Dogs Living with Humans 101

Ten things every dog should know (for your happiness, and his survival).


There are certain basic behaviors that all dogs need to know if they are going to survive in human society. Generally, the only ones who are likely to live happily ever after in their original homes are those dogs who are regarded as “good” by their owners.

The definition of a “good dog” depends on the defining party. If you could ask a dog, he may say something like, “Oh that Jake! He’s a darned good dog! He can knock over any garbage can or jump on any counter for food, he trees cats with ease, he can chase most cars until they stop, and he can hear strangers coming from miles away and bark until they are gone! What a great dog!”

But if you asked a human to describe a “good dog,” chances are they would not mention any of the life skills that a real dog’s dog might display, such as an ability to scavenge for food or hunt and kill small animals. Rather, most people tend to regard good dogs as those who have learned to trade (or at least modify) many of their natural canine behaviors in favor of those that are acceptable to the human members of their families.

While some (or all!) of the Top 10 Things we describe below might seem overly elementary to an experienced and responsible dog owner, many dogs I meet in training classes – and animal shelters – lack several or many of the following skills. Certainly, a committed canine caretaker should be willing to manage or overlook her dog’s shortcomings; we are not perfect, nor should we expect our dogs to be. However, the less you have to manage or overlook, the more pleasant life will be for the both of you in the long run.

Put a check mark next to each of the 10 life skills that your dog has already successfully mastered. If you can check all 10, congratulations! You and your canine pal are well on your way to a lifetime of happiness and good times together. If you have to skip some, you might want to get to work and help your dog become an even better companion for you.

1: How To Live and Play Well With Humans
This may seem like a pretty broad topic. It is, in fact, the root of many of the ones that follow. Specifically, however, this means that your dog needs to accept that many human rules simply make no sense from a canine perspective. For example, humans have this incredibly bizarre habit of leaving food around uneaten. Really good food! Large chunks of prey animal – right out in plain view, on the kitchen counter, on the coffee table . . . what creature in his right mind would not eat high-value food when the opportunity presents itself?

Yet humans do just that, and expect their dogs to do the same. Although this exceptional example of canine self-control is often taken for granted, the dog who leaves the roast beef sandwich unmolested on the coffee table when his human takes a potty break in the middle of the Rose Bowl Parade deserves to be held in high esteem by his human caretaker.

Other examples of bizarre human rules include a taboo on drinking water from the freshest water source in the house (a thing humans call a toilet), and an expectation that their dogs not perceive an open door as an open invitation to dash through.

Our dogs also must adapt to what probably seems to them to be very odd human play behavior. Dogs play with tooth and claw – jumping up, biting, body-slamming – while most humans want their canine playmates to keep their teeth to themselves, and to refrain from jumping up and body-slamming, even in play, unless expressly invited.

Dogs are capable of learning these eccentric human rules, and they learn best when their humans understand that it is a dog’s nature to eat available food, drink fresh water, go through openings at will, and roughhouse in play. In each of these cases, proper management – not allowing the dog to be rewarded by the natural but undesirable behavior – and consistent reinforcement for alternative, preferable behaviors can get the job done.

For more information, see “Upper Level Management,” WDJ October 2001.

2: How To Accept Intimate Contact From Family, Friends, and Relative Strangers
Throughout your dog’s life, you will expect him to happily accept being touched and handled by all sorts of people: family, friends, strangers on the street, children in the schoolyard, veterinarians, groomers, and more. Dogs, however, do not come already programmed to love attention and touch. While some seem more naturally inclined to like human contact than others, all dogs must be socialized – ideally from a very early age – and taught to accept, even enjoy intimate touch. Even something as apparently innocuous as a pat on the head is foreign to a dog’s natural instincts and nonverbal communication style.

The best puppy raisers begin an intensive socialization program starting when pups are four weeks (or even younger), by exposing them to gentle handling and touch from an increasing number and variety of humans as the days and weeks pass. Handling ears, touching paws, examining teeth and private parts should all be accompanied by rewards – treats, toys, praise – so the pup comes to believe that humans and human touch make very good things happen. This concept should be instilled in his little dog brain well before he reaches the advanced age of four months.

Dogs who are stressed by human contact are far more likely to bite, and bite seriously, at some point in their lives. If your dog missed that all-important socialization period between four weeks and four months, you will need to work hard to make up for lost time. At this late stage, you can probably improve his willingness to accept contact, but he’s not likely to be as social as he could have been. A strong commitment to a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization is in order, and you may need the assistance of a behavior and training professional to maximize your success.

For more information, see “Canine Social Misfits,” WDJ February 2000.

