Who is in control of your relationship: you, or your dog?

4 October 2009 7 Comments

Dogs can get the impression that they are in control because they can take charge of many of the small things in the relationship, like when they eat, when they get petted, or when they want to play.

These things are not that important for people, so we tend to go along with what the dog wants; it’s no big deal. However, if your dog thinks they are making important decisions, they will assume responsibility for ones we don’t want them to make. If your dog pulls on the lead they probably think they are taking you for a walk.

If your dog won’t stop barking when people come to the door, they probably think that they have the responsibility for deciding who comes in and who doesn’t. Dogs like rules. When dogs don’t understand the rules they can live under severe stress. Consistency is vital. If the rules are inconsistent how can they possibly comprehend them? You need to communicate to your dog, without using any force or confrontation, that you are in control of your relationship. To do this, you need to take ownership of the resources that are important to your dog, but not necessarily to you.

There are only three things of major importance to all dogs: food, toys/games and attention.


It is only good manners for your dog to say “please” before they are given their food, or any treats. The way to do this is to control the food, not the dog. Show your dog what is on offer and ask them to “sit”, “down”, “stay”, “shake paws”, or any other command that they know, or you want to teach them. Don’t put the food down until your dog has asked nicely. Your dog should do something for you, before you do something for them. Do not compete or argue with your dog by using lots of commands. Keep hold of the food bowl and do not put it down until they have done as you asked.


There are two types of toy for dogs: ones that they play with by themselves or with other dogs, “Free Play Toys,” and ones that we play with them, “Interactive Toys” (it could actually be the same toy, but they are defined by how they are used).

Free Play Toys – It’s a good idea to keep all of these toys in a toy box, so that you have control over their use. Select toys to give to your dog when you wish, and put them away again when you want to. Rotate your dog’s toys: a couple today, a different couple tomorrow. This will increase the value of the toys and the amount of time your dog plays with them, because they are not always available, and it increases your value, because you provide ‘new’ toys every day.

Interactive Toys – When you play with toys with your dog, they also get your attention – a double whammy! The toy should come out when you want to play and go away when you are done. You own it. This gives your dog clear signals about playtime and gives the toy immense value.

Attention (including affection)

We have dogs because we like to interact with them. What we mustn’t forget is that our attention is ours to give when we want, not when we are manipulated into giving it by a puppy. This is not a “no attention” relationship, in fact you can give as much attention as you like. What you need to be aware of is exactly when you give attention, and what your dog perceives they did to earn that attention.

Remember, behaviour that is rewarded is likely to be repeated, and any kind of attention (even negative attention like being shouted at) is more rewarding than none at all. Give your dog lots of attention, but make it conditional on good behaviour. If your dog bites your knees and subsequently gets attention, they are likely to repeat the behaviour. If they are ignored when they sit quietly on the mat, they are less likely to repeat that behaviour.

When your dog pesters you for attention, actively ignore behaviour you don’t like. Stand up, turn your back, fold your arms, do not speak and look away (attention = speech, eye contact or touch). If it is really bad walk out of the room.

Alternatively, reinforce behaviours you do like. Tell your dog to fetch a toy and then reward them with lots of fuss. Ask them to sit, or lie down, or any non-invasive behaviour, but DON’T FORGET TO REWARD them. This will mean that behaviours that you like will become more frequent, and other behaviours will decrease.

Picture of a dog

If you are retraining non-invasive behaviours at the expense of previous undesirable ones, it may get worse before it gets better. Your dog has always had a response before, and now doesn’t get it, so may do their particular “attention seeking” behaviour more, or even try new behaviours.

Once your dog knows you are in control they can relax.

  • “Pushy” dogs are given firm boundaries are so there is no point in constantly testing the limits.
  • Relief from the pressure of making decisions reduces stress: “Who shall I let in? Can I eat that road-kill? Can I still get attention when I want?”
  • Timid dogs gain confidence. Once they know what the rules are they never have to be worried about offending someone.
  • Dogs know you are in charge, so will look towards you for guidance, making training so much easier.
  • Dogs shouldn’t have to bear the burden of looking after us; we should be looking after them!

This philosophy comes in many guises, but it is universally accepted as the kindest way to explain rules to dogs; punishment often disappears altogether. In behaviour modification programmes it is often called “Learn to Earn”. You may also hear of it as “Lifestyle Training”, “Holistic Training” or “NILIF” (Nothing In Life Is Free). Regardless of what you call it, when you are in control of the relationship, you are in control of your dog.



  • Scot said:

    Some of the best common sense dog training info I have seen on the interent or books

  • Michaela Gledhill said:

    Fantastic article, I have heard of and reffer to it as ‘NILIF’ when asked by people I work with but whatever it is reffered to as, I agree with Scot, some of the best common sense dog training info around.

  • Mary Hart said:

    It all makes so much sense and although i could not expect a miracle as soon as I changed my ways my dog changed his too and within minutes was seeking my attention. Thanks

  • Mary-Anne said:

    I have only had Dotty for 4 weeks. I have always had rescue older dogs and have never had a 5month old tiny breed of dog. Dotty is proving to be a handful already. I found this site today after spending 30mins trying to get Dotty back to put a lead on her whilst out for a walk. I have been walking her off the lead for 7 days with no problems but she has clicked that she does not have to come back now she is more confident. She is showing all sorts of behaviour issues in the last 3 days and in return I am getting stressed and unhappy. I am so glad I found this site with David’s advice and intend starting all over again re-establishing our relationship. We shall see and David I will let you know how it goes – thank you.

  • David Ryan (author) said:

    Hi Mary-Anne,
    It isn’t unusual for there to be a short “honeymoon” period before an adopted dog resumes its previous behaviour. Whilst relationship change is a part of many behaviour management programmes, it may not on its own be enough to correct behaviour problems. If you find that Dotty is displaying many behaviour issues it may be worth consulting as professional dog behaviourist.

  • Patricia Fyfe said:

    I have an 18 month old border collie. His recall was good up until he turned 9 months.
    I too use a long line to help this which I’ve used for months now.
    He acts goody two shoes all the way on our walks playing with a tennis ball which he loves and returns eagerly when called to throw again and nudges my t he’s not interpocket to get.
    We now play tug too.He returns to me when called ,checks in on me which I reward with chicken susages ect but as soon as he knows it’s near home time he plays up dodging about stays close by but far enough to not catch the line. This is when he doesn’t return the ball or gives the impression that hes not interested in it any more.
    It’s sole destroying as Im out 4 times a day I interact more now with him using a tug. Taking other toys also.
    But I just see this sly look from him and as if he’s saying ha ha fooled you. He out smarts me every time.
    Any help please. A trainer commented that he was spoilt rotten?

  • David Ryan (author) said:

    Hi Patricia,
    He clearly does not want the walk to stop and is manipulating you when he can predict hometime. You can make hometime less predictable by changing your walking patterns, and use a double-length line, but you can also look at taking control more generally. My booklet, Guide and Control will show you how to do that.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.