As the human of a smart, quirky herding dog, I’ve had to learn a few hard lessons about the importance of boundaries. If my pup isn’t given a job, for example, he’ll find one himself. And if anyone (especially a stranger) violates his personal space, he gets nippy. We’ve had to create a lot of structure to keep him from getting into trouble, both at home and out in the world.
Dogs need boundaries. Boundaries keep them safe and help them feel calm. Theresa Foster, co-owner and trainer at Wasatch K9 Fitness and Training in Utah, says that dogs without structure are easily confused about their proper role, which can lead to behavioral issues and lots of frustration for both dogs and their humans.
Humans, too, have to be aware of and respect certain boundaries—both with their own dogs and with the dogs of others—since dogs can’t verbally communicate what makes them anxious or uncomfortable.
Foster says that boundaries—what’s acceptable and what isn’t—will be unique to each human and their dog. Plus, every trainer will approach constructing and maintaining those boundaries differently. But there are a few basic boundaries that are helpful for most any pooch—and owner—.
Boundaries to teach your dog
First, help your dog understand personal space—theirs and yours. Russell Hartstein, a certified behaviorist and trainer and founder of LA-based Fun Paw Care, recommends giving your dog their own safe space in your home that you can send them to for breaks—when they’re following you around too much, for example.
Foster says this is part of teaching dogs to relax in the house, and drawing a boundary between work (or play) and rest. This is especially important for highly driven sporting and working dogs. You can teach your dog specific commands to indicate that it’s time to play or to send them to their “place.”
Give your dog their own space to eat—don’t feed them off the table. This can minimize begging.
Teach your dog not to lunge or bark at other dogs or people when you’re out walking. Foster says this behavior often results from a lack of guidance and good leash manners. Giving your dog clear directions for walking and building their trust can help mitigate this problem.
Finally, Hartstein says, you should expect your dog to check in with you and ask for what they want. If they want to jump on the bed, for example, they should sit near you and make eye contact rather than just taking the leap.
Boundaries to respect with your dog
Your relationship with your dog isn’t one-sided. If they are expected to respect your boundaries, you should also respect theirs. Once you’ve established their personal area—a bed, crate, or mat—don’t invade it. Don’t allow kids to harass your dog either, especially when they’re in their safe space.
Hartstein cautions against taking your dog to places that could be overstimulating and scary, such as fireworks shows, loud parties, and skate parks. Know what stresses your dog out, and don’t push them outside of that comfort zone.
Finally, don’t force your dog to participate in activities they don’t like or thrive in. Not every dog is meant to be a service animal, agility champion, or dock diver.
Boundaries to respect with other people’s dogs
It shouldn’t have to be said, but please, never approach or pet a dog you don’t know without asking. Just like most humans wouldn’t want to be touched by random people, dogs can’t be expected to either. Plus, not all dogs are friendly with strangers—and that’s OK.
If you want to pet or interact with a dog, always ask first, and accept “no” as the answer. If you do get permission, don’t immediately pat the dog’s head or get in its face. Ask the owner how the dog prefers to be petted, and if the dog’s body language suggests it would rather not be touched, back off.
Similarly, don’t allow your own dog to approach another dog without asking. Just because your dog is “friendly” does not mean other dogs will be. This can be especially problematic if your dog is off-leash and running up to a leashed dog. Allowing this to happen can undo training or “become very dangerous in a hurry for both dogs and the owners,” says Foster.
You should also avoid feeding a dog that isn’t yours, giving unsolicited training advice, or teaching them new commands or tricks. You don’t know what training the dog is working on, and even good intentions can make an owner feel bad or set back a dog’s progress.
How to protect your dog’s boundaries
“As an owner, it is your job to protect your dog,” Foster says. Don’t be afraid to step in front of your dog if a stranger approaches. You can say that your dog isn’t friendly or that you’re focused on training. And you can (and should) leave a situation if it’s dangerous for your dog.
“It is hard and feels rude, but we have to learn to advocate for our dogs and set them up for success every time we take them out,” she says.