Do dogs need rules?

Unbelievably, there are people in dog training circles who think positive-only training is wrong. But as Victoria Stilwell explains, positive does not equal permissive.

Cesar Millan is big on saying that dogs need rules, boundaries, and limitations, more than they need affection. Whether or not that’s true, I abandoned that notion around the time I learned that most of Millan’s methods are not backed by science or research.

I’ll be honest. I let my dogs do whatever they want, and I shower them with affection.

Know what else?

I can’t name a single rule that my dogs follow.

Not one.

Sure, they’re house trained and they walk on leashes. Do those count as rules?

German shepherd training
My doggie daddy and dog grandma are even more lenient with the rules than I am. Perhaps that explains the adoration in Mia’s eyes.

I can think of two rules that would be useful:

  1. No chewing doors.
  2. No surfing counters.

Left to their own devices, Mia won’t follow the first, and Leo won’t follow the second. Best I can do to enforce those rules is to block their access. Put an X-pen across the doors Mia likes to eat, and never leave food on the counter.

We were told to implement some strict rules when we first sought help for Isis’s leash reactivity. As far as I’m concerned, the world’s stupidest rule is that dogs shouldn’t be allowed on the bed.

I mean, sure, if your dog bites you in bed, or growls at your wife, probably keep him off the bed. But what did Isis sleeping on my pillow have to do with her lashing out at other dogs on leash?

At the time, I was willing to do anything to improve Isis’s behavior, but I couldn’t see Rob going along with the bed rule. Our initial plan when we first got her was to keep her off the furniture, but after about a week, Rob scooped our two-month-old dog into his arms and lay down with her, singing, “Whee! Isis is on the bed!”

I tried to enforce the new rules recommended by our trainers, but sure enough, I came home one night to find Rob watching a Seinfeld rerun in bed, with Isis sitting at his feet.

“Isis! Off the bed,” I ordered.

“She’s not allowed to be on the bed at all?” Rob asked. “I like visiting with her.”

Why did he have to be such a softie? He weakened my resolve. I sat down on the bed and when Isis jumped up again, I let her.

“Those rules are for bad dogs,” I told her. “We have a good dog.”

Now, here were are, five years later with no rules.

I want to be a responsible dog owner, really I do. I was grateful when Fern Camacho’s podcast The Great Dog Adventure covered the topic: What Rules Should Your Dog Have?

I was further relieved that he validated my feeling that when you have older, basically well-behaved dogs, you can ease up on the rules. We did have rules for Leo when he was a puppy. Now that he doesn’t chew furniture anymore, he has more freedom.

We don’t make our dogs sit for 15 minutes before feeding them, and Fern says they don’t have to, as long as they don’t ambush us. Listening to the podcast, I laughed when Fern said sometimes it’s enough for a dog to make eye contact and check in before being given a treat. Reminded me of a time when I was trying to be strict, and I saw Rob’s mom give Isis some treats.

“You have to make her do something before you give her a treat,” I said.

“She did do something,” Alice said. “She looked at me.”

What do you guys think? Do good dogs even need rules? What rules do you have for your dogs?

This is my first time joining the Thursday Barks and Bytes Blog Hop, hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog.

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Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

11 thoughts on “Do dogs need rules?

  1. I think what we did is like what you say – dog management rather than dog training.

    For example, dog can’t be trained not to go pee in the kitchen because she only does that when she is too terrified by the thunder and no longer thinking probably to even remember rules.
    Solution: install a child gate to prevent her from getting in in the first place.

