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Ask the Trainer: Go on, dog!

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If you’re like me, you probably don’t often think about personal space, that is, until someone invades it uninvited. Dogs, on the other hand, are acutely aware of their personal space, and usually have no problem communicating this to a fellow canine when it’s being invaded. We see this in any manner of growls, snarls and snaps, and the message is clear, “Move it!”

As humans we tend to be more “polite” to our fellow citizens, our signals more subtle. Where things get confusing inter-species is when we humans, who regularly encourage the invasion of our personal space by our dogs (to us it’s affection), change the rules about when to encroach or not encroach on our bubble.

Most people don’t want to be crowded by their dog at the front door, (not every visitor is cool with the invasive get-acquainted sniff), or while trying to move about the kitchen and cook (tripping over the dog is super annoying), or simply when taking a basket of laundry to the laundry room (there’s not enough room to turn around when both jammed in there). Or maybe that’s just me. In any event, unless you have a well-trained dog that can hold a long down-stay, which you employ often with all kinds of distractions, you probably have a dog that gets in the way every now and then.

One might think that as a dog trainer, I am the owner of such “well-trained” dogs. Well, as is the case in many professions, there’s a kind of cobbler’s kid/lack-of-footwear paradox that exists.

Are my dogs “trained”? Sure. Good enough for our household, which is pretty casual. We don’t share beds with the dogs, but they’re always invited to share the couch (key word: invited). There are no regularly occurring “bad” behaviors, no destruction and everyone gets along, so formal obedience is not something we practice regularly. Teaching them about my personal space bubble, however, is something I did from day one, usually by using ignoring techniques.

When you do not engage a dog with eye contact, the message they receive is “give me space,” and they tend to move on. In the case of my deaf bulldog, Kiki, I had to add some body blocking, simply using my leg or changing position to block her from jumping on my lap, and ignoring her at the same time. This sounds simple, but it is not easy; it is counter-intuitive for us to ignore our dogs, especially when they first join our families, so herein is the confusion about personal space boundaries. Although, needless to say, we won’t be competing in any obedience trials anytime soon, not one of my dogs joins me for my bathroom break.

Recently, when our pack of three grew to four with the addition of a super-affectionate and majorly personal-space unaware pit bull, I found myself complaining to a trainer friend of mine. (Note: trainers only feel comfortable kvetching about their dogs to other trainers. We also make the worst clients, another professional paradox.) When I was lamenting that the new dog, Frank, wasn’t picking up on the signals regarding my personal space bubble (i.e. not catching the hint I like to potty alone) she suggested I teach him the “go on” command. She said “go on” is an informal, unstructured command that means simply, “Go away.” It was a forehead-slapping forest-for-the-trees moment for me.

To teach the “go on” command, do the following:

1. Have your dog wearing a leash. Let him drag it around for awhile, especially if he equates the leash to a walk, until he’s calm and acting “normally.”

2. Start at a location in your home that’s not the most exciting, i.e. with the least distractions. For most of us the front door is too exciting. I picked a time when I had 10 minutes extra to spend, and I started at the kitchen counter with Frank. When Frank realized I was chopping/slicing/dicing at the kitchen counter, he did the usual, “Hey, what’s up?!” coming into the kitchen and plopping himself in the way at my feet.

3. I calmly took his leash and said, “Go on,” simultaneously giving the hand signal, which is a point in another direction.

4. Then I walked him at least 6 feet away, dropped the leash and walked back to the counter. He of course followed me.

5. Repeat step 3, calmly. Over and over again.

After 10 or 50 times (keep track – I want to know!), your dog will start giving you distance. He may still be watching you, but he won’t be at your feet. Feel free to reward him with a treat or calm affection at this point. This excitement will begin the whole process over again. Go back to the kitchen counter, dog will follow, repeat Step 3.

Remember, the dog doesn’t have to lie down or do anything specific when you’ve told him to go on. Ideally, once he realizes there’s nothing in it for him, he’ll likely go lie down in his usual spot.

You’ll know your dog has mastered “Go on” when you give the command and he turns and walks away. Until then, you’ll want to practice in lots of locations, leaving the most exciting for last.

Check out the Go On Command video for a visual how-to.

Remember to let me know how many repeats it took your dog to start giving you space. Post the breed and age of your dog and we’ll do an informal survey and see who catches on the quickest.

A special thank you to my colleague, Kris Morin (K9 Super Nanny), for this fabulous advice.

Email me at ann@localbark.com with topics for future installments of Ask the Trainer.


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