Body Space Education

As promised, I am going to deliver something important today; a few thoughts on what I feel is one of the most important skills to teach a dog–how to respect the space of others.

Dogs that have no respect for the body space of others (humans or other dogs) are no fun to live with, yet they are everywhere.  I am convinced there are breed tendencies involved, with herding and toy breeds being the most aware of body space (for different reasons–herding dogs deal with body space in their job of moving stock around, and toy dogs work hard to avoid being stepped on) and retrievers being the least aware of it.  There are exceptions, of course, to everything, so please don’t write me a comment about how YOUR golden has more respect for space than your beardie.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by “respect for body space.”  Think of it this way: everyone has an invisible “bubble” surrounding them.  When I move toward my dog and bump my bubble up against his, he should “feel” that and move back.  He should not come into my bubble without permission.  Intrusions of the bubble include; jumping up uninvited, pushing you over on the couch or in the bed, nudging your elbow when you are eating/typing/reading/etc., and it extends into stealing anything (toy, food, etc.) out of your hands.

The trouble starts when people do not understand that all of these things are connected.  If you pet your dog when he nudges your arm but get upset when he jumps on you upon arrival, you are contradicting yourself.  Understand that you must either tolerate physical pushiness across the board, or you must be the “pushiness” police and never allow any form of it to occur.

On the topic of police, using physical corrections on your dog to try to eliminate body space issues is the most counter-productive thing you can do.  Dogs that are manhandled are the pushiest of all the dogs I have met.  I can instantly tell upon meeting a new dog is he is being physically corrected at home, and almost all cases I see of over-the-top body space issues (this usually looks like this: dog not only jumps on the person but bites at her and gets wildy–but aggressively–playful without solicitation) the dog is being physically, sometimes harshly, corrected.  I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: getting physical with your dog only invites him to become physical with you.

So how do you deal with this?  First, take a good manners class that focuses on impulse control.  Most dog training classes do not teach any sort of impulse control, so the ones that are focusing on it will advertise it up front.  When your dog learns how to control himself around things he wants (like food and toys) he can start to learn to respect your space, too.  But this won’t happen overnight.  This is a video of Patricia McConnell (one of my earliest influences in dog training) teaching “stay” using body blocking.  I do not teach the stay cue this way, but this is how I introduce dogs to body-blocking.  I do exactly what you see in the video, I just don’t ask for a sit or a stay, in fact I don’t use any words at all.  Once your dog gets the concept you can start to use body blocking when your dog pushes into your space in any way.  As soon as he backs out of your space, reward him with praise or, preferably, the thing he was seeking in the first place (like attention).

This was just the tip of the iceberg on body space.  For a deeper understanding of body space and dogs, sign up for my Fido Focus class at Loveland Dog Club.  Not sure how to sign up but want to?  Leave me a comment and I will contact you privately!