The Complete, Unabridged Set of Dog Rules

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

“Is it okay that my dog is on the couch?”

“Can we play tug with a rope toy? Or is that wrong?”

“We’re using puppy pads.  Is that bad?”

Questions like these from my clients make me crazy.  No, not because they are asking me questions, but because somehow they got it in their head that there are hard and fast rules to “dogging”.  They get a dog, and the first thing they want to know is what the rules are.  All. The. Rules.

winterBecause obviously, if something isn’t complicated and supremely structured, it doesn’t work.  The more rules, the better you’re doing, right?  After all, t’s been working for the DMV.

We must be cautious.

We must be cautious.

So obviously, rules suck.  Unless you’re a dog owner, and then you want the rules.  All the rules.  Well, you want ‘em?  You got ‘em.

Before I tell you the rules, let’s review the steps to working with a dog, in any capacity.  Whether stopping the barking, teaching them to sit, or maybe something a little more intricate.

Everything starts with these steps:

1) Control Yourself. 

Controlling yourself means you are calm (even if only on the outside).  You are using confident body language (stand up straight!).  You are not yelling, or even talking.  In other words, you are NOT Corky Romano.

Don’t be a Corky.

2) Control the Situation.

Meaning if you can’t stuff 10 pounds of dirt in a 5 pound bag, why are you trying to stuff 15?  Stop, take a look at the current situation.  For example, if someone is at the door, but your dog is there barking, jumping, and, well, being Corky Romano, do you have control of the situation?  No!  Then don’t add any stimulation (such as opening the door) until you have control. Answer your dog’s question about the door, and then move forward when you have control. Reboot if necessary.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Okay, now that you know the playing field (controlling yourself and controlling the situation), now for the rules.

I use a mix of negative and positive.  The same way you do throughout your life.  I asked my husband it was raining outside  He said “no”.  That’s a negative  My daughter asked if she could go to a friends house. I said “yes”.  That’s a positive.  Think of it as a game of “hot or cold”. We call this Piloting your dog.

Rules of When to Use Negatives

1) When you don’t like what your dog is doing.  Yes, seriously…it’s that easy.  Ask yourself if you like the behavior your dog is giving (barking, jumping, or just laying against the fridge that you are trying to open), and if you don’t like it, give them a negative.  Remember your dog isn’t bad.  Dogs are incapable of being bad.  They are perfect… for a dog.  They just happen to suck at being human.

And guess what?  You probably don’t make a very good dog.

So let’s jettison the whole “Good/Bad” thing…and the gun.  You’re answering questions for your dog, not deciding if the questions make your dog “good” or “bad”.

2) When your dog is “yo-bitching” you.  Now there’s an interesting term:  ”yo-bitching“.  What does that mean?  It’s when a dog slaps you with their paw.  Or jumps on you.  Or pushes you out of the way.  It’s the human equivalent of saying, “Yo, Bitch, gimme a cookie.” Or “Yo, Bitch, that’s my chair”.  Vulgar?  Absolutely.  Acceptable?  Never.  You wouldn’t accept a human addressing you like that, so don’t accept that from a dog.  Dog’s are perfectly capable of using polite, “May-I-Please” body language.  Start to demand and expect it at all times.

On to the positives!

1) The come command/recall.  Positive, people.  Give your dog a good reason to come when you call.

2) When you are asking your dog to be human.  Think about what one dog will tell another dog.  Things like, “Go away”, or “Let’s play” or even “That’s mine”.  But dogs don’t teach each other English (“Sit”, for example). They don’t housebreak each other.  So if one dog can’t teach it to another dog, and you’re asking your dog to be a little bit human, you must use positives.

3) Calm.  This is the most important, most overlook opportunity for positives.  I want calm to be a like a lottery ticket:  You have to play to win (you’re probably not going to win), but unless you have a ticket, you definitely aren’t going to win.  That ticket is calm.  The more your dog has the “calm ticket” the more likely he is to win.  So if he’s calm, give him a gentle positive.  Anything from chilling out on the floor, to trying his best to be calm at the vet.  Reward the effort.  Progress, not perfection.

So there you have it.  That’s all the rules.  When to give positive and when to give negative.  Everything you ever needed to know about how to work with your dog.

But I didn’t address your questions from earlier?

“Is it okay that my dog is on the couch?”

“Can we play tug with a rope toy? Or is that wrong?”

“We’re using puppy pads.  Is that bad?”

Yes, I did!  About the couch, think about the negatives.  Do you like what your dog is doing on the couch?  No?  Then give him a negative.  Don’t care that he’s on the couch?  Well, then, neither do I, as long as he isn’t “yo bitching” you.

Playing tug with a rope toy?  Cool!  I love a good, rough game of tug.  My husband doesn’t.  I encourage it.  My husband negates it.  Remember, ask yourself if you like the behavior, and if the answer is “yes”, go for it.  If the answer is “no”, then negate it.  Just make sure that you have your limits adhered to.  My Sparta is allowed to really go at it with me when we wrestle…until she isn’t  When I feel things have escalated too much, I simply give her a negative, and she stops.

Puppy pads?  If it works for you, it works for me.

