I’m writing this as a quick cheat sheet that is based on my experience working and consulting with countless dog owners. I get calls and emails everyday about owners who are struggling with various behavior issues with their dog, owners who want to surrender their dog to shelters because of those behavior issues, and owners who are planning on having their dog put down because they simply can’t control their dog. I see perfectly good family dogs suffering in shelter cages because of simple behavior issues that could have been solved or prevented by using some of the points outlined below.
Dogs thrive on consistent structure and rules. Dogs want to be led. By nature, dogs are pack animals. That means, there is one leader in the pack and the rest follow behind. The followers do not need to think or make decisions, and feel no responsibility because they just listen. In my opinion, the #1 reason why we see dogs with behavior issues in homes is because there is a distinct lack of consistent structure, rules, and leadership. When this occurs, the dog feels the need to become the leader and make decisions in every given situation. Not only is this unnatural, but it can lead to anxiety, stress, and aggression on the dog’s part. That’s why owners need to position themselves as the leader in the home, who is in charge of making decisions and rules, and who maintains a consistent structure. In doing this, not only will you make your life easier and less stressful, but your dog will feel more relaxed and reassured that they are safe and in good hands.
In no way am I suggesting that any or all of these below mentioned points are perfect for your particular dog/scenario; you are free to choose the ones you think apply or not use them at all. I am providing this as a resource based on my experience and my own personal opinion on how a dog should “ideally” be raised in order to prevent and/or improve behavior issues. You should consult with a qualified professional who can work with you and your dog in person in order to address your specific needs. These are rules that I follow, and recommend to many of my personal clients. These are not blanketed statements that I have conjured up; they are utilized for a purpose. This list has worked time and time again in the real world with family dogs. I am providing them simply as a reference. I hope you find this list as educational and helpful as my clients have!
– Address any behavior issue as soon as possible; do not let the undesired behavior become engrained. I always feel it is best to be proactive with laying a proper foundation of structure, routine, and obedience for your dog to follow. However, if your dog is already displaying undesirable behaviors, all is not lost. You really can “teach an old dog new tricks.” Using simple, fair, and effective training, you can train any dog. It is essential that you begin working on improving your dog’s behavior right NOW. Do not let your dog’s undesirable behavior become more engrained. Replace your dog’s “bad behavior” with a good one.
– Begin training your puppy now; there is no need to wait. It is essential to train your puppy and lay a proper foundation that will last a lifetime. It is far better to be proactive and prevent behavior issues, than it is to have to go back and improve upon the “bad behavior” once it’s developed. Read my article Puppy Training.
– Only use fair, safe, and effective training methods. There is absolutely NO reason to use archaic training methods that involve harsh corrections and inhumane practices. Use a training system that is safe, fair, effective, and has a track record of success with all breeds of dogs ranging from puppy-to senior-age dogs.
– Feed your dog twice per day – a.m. and p.m. feeding (puppies will eat more frequently). Being in charge of your dog’s feeding schedule is one way to help elevate your status from your dog’s point of view. You become the provider of a key aspect of their life: food. A predictable feeding schedule is also very important for housebreaking and improving/preventing behavior issues such as separation anxiety.
– Have your dog sit and wait for their food. Having your dog sit politely and wait for food adds one additional element of structure to their routine, and helps to improve behavior when around food. We do not want a dog to demonstrate pushy or hyperactive behavior when in the presence of food.
– Provide your dog a structured play session at least once per day. Play sessions are a fun bonding time for both dog and owner. Games such as tug, fetch, and Frisbee provide a great outlet for a dog’s pent up energy. However, these games need to be played in a structured way with set rules. Dogs do not inherently know how to play any game, it is our job to teach them the rules. Just as we would not expect a child to know how to play soccer without teaching it to them first, we can’t expect our dog to know how to play fetch or tug without teaching it to them. Learn How to Play a Structured Game of Tug with your dog or Teach Your Dog to Play Fetch.
– Do NOT allow your dog free access to toys – they are only brought out when you want to play a structured game with them or when you leave them home alone. Dogs should not have free access to toys or chew bones when you are home. All toys and bones are yours that you allow them to play with. We want the dog to learn that the only items they are allowed to chew on and play with are the ones you provide to them. I get plenty of calls from owners who have a dog who is stealing their items (socks, shoes, etc.) and chewing on furniture, windowsills, and moldings. Besides having too much pent up energy and not the right outlet for it, the dog cannot distinguish between what is an appropriate toy and what is not. This is also another important dimension to establishing leadership, which can help to prevent countless issues such as resource guarding. These are just a few reasons why dogs do not have free access to toys. You bring out the toy when you are going to play with them or when you leave the home for extended periods of time, and you pick up the toy once you return home.