3: How to Share
In the dog world, possession is generally nine-tenths of ownership, and even a small, lower-ranking pack member can often successfully fend off other dogs’ threats to her food and other valuable objects. Dogs will share with each other – when they choose to. You probably expect your canine family members to share happily and willingly, each and every time you decide that what’s hers is yours. Resource guarding is, in fact, a relatively common behavior with dogs, ranging from mild tension when folks are playing in the dog’s food bowl, to serious aggression with potential to maim.

You can start early in a puppy’s life to insure against food guarding by teaching her that your approach is not a threat to her possessions, but actually brings more good stuff. When she’s eating, approach her bowl and drop several high-value treats, one at a time, into her bowl. When she has something she shouldn’t, trade her for something better, instead of chasing her around in anger, scaring her and putting her on the defensive. If she consistently gets something wonderful when you approach, and rarely loses the good thing she has, she will not resort to resource guarding – she won’t need to!

If your dog is already a resource-guarder, seek the help of a qualified positive professional to help you work with it. This is a dangerous behavior, and one that should be addressed by someone who is confident and capable.

For more information, see “Thanks for Sharing,” WDJ September 2001.

4: When and Where To Go Potty (and where and when not to)
Dogs do come genetically programmed not to soil their own dens, so this is one human rule that makes pretty good sense to them. They may wonder why we insist on living in such large dens when small ones are so much cozier, but once they realize that the whole house is a den, housetraining usually comes along with relative ease.

The trick is to manage the dog’s behavior through crates, pens, tethers, leashes, and direct supervision, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to get in the habit of using any part of your house/den as his bathroom. Meanwhile, take him outside frequently and consistently enough so that he gets in the habit of relieving himself outdoors.

Remember, it’s a much simpler training challenge to teach him to go in one right spot than it is to teach him not to go in an almost infinite number of wrong spots.

For more information, see “Minding Your Pees and Cues,” WDJ December 2001.

5: How To Be Alone
To a wild dog, “alone” is synonymous with “danger.” A puppy, especially, is at high risk for being eaten if he is left without the protection of the pack. Although they are thousands of years from their wild ancestors, many of our domestic dogs still experience a residual anxiety when they are left alone. In extreme cases, dogs can develop a condition known as separation anxiety – the equivalent of a panic attack when left alone – and can cause great damage to their environment and injury to themselves. While crates can be used with some destructive dogs to safely contain them while unattended, crating is rarely a solution for unfortunate dogs with separation anxiety, as close confinement can send them into a panic frenzy.

To prevent separation anxiety, accustom your new puppy or dog to being left alone gradually during the first few days he is with you, perhaps crated or tethered while you move around the room, occasionally returning to him when he is calm and quiet. Calm departures and returns will also help him learn to be matter-of-fact about your comings and goings.

When this procedure causes him no discernible stress, begin stepping out of the room – for just a few seconds at a time, then longer and longer as he shows that he can handle it. Avoid returning to him when he is fussing – if he learns that fussing makes you return, you will teach him to fuss harder and harder, until he develops a full-blown anxiety attack when you are out of sight.

If your dog has signs of mild separation anxiety, the above program can also work, although it may take longer than a few days. If your dog has a serious anxiety condition, you will probably need the assistance of a professional, and perhaps anxiety relieving drugs, to see improvement.

For more information, see “Learning to Be Alone,” WDJ July 2001, and “Relieving Anxiety,” WDJ August 2001.

6: When, Where, and How to Use Teeth
There are lots of uses for a dog’s teeth, and all of them are acceptable, if properly directed. Dogs eat the meals you give them with their teeth; obviously, that’s okay. The best way to keep dogs from eating what they shouldn’t is to manage their behavior to prevent access and reward for counter-surfing, and to train a positive “Leave it” exercise.

Dogs also chew with their teeth. This, too, is normal behavior, and it behooves you to provide your pup with plenty of appropriate chew objects (a stuffed Kong being our favorite) while he is developing his chewing preferences. Once he zeroes in on suitable chew objects and matures past the experimental puppy stage, your own personal possessions should be reasonably safe. For this reason, I keep all new dogs crated when I can’t supervise them until they are at least a year old, gradually giving them increased house freedom as long as they show me they can handle it.

Dogs play with their teeth. Since canine teeth on human skin is generally an unacceptable behavior, I redirect that play-bite urge to tug-of-war toys, complete with rules designed to make it a safe and rewarding game for both tug partners. Dogs should be free to engage in tooth-play with other dogs, as long as both dogs are willing participants.

