when secure, these are the dogs who ‘bravely’ bark through the fences and poke their noses under the gate to ward off intruders. The boundaries seem to make them feel safe and brave.
Inside and outside
Crucial to how the boundaries are perceived is what is happening both inside and outside them. For about two thirds of the time I’ve lived here, nothing much happened outside the fence. But for the last 7 or so years, more and more people have started walking their dogs behind and between the fences that segregate the gardens so that they can access the once quiet fields. This has caused some uproar from the fenced dogs. Some spend much of their day barking at these ‘intruders’. And as time goes on, at unexpected noises or movement whether or not generated by other dogs. Of course, this can also apply to the boundaries that separate joining gardens. While this alarm barking and focus on the fences is annoying and mostly unwanted, it doesn’t have to be difficult to fix.
Most importantly is not giving the dogs unsupervised access to the enclosed gardens. Combine this with rewards for moving their focus from what’s happening on the other side of the fence to what’s happening inside their areas and you have a recipe for success. Direct engagement with the dog using play and training exercises, even just simple repetitions of the sits, stands and downs, is a great way to refocus the dog, to help her see that what she can be doing inside her own area is much more fun, more rewarding, than trying to police what’s happening outside. Indirect engagement using food delivery toys such as Kongs and puzzle games can be a good solution when you are busy outdoors, perhaps mowing the lawn or gardening, and when it’s more difficult to give your dog 100% attention.
As we left Winter and Spring weather made time in the garden more pleasant, I used to give my terrier Archie a reminder of the rules of being in the garden. I reminded him that whenever other dogs were around he would get stuffed Kongs and play retrieve games with me. He would play find it games for treats while I hung out the washing. And that if he chose to ignore those positive options and decided to bark, that he would have to go indoors. This annual reminder of the garden rules worked well. It allowed Archie to enjoy many a summer’s day baking in the sunshine no matter what was happening outside.
But now that we have more people walking their dogs, both the quiet dogs and the yippy dogs, and fewer neighbours making the effort to teach their dogs the simple garden rules that would allow everyone to enjoy their gardens, teaching good boundary behaviour is much more difficult. When other dogs are barking, bouncing at and running up and down the boundaries (fence running), it is so provocative that it is difficult for the best behaved, most laid back dogs to endure. The sad fact is that the dogs who are engaging in these activities are not having fun either. They are subject to great stress, physical and emotional. I see high levels of arousal and low levels of contentment.
When I worked in rescue where groups of dogs were housed in multi-dog enclosures, separated only by chain link fencing, I learned all too well about the dangers of fence running. From the occasional dogs who revelled in the adrenalin rush; to the followers who joined in but seemed ill-equipped to deal with the fall-out; to the bystanders who found it distressing and who had learned the hard way to steer clear of the boundaries while this was happening in order to prevent being barged or even attacked as arousal tipped over into displacement and redirection. None of the dogs benefitted from this behaviour. There were, and are, no positives for the dogs on either side of the fence.
Moving from physical to more abstract ideas of boundaries, the issues are very similar. Dogs who feel forced into unwanted behaviours, such as fence running, can feel constrained and conflicted when ‘made’ to behave in certain ways. I suppose the classic example is of the dog who is punished for pulling on lead when she’s not been taught an alternative option. So much time can be taken up by punishing the unwanted behaviour that little thought is given to teaching the dog how you’d like her to behave. It’s a common human trait and one that often seems to be chosen before many others, such as empathy and logic.
I think of this every time I start the car. If I fail to click the seatbelt in place in a timely manner, the car starts beeping at me. I understand that the manufacturer’s intention is to remind me to put my seatbelt on to stay safe. But by using negative reinforcement (the beeping stops when I put the seatbelt on) I feel that I am being positively punished (I get beeped at for not putting the belt on soon enough.) And this makes me incredibly resentful. I know the seatbelt should help keep me safe (let’s not go into the disadvantages of wearing seatebelts that are designed for men) but the method for ‘helping’ me use it works against the desired outcome.
Don’t say no!
The culture of not saying no to the dog is one that I have seen making increasing traction over the years that I’ve been training. Simply telling the dog no, to stop pulling on the lead, simply doesn’t work with most dogs (never say never or always in training!) Instead consider other options such as rewarding the dog when the lead is loose. Or stopping forward movement when the lead is tight. Just saying no doesn’t actually teach the dog what you would like her to do. Or how you would like her to behave. It’s not instructive. It’s leads you down dead ends rather than opening up solutions.
I’ve always taught clients that when looking for solutions they should think about what behaviour they do want rather than on what behaviour they don’t. For example, you might not want your dog to jump up at people. Rather than saying no and perhaps punishing the unwanted behaviour, it can be much more effective to actively teach sit or fetch or find it or go to bed. All behaviours that are incompatible with jumping up and which give the dog an opportunity to gain rewards.
Behaviour which is rewarding is more likely to be repeated and so desirable behaviour leads to more rewards leads to more desirable behaviour. A lovely circle of reinforcement. Just telling the dog no gives her nowhere to go. Good outcomes depend on her hitting on a behaviour that doesn’t result in punishment. What if she never works that out? Just teach what you want and cut out all the faff!
But this doesn’t mean that I never say no to my dogs. I use it as an interrupter. An imperative that means they should stop whatever they are doing and get ready for a request. Therefore I might say no!, or hey!, or oy! when I don’t want my dogs to say hello to another dog. I’d follow that with a request to leave or to return to me. More often than not I’ll issue the request without the no. But at times when I’m caught by surprise, or can’t get my dog’s attention or am just not on my game, I’ll say no.
No can be used in just about any scenario. It’s a catch all cue that gets the dog’s attention immediately. It allows me time to gather my thoughts before deciding what I’d like them to do. I don’t use it very often, and I prefer not to use it. But it is part of our communication toolbox and it is effective.
Never say no?
The use of no has become more controversial with some saying that it should never be used. But remember what I said about never saying never in dog training? For some the banning of the word no has become entangled with being completely permissive, with not giving the dog behavioural boundaries. Living with a dog, or a person for that matter, who has no behavioural boundaries is, in my opinion, foolish, reckless and selfish.
Even if I lived on my dream island where nobody ever landed, to give my dogs unfettered freedom could still mean that they could drown or fall off a cliff or get injured. Living in a society we should consider the wellbeing of others. Therefore it’s only right that we should modify our and our dog’s behaviour to ensure everyone can live side by side. Setting boundaries is essential. You might not care if your dog never returns to you when off lead. But I care. I don’t want my dogs, or children, to be scared. Or for your dog to be hurt by another dog or a car.
Boundaries bring more certainty, more stability. Living in a world where you haven’t been taught the, or at least some, rules is to put your dog at a disadvantage. Once you understand the rules you can make a decision about following them. But if you don’t know the rules, don’t know the consequences of breaking them, you are always in a position of fear or defence or aggression.
Being taught, learning, that not everything will always go your way, is the gift of freedom. Knowledge, understanding, skill all give choice. Ignorance is not freedom. Constantly wondering if you are doing the right thing, if you will get in trouble or be punished for crossing a boundary you didn’t even know existed is cruel. Saying no without teaching the value of yes is unfair. But your dog will not love you less because you sometimes say no. Or because you set boundaries. Done positively, these are the very things that will improve your relationship.