– Provide your dog at least two structured walks per day, not a walk where your dog is leading by dragging you down the road. A structured walk is not only a great way to exercise your dog and relieve their energy, but it is a fundamental leadership tool that most owners are missing out on. Dogs by nature migrate and travel in packs. The dog who sets the direction of the pack is the leader; all other dogs follow and do not feel like they need to make important decisions (they remain in a relaxed and unadrenalized state).
It is essential that you control and lead the walk with your dog. Your dog should NOT be pulling you down the road, choking themselves on their collar, constantly sniffing and marking trees/bushes, barking and lunging at passing people, cars, bike, dogs, etc. A structured walk is when the dog is walking comfortably at your side (the leash is loose, no tension), ignoring passersby, and only stopping to sniff and go to the bathroom when you allow them to. We want our dog to be in a calm and relaxed state where they feel like you are leading them on the walk and they do not have to assess everything that is going on. Utilizing a structured walk two to three times per day gives several opportunities to relieve your dog’s energy and further establish yourself the leader by controlling the walk. Creating a structured walk pattern (even if you’ve been struggling with it for years) can often times be taken care of in as little as one training session.
– Have your dog sit and wait at the threshold before entering and exiting the home, car, and crate. Having your dog sit and politely wait until released when entering and exiting the home, car, and crate are prime opportunities to utilize obedience commands in everyday life. The simple task of waiting when we request it requires impulse control and helps to set the tempo of a calm following pack member. Having your dog sit at the doorway before going for a walk sets the tone for the rest of the walk. It established that the walk is going to be calm, relaxed, and controlled by you. Think of how that compares to the way you currently walk your dog. Right now it is probably excited, jumping up and down, and dragging you outside with you barely able to close the door behind you.
– Do NOT allow your dog on furniture (beds, couches, chairs, etc.) – provide them their own dog bed on the floor. I never recommend that anyone allow their dog to be on the furniture. I know many owners love to have their dog on the couch or bed with them, and many owners do this and experience no issues at all. However, I get the calls from owners who say their dog is marking the furniture, or guarding the couch and bed from their spouse or guests. This possessive behavior often stems from a sense of entitlement. They feel that the furniture is theirs, and they do not want to share it with other people. This leads to countless avoidable dog bites every year. Simply do NOT allow your dog on the furniture. My default suggestion for owners is to simply provide your dog their own dog bed on the floor next to where you are sitting and the dog will be just as happy and content as if they were on the furniture. This is also helpful with addressing the issues of avoiding over indulgence of affection and creating separation between you and your dog. Both of which I discuss later in this article. Here is a simple and easy way to Keep Your Dog Off Furniture.
– Never allow your dog to jump on you or guests when you enter the home. Never allow your dog to jump on you or anyone else. This is a terrible behavior that most owners encourage when the dog is just a puppy. They think it is cute and fun, but you have to ask yourself, “Is this behavior my dog is displaying now, going to be cute and fun when they are a full size dog?” The answer is always NO. You can’t allow your dog to jump on you when you’re wearing your yard work clothes on the weekend, and not expect them to jump on you when you come home from work during the week wearing a suit. Dogs can’t differentiate between the two – it is unfair to expect them to. Simply do NOT allow your dog to jump on anyone. Not only is it impolite and not fun to have a dog run and jump on you when you are a guest at someone’s home, but it is a huge safety concern, especially when dealing with children and the elderly. If your dog is already jumping on people, don’t worry, just put a stop to it now. Teach them it’s no longer okay to do, and make sure you are not intentionally or unintentionally reinforcing the habit of jumping. This is an easy and simple way to stop your dog’s jumping on people.
– Crate your dog at night and when you are gone for the day (utilize safe crate training methods). I believe it is important for every dog to be properly crate trained and crated at night or when left home alone. Some owners feel bad that their dog is in a crate. It is natural for dogs to be in a “den” and feel safe and secure. Of course, the crate must be appropriately sized and you can’t keep your dog in there for extended periods of time without access to the outside. The crate is a terrific household management tool, is essential to housebreaking, and is part of my separation anxiety protocol. I also believe it is important for every dog to feel comfortable in a crate just in case you need to travel with them or need to leave your dog at the Vet’s office over night. Learn about my Structured Crate Protocol.
