The Virtue of (Your Dog’s) Self-Control


The more time I spend with dogs (my own and particularly other people’s), the more I think that promoting a dog’s self-control is the most valuable thing we can do to make him more enjoyable to be around, while preserving both his dignity and individuality. That sounds like a lot of new-age mish-mash, so let me explain.

I don’t like it when dogs jump up in greeting, or crash into me when playing with each other. It makes being with them unpleasant – to me, anyway, and maybe some of you. Making a lot of rough physical contact with us doesn’t seem to bother many dogs, probably because it’s something that many dogs do among themselves.

Also, I don’t want to have to struggle with my dogs physically, ever. I shouldn’t have to drag a dog somewhere he doesn’t want to go or physically restrain one from doing something he really wants to run toward or check out.

Bigger dogs are strong enough to hurt us (particularly if we are fragile due to age or previous injuries) by jumping up on us, knocking into us, or pulling us down. But even smaller dogs can injure us without meaning to by jumping up at the wrong time (a shelter dog gave me a nice shiner this way once, as I was trying to clip a leash onto his collar) or bolting after a cat when we look the other way while stepping off a curb.

It’s amazing to me, however, how many of my friends and family are in constant physical struggles with their dogs! Holding them back from rushing the door when someone comes in, blocking them with arms and legs from jumping out of car doors, pulling them away from forbidden items, and so on. In many cases, the owners will say, “I know I need to train him,” but I think they have to start with themselves! If it’s a good friend or family member, I try make them aware of how much wrestling they are doing with their dogs – many of them don’t seem to notice that they are even doing it! – and try to let them know there is a better way.

My training goal for my dogs and my foster dogs is to teach them to control themselves. There is a lot that goes into it, but it starts with teaching them basic behaviors (such as come, sit, and off), and rewarding them for doing these behaviors in the face of greater and greater distractions. It also helps immensely to use a bevy of dog-management tools – around the house, baby gates and tethers are my favorites – to help them from being rewarded for the wrong behaviors while teaching them the new ones.

So, for example, for the dogs who rush the door and try to run out or jump on someone who is entering the house, I have a baby gate set up in the hall doorway, about 12 feet from the front door. I can rely on the gate to keep a dog from either practicing the rude behavior or forcing me to grab him and pull him back. The gate also sets him up for success; he clearly can’t reach the door, so he has, in essence, “stayed back” and I can reward him for this as a tiny first step toward a self-controlled greeting. I can ask him for a sit on the far side of the gate, and if he complies, several rewards. If he can hold the sit while a person enters and is greeting with some enthusiasm, jackpot! Eventually, he should have the idea and the gate can be taken down intermittently and ultimately for good.

We have lots of good resources in the library of back articles that are available to current subscribers that can help people learn about teaching their dogs to have self-control. Here are just a few.