  2. I love this post!! Thank you for joining the blog hop.

    I’m not so sure they’re rules as much as they are expectations. We expect certain things from our dogs. Walk nicely on leash, don’t pee or poop in the house, lay down while we eat dinner, but for the most part, our dogs have been trained from the time we got them and they are very good dogs. Sampson is no longer allowed on the couch or bed, but that is because of his recent surgery and I hope once he’s sufficiently healed, we can let him have that freedom once again. In the meantime, don’t think he is being deprived. I have a mattress on the floor and I sleep with him every night. Last night Delilah joined us for part of the night, and the dogs slept while I rested, because really, a 70 lb dog and a 90 lb dog, don’t leave much room on a full mattress for the mama. 🙂

  3. Sometimes I think we get caught up in the words that bother us rather than the meaning behind us. Do dogs need rules, yes. Do you need to use the word rules if it bothers you, no. There are basic rules that you need if you want to live with humans. Not Biting, being house trained, not attacking or jumping up on visitors or strangers you meet, attacking other dogs when walking all are important because they have consequences that are not good for owner and dog. A dog that bites or injures friends, family, visitors, or neighbors or other dogs can end up being put down by local authorities and it can financially cost the dog owner. How you manage those behaviors is a matter of choice. There are many routes.

    Other behaviors are far more about choice than about behavior issues. The dogs rarely spend the night with us by their choice not ours, although they do like to jump up and snuggle once and a while. There are lots of other behaviors that people debate and I ignore. If the dogs are social, well behaved, and not showing health concerns, then I care little about what others think I should be doing. If they are having challenges then I am willing to see what information is out there that might help me find an alternate path to correct or substitute a healthier behavior for the negative one. Katy had an issue with eating too fast when she first came from rescue and I found an inexpensive solution through reading other dog bloggers. I’m open to suggestions that work, but don’t feel the need to worry about stuff that I don’t feel applies.

    There are safety issues where behavior is important. For our dogs being able to obey commands has allowed them more off leash time when away from their fenced in back yard. It also has saved their lives when they’ve slipped out the front door and they came back with a recall instead of getting out into the street.

  4. Hmm… I wonder if maybe things that start off as rules (that need enforcing) just become routine after a while.
    I mean, depending on how you define ‘rule’, our dogs have lots. Don’t pee inside. Walk in a heel position. Come when I call. Sit when I ask. Stay when I ask. Don’t go up on furniture uninvited. Stay out of the kitchen when we’re cooking. Don’t counter (or coffee table) surf. Don’t chew things that aren’t toys. Wait before eating.
    These are all expectations, sure, but so few of them need enforcement now. Alma never chewed a shoe or anything else since we got her – Moses hasn’t since he was a puppy. Technically, I suppose they’re rules? We’d work on it if that behaviour suddenly appeared, but it’s not like they’re regularly maintained, since there’s nothing to maintain.
    Maybe expectations or boundaries or parametres is a better way to characterize it? I like the notion of management – maybe a bit more accurate.
    I mean, all of the ‘rules’ my dogs have, they’ve got unstructured free run of the house and yard 99.5% of the time. That’s pretty unruly.

  5. Rules? That sounds so harsh. But are there things I expect them to do and things I won’t let them do? Absolutely. Dogs are big kids if you ask me, and if you want unruly kids, don’t expect anything from them. Same with dogs. So I do have some expectations – they do sit before they eat, the do look at me when I ask them to, they do walk nicely on a leash when I ask them too. In exchange they get pretty much whatever they want, so it’s a fair trade.

  6. “Leave it” is the only rule i can think of that I insist on. And that is for their own protection in case something is in their reach that should not be there. We think a simple looking adoringly at us is enough to deserve a treat.

  7. Thanks so much for joining the hop. I am a firm believer that dogs need some rules. What the rules are is entirely up to the people who have to live with them. For me if something is a “no”, it is always a “no”. For example no you can’t run into the street and no you can’t get on the couch. Of course there are rules for our hunt test training, but most of those are based on what is needed for a working dog. We were at a training seminar this past weekend and one thing that the trainer pointed out was that unless the person (or trainer) makes it clear what they want from a dog, then the dog is left to make its own rules which is not always a good thing.

    1. That’s where I think dogs with jobs have the advantage. Clear rules. I would love to give Leo at least a “hobby,” but he doesn’t seem to be motivated by much. Lately I’ve had him jumping hurdles and the A-frame in our backyard, so maybe we can build on these agility skills he’s been hiding from us.

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