– You control when your dog is to go out for a walk and to the bathroom, the dog should NOT signal to you when they want to go outside. Many owners think it is useful and “the way it should be” for their dog to signal when they want/need to go outside. This is simply not true. The owner should set their dog on a predictable schedule and let the dog know when they can go to the bathroom or out for a walk. Not only is this another leadership opportunity for the owner to be in charge of, but it is essential to housebreaking and aids with preventing/improving separation anxiety. This is very easy to do, simply take your dog out first thing in the morning, before bed, and at spaced out intervals (or whatever your schedule allows) during the day.
– Do NOT overindulge your dog with affection – do NOT acknowledge your dog when they try to solicit affection from you (pawing at you, nudging you, barking, etc.). Rather, call your dog to you and give affection in short bursts (10 secs. or less). Just like with not allowing a dog on furniture, this is one where a lot of people will be up in arms that I am suggesting this. But once again, this simple rule can prevent a lot of issues for both dog and owner. A big component of separation anxiety is a dog’s withdrawal from the physical, verbal, and spatial attention that the owner provides when they are home. It is normal, and a big part of dog ownership, to want to be with your dog and to show them attention/affection. However, over indulgence (as with anything) can have negative repercussions. It is also important to be alert to when your dog is trying to solicit attention from you by using pushy behavior. Do NOT acknowledge your dog when they try to make you pet them (ex. pawing at you, nudging you, barking, etc.). Rather, simply ignore them until they calm down and stop being pushy. Or, call your dog to you, make them perform a command such as Sit, and then give them affection in short bursts (10 secs. or less). Remember, we want our dog to perceive us as the leader in the home. A leader within a pack of dogs would never respond to a follower’s pushy behavior, and neither should you.
We need to be conscious of how much attention and time we spend with our dog. This means: Instead of having your dog sit right next to you on the couch, have them sit on the floor next to the couch; instead of petting your dog for long periods of time, pet your dog less frequently and in small 10 second bursts – this will make petting more of a reward and reduce the over indulgence that they will miss when you are gone. Give you and your dog some “alone time” when you are home. Your dog does not need to follow you all over the house and go with you to every room. Your dog can relax in one room while you go into the other. If more owners adhered to this simple rule, we would see fewer dogs in shelters and more dogs in homes. Love is not only petting and closeness, it is also structure and boundaries. Love is the dog staying in a home with their owner, not being surrendered to a shelter for preventable behavior issues. Learn more about sharing attention and affection with your dog.
– Utilize obedience commands in as many daily activities and real life applications as possible. Training your dog should not require any extra time out of your day. Once the basic learning phase is completed, it is just a matter of integrating and using the obedience commands in your everyday routine. Dog training for the family dog is not about tricks and fancy commands, it is about creating a well-balanced and happy dog so you can have the lifestyle you desire.
– Use long duration place commands at least once per day (30+ mins). Part of having a dog that is truly reliable and relaxed when faced with distractions is to utilize long duration place commands that exceed 30 minutes each day. This is one of the easiest things for an owner to do with their dog, and arguably offers the greatest return on their investment of time and energy. Instead of letting your dog wander around the house (or sit next to you on the couch or bed) while you are watching TV, eating dinner, or working on the computer, have your dog in a place command. This offers much needed structure to your dog’s routine and teaches your dog to be stationary and relaxed despite whatever else is going on around them. The place command is a great solution to many common issues such as the dog getting excited and jumping on guests or begging at the dinner table. It is essential that you utilize the place command every day, so it will be reliable when you want/need to use it with heavy distractions present.
– Off-leash obedience train your dog – the dog should reliably respond to commands when in the presence of a high level of distractions without the need for treats. I personally feel that every dog should be trained to an off-leash level of obedience. Most owners want their dog to come when called and have the peace of mind that their dog will listen to their commands no matter what it going on around them. The only way to achieve this is by training their dog to an off-leash level of obedience. You can’t just train your dog to the point where they only listen when you have a bag of treats in your hand and there are no distractions and then expect them to obey in the same manner when they are off-leash. Why should they? You have no treats and there are other people and dogs around. Using a simple and effective training system, off-leash obedience is possible for any dog.
– Practice your dog’s obedience commands using distance, duration, and distractions. An often overlooked aspect of training is the final stage of proofing. You need to proof the dog’s reliability using the 3 D’s of dog training: Duration, Distance, and Distractions. The only way to know if your dog is fully off-leash trained is to see their reliability when challenged. It’s essential that you’re careful and progressive when training your dog. I have a specific protocol that I follow in order to safely do this You should never be careless and just let your dog off-leash near a road. My article Three D’s of Dog Training provides more information on this topic.