And finally, dogs bite aggressively with their teeth. There are rare circumstances when this is acceptable behavior – for trained protection and police dogs, and for the untrained family dog who wisely bites a criminal intruder – but most companion dogs need to not bite humans if they want to live happily ever after. The best way to accomplish this is to go back to the socialization work of Top Thing #2 (Accepting Intimate Contact).

Most aggression is caused by stress. A good socialization and positive training program reduces the number of things that might cause a dog to be stressed, thereby decreasing the likelihood that he will ever bite. All dogs are capable of biting, however, no matter how well socialized, if the situation is stressful enough – which is why the extreme stress generated by a stranger’s attack on his human companion can cause even a very well-socialized and well-mannered dog to bite – as well he should!

For more information, see “Upper Level Management,” WDJ October 2001; “Pin Sharp Puppy Teeth,” November 2000; “Play (and Train) By Tugging,” March 1999.

7: How To Come When Called
A very reliable recall is the key to a dog’s supervised freedom outdoors. While I would never counsel you to just open the door and turn your dog loose, if your dog has a solid “come when called” you can have him with you off-leash in many suitable outdoor environments – gardening in your yard, hiking on dog-legal trails, playing in dog parks – without worrying that an errant deer will entice your dog into the woods and beyond your control. Very reliable recalls don’t happen all by themselves. It takes a lot of training to end up with a dog who will turn his back on Bambi bounding across the meadow and return to you at a happy gallop instead.

One of the keys to achieving this milestone in dog training is to manage your dog so he doesn’t have the opportunity to take off and romp in the woods with you screaming at him to come back. This means keeping him on a long line – and training him in the face of ever-increasingly-enticing distractions – until you know his recall is rock-solid.

It takes an average of three years to train a dog to come to you in the face of extreme distractions. This means some dogs will get it sooner, and some will take longer, but plan on three years. Remember, that’s three years of committed training, not just three years of sitting around waiting for the dog to get older!

For more information, see “Total Recall,” WDJ December 2000 and “Long Distance Information,” WDJ February 2001.

8: How To Do An Emergency WHOA!
No matter how well-trained, no dog is perfect. Even the most rock-solid recall may someday fail, and when it does, you’ll be glad to have an emergency brake.

I like to train a long-distance down for emergency stops. Many dogs, while unwilling to turn their backs on a chase object and return to you, will happily drop to a down position, as long as they can keep their eyes glued to their prey. Once the prey is out of sight, the dog’s arousal decreases, and she is willing to return to me when I call her.

I also teach a “Wait” cue, which can stop a dog in her tracks, but she’s still standing, which makes it more likely that she will pick up the chase again before I can get her to return to me.

Some trainers use “NO!” or a “STOP!” in a loud roar to stop a dog from whatever behavior she is engaged in. This can work, but my preference is to tell the dog to do something rather than nothing.

9: How To Walk Politely On A Leash
Walking on leash, along with other important good manners behaviors such as “sit to greet people,” can greatly enhance your enjoyment of your canine companion’s presence. If he walks happily on a leash by your side instead of dragging you down the street, and politely greets people he meets on his outings, you are far more likely to take him places with you. The more places you take him the more socialization and exercise he gets, the better behaved he is likely to be. The better behaved he is, the more likely you are to take him places, proudly, as a well-loved and full-fledged member of your family.

For more information, see “Loosen Up!,” WDJ November 2000.

10: How To Play And Live With Other Dogs
You may have only one dog, so what’s the difference if he gets along with others? For one thing, dogs are naturally social animals, and you can enhance the quality of your dog’s life if you socialize him with other dogs and provide him with opportunities to play with his dog pals, at dog parks, doggie day care, or arranged play-dates in his own backyard. A day of dog-play will eat up his excess canine energy and leave you begging for more play outlets. A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.

In addition, when you take your four-legged family member out in public, he will inevitably encounter other canines. If he is well-socialized to dogs, he can handle these encounters with equanimity. Dogs who don’t know how to act around other dogs may become fearful or overly excited – both of which can lead to aggression. Either way, if your dog acts out around other dogs you are likely to limit his exercise and socialization, which can give rise to other behavior problems, including destructive behavior and aggression. (For more information, see “Plays Well with Others,” WDJ March 2000.)

Time to tally
So, how’d you and your dog do? If you checked 9 or 10 of the items, you should be proud of the work you have done with your dog, and the relationship you share.

If you have a lot of unchecked ones, you’d better get a move on! Even if you are comfortable working around the gaps in your dog’s knowledge, his lack of social or behavioral graces may be a source of friction between you and your roommates, spouse, or neighbors. Why not improve relations between the species, and teach him a few more vital skills? He’ll be far more safe and welcome in human society if you do.

-by Pat Miller

Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and recently published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training.