In short, nobody should be telling you how to enjoy your dog.  My dogs are allowed to beg from the table, as I frequently give them a small amount of table scraps.  But once I’m done with them, they are given a negative, and they know to stop begging and stay away from me while I eat.

My dogs, like yours, are only here for my enjoyment.  They make life easier, and so much sunnier!  Don’t let a book full of rules tell you how you should be enjoying their company.  Make sure you are indeed enjoying your dog, and not merely tolerating their behavior.  If you don’t like their behavior (say, getting up on the couch), it’s up to you to answer your dog’s question (“Can I sleep up here?”), and set your own rules of how to enjoy your dog.  The rules will differ from house to house, but the enjoyment will be constant.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to snuggle in bed with my dogs while I share my snack of cheese and crackers with them. I’m tired from all that rope-tug I played with Sparta.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


The Case for Negatives

She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them – Mae West

The PAW Method:  Piloting, Activity and Work.  That’s all you need to raise a well-adjusted puppy.  It’s what keeps your adult dog happy and sane.  It’s what enables your senior dog to feel safe while in your care.  You can not remove any of these key components from your dog’s life, nor can you attempt to substitute love and affection.  Love and affection are what you want.  Give your dog the Piloting, Activity and Work that your dog needs, and then you can give all the love and affection that you want.  

Some dogs are easy.  Some dogs are harder, and require a lot from us.  Just always remember, they aren’t trying to make your life harder: they’re trying to make theirs more comfortable.  Again, give them what they need, and you get what you want. Sometimes those things conflict.  You want to give them love and affection, but right now, what they need is Activity.  You want to try to soothe them in a scary situation, but what they need is for you to Pilot them through a very scary situation.  That’s how we get well-adjusted, happy pets, who trust you to take them through even the scariest vet trip.

Unfortunately, the more regimented a training method is, the better we think it is.  Here’s the thing, though:  dogs are simple creatures.  Not stupid, but simple.  So when working with a beautifully simple creature, I like to take a cue from their behavior and keep it simple.   I loathe rules that govern your every move with a dog.  From how you’re supposed to feed them (when you’re ready!) to which side you keep them on during a walk (I recommend the outside).

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.  Inside a dog, it's too dark to read. - Groucho Marx

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read. – Groucho Marx

Seriously, let’s loosen the corsets, let your hair down, and relax.  Working with you dog isn’t that complicated; it just involves logic. Let’s start with HOW you communicate with your dog.


I’m going to throw you a curveball here:  dogs don’t use noise to communicate.  I know what you’re going to say: your dog makes a lot of noise, right?  Well, let’s look at the times your dog makes noise:

  • When there’s someone at the door, they bark, which causes you to move towards them to investigate.
  • If you accidentally step on a dog, they squeal, and you instantly jump off of them.
  • When a dog growls at you, they’re trying to back you off.
  • When a dog wants you to start playing, they do that adorable butt-wriggle while doing short yippy barks.
  • When dog is alone, they start howling and crying to try to bring you back.

What do all these things have in common?  Movement.  Energy.  The more noise a dog makes, the more energy they are trying to evoke in you.  Noise = energy.  Think about the kind of music that’s played a nightclub vs. a funeral home.  The more noise, the more pumped up you are. Or talk to my mom on the phone for 5 minutes.

Yeah Mom..but- Mom I gotta g-... Mom, I need to hang u-....but, but....

Yeah Mom..but- Mom I gotta g-… Mom, I need to hang u-….but, but….

Noise equals energy.  We don’t want more energy in our dogs, we want mobile area rugs.  Dogs who are content to just lay in one place for hours because they’re not full of energy form all the yelling.  Dogs don’t communicate with noise, it’s only there to give energy.  Less noise (i.e., talking, yelling, shouting), the less energy you’re giving to your dog. Got it?

No joke!

No joke!

Dog’s don’t communicate using noise, they communicate using body language.  (Hint: so do we).  So let’s use our mutually agreed upon language: body language.

The good news is that dogs are binary creatures: they live in a world of hot or cold, true or false, yes or no.  There is no other option for them.  So every question they ever “ask” you will be a yes or no question, and every answer will be yes or no.  And no does not mean they are bad…”no” is simply the opposite of yes.  Try playing “Hot or Cold” by only using “hot” or “cold”.  No is simply a viable answer.  For example, if I asked you if I could pull off a mullet, your answer might (and should be):


Perfectly reasonable answer.  Or if I asked if you knew Vader was your father:

Yeah, I didn't see that coming either.

Yeah, I didn’t see that coming either.

So “no” is kept unemotional.  There should never be anger (looking at you, Skywalker), frustration, or punishment associated with “no”.  It’s merely an answer.

“Can I have that food on the floor?”

“Is that other dog a threat?”

“Can I chew on this cord?”‘

Obviously, the answer to all of these questions is “no”.  Give your dog the answer they need, rather than the answer you think they want, and you’ve unlocked the key to Piloting a dog. And good news:  the more often you Pilot a dog (answer their questions), the more they start to actively look for you to answer their questions.  Then you have a virtuous cycle started!

Check back on Monday for our post on how to tell your dog “no” in a humane, respectful way. Hint: if you’re using punishment, you’re doing it wrong.  Until then,

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training In Cleveland, Ohio