Anyone who has ever done the hard (but rewarding!) work of raising a puppy or welcoming a rescued pup into their home knows that sometimes dogs just need to hear the word "no." There are the obvious times when boundaries are important, like when they want to do something completely dangerous like chewing on an electrical cord or when they want to do something completely destructive, like chewing up your favorite pair of shoes. But there are also times when the best thing for your dog is to set firm boundaries even when it wouldn't technically hurt them (or any of your belongings) not to.
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Why is that? We talked to Chewy.com's resident vet expert, Dr. Jennifer Coates, about exactly that.
Why is it important to set boundaries for your dog?
According to Coates, this, like so many things related to doggo psychology, comes back to their wilder roots.
"Dogs are pack animals," she explains. "Boundaries are very important within social groups to promote positive relationships and reduce the chances of problematic behaviors, even (or maybe especially) when the pack consists of both dogs and people."
We know that boundaries are important (and natural) for dogs because we can see them at work in how dogs interact with each other.
"Dogs set boundaries with each other all the time," Coates says. "For example, if you watch dogs playing together, if one gets a little too rough, the other is likely to assert itself and put a pause to the game. When play resumes, the first dog will be careful to respect the boundaries set by the second."
What are the benefits of setting boundaries for your dog?
Setting firm, clear, and (most importantly) consistent boundaries for your dog is a great way to help curb behavioral issues, both as a puppy and later in life.
As Coates points out, there have been a number of studies that show the positive influence of training. For example, puppy classes that include training in basic commands have been shown to help prevent a number of canine behavioral problems.
How should boundaries be enforced with dogs?
It's important to remember that positive reinforcement training is key when it comes to training dogs in any way and this includes training them to respect boundaries (whether those boundaries are big, like don't beg for food or small like don't paw at people for attention). You'll want to reward the good behavior, rather than punishing your dog for misbehaving.
Instead of punishing your dog (say by yelling at him or giving him a firm tap on the nose, for example), let him know that undesired behaviors aren't acceptable by giving him the silent treatment until he stops. For a dog, no attention is worse than negative attention (a trait that also ties back to the species' highly social, pack animal roots) and giving him the cold shoulder will encourage him to stop acting out faster than "punishments."
Why are boundaries important for a dog's mental and emotional health?
Setting boundaries doesn't just set your dog up to be well-behaved and polite, it's also a vital part of supporting their psychological needs.
"Packs need a leader, and if a person doesn't fill that role, a dog may feel the need to step in. This will inevitably lead to conflicts that are stressful for all involved," Coates explains.
How do boundaries for dogs compare to boundaries for human children?
If it helps, you can think about boundaries for your dog as being similar to boundaries for kids. Your dog might act like he's disappointed in the moment, but in the long run, you're doing what's best for him and making him happier. Dogs push boundaries not because they necessarily want to break them, but because they want you to tell them where the boundaries are.
"Just as is true with children, dogs do best with clear and consistent boundaries," Coates says. "If you allow the boundaries to be pushed or broken, it can be difficult to reestablish them."
What are the most important boundaries for owners to set for their dogs?
According to Coates, its setting boundaries at all that is important, not necessarily the boundaries that you set. So, while some dog owners may be fine with their pet jumping freely onto furniture, for example, others might decide that's a line that shouldn't be crossed without explicit permission. You have to decide where the boundaries are and what makes sense for your lifestyle.
"Pick what matters to you," Coates says. "The exact boundaries are less important (except in the case of safety, of course) than is the fact that everyone abides by them all the time."