Relationships with dogs are unlike any other. Dogs aren’t our kids, who speak our language and express digestible thoughts and opinions. They’re not friends in the traditional sense, though we assume most pet owners would disagree with that. Dogs are more like companions. Definitely family, but uniquely so. Like any relationship, the dog-human bond requires mutual respect, especially since we’re the ones in charge and they look to us for guidance. The one thing you should never do if you want your dog to respect you is humanize them. Dogs are dogs. They are not people - and thank goodness! Their dog-ness is why we love them and why our relationships are so special. If you treat your dog like a person and expect them to act accordingly, you can kiss the possibility of mutual respect goodbye.
What does it look like when a dog respects you?
We spoke with Sarah-Anne Reed, a consulting animal behavioral specialist at Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, to find out what doggy respect looks like and how we can earn it. Reed says, “When a dog respects you, they will respect your space, listen and respond when you ask them to do something.” This also means they aren’t constantly pestering you for attention. Respectful behaviors include:
- Coming when called (and not jumping up on you)
- Relaxing when you are otherwise occupied
- Not freaking out when you leave the house or when you return
- Entertaining themselves
- Waiting for your command to do things (going for a walk, leaving the house, eating dinner)
- Walking alongside you, not ahead, pulling you along
How to get your dog to respect you
Reed, who is also a canine intuitive and holistic dog trainer who offers sessions through her business Pack Dynamics, says it’s imperative to approach our dogs as individuals and members of another species. Canines act on instinct in response to their environment—and every dog will have a different response based on their personality.
This is why we need to establish boundaries, set rules and follow through on enforcing both without confusing them. Without guidance, dogs will make their own rules, which is the opposite of respect. From this perspective, Reed recommends the following:
1. Don’t constantly talk to your dog
“Every time you look at and talk to your dog it’s like starting a conversation,” says Reed. Dogs see us as either their leader or their follower (aka, a puppy). “If we are constantly talking to them, without giving them a request, like ‘Come,’ it’s like asking a person for help all day long, without telling them what you need help with.” This causes stress in the dog and can push the human into the follower/puppy category.
2. Don’t constantly correct bad behavior
Constant correction or yelling when your dog does something wrong means you’re giving them attention (which they love) for bad behavior (which they’ll keep doing if the result is something they love). Remember, attention is basically a conversation. “You are encouraging the behavior because you are making eye contact and talking to them,” says Reed. In these instances, ignoring the bad behavior—literally acting like it bores you—is a better tactic. (Mark and reward training is a good method for curbing unwanted behaviors.)
3. Don’t use the same command for several behaviors
We already know phrases like “No” and “Drop it!” can be too vague for dogs. Reed agrees and says specificity is key to establishing rules your dog will understand and follow. “For example, if they jump on the couch and you say ‘No’ and that’s also what you say when they chew on the coffee table or grab your shoe, it doesn’t make sense to your dog.” Instead, pick phrases specific to certain behaviors like jumping, chewing, barking and so on. “The more specific you are, the easier it is for your dog to ‘get it right’.”
4. Don’t use full sentences
Dogs don’t speak English, but you’d never know it the way some of us talk to our dogs. They definitely recognize short phrases and single words, but anything longer is confusing. “Keep it short and simple, using their name and one or two words when asking them to do something,” says Reed. This sets you both up for success.
5. Don’t let your dog lead
Sometimes you literally have to be a leader. By exiting the house ahead of your dog, you’re establishing your role as the guardian, surveying the outdoors for any threats. If your dog bolts out before you, they may think they’re the ones really in charge. While on walks, don’t allow your dog to pull you. You decide the pace and path.
6. Do provide structure—even during games
Dogs thrive on routine. Even when playing games, it’s important to establish rules and structure. If you don’t, your dog will. Pretty soon, the dog will be the one deciding when it’s time to eat and how fetch will be played.
7. Do give them affection on your terms
One of the best parts of the human-dog bond is the cuddling! Like any relationship, both parties need space on occasion. Reed encourages people to give as much love and affection as they like, as long as it’s on their terms. “Teaching your dog that you own your space is essential to teaching your dog to respect you,” Reed says. “If your dog whines, barks, paws at you, or nudges you to get affection, this means that they don’t respect your personal space and they won’t listen to you in other areas of training and leadership.” This one may be tricky for dog owners. But Reed insists it’s better to push a dog away with calm, loving energy when they invade your space than to yell or give in to the attention-seeking behavior.
8. Do act patiently and calmly
Patience and positivity are essential to earning your dog’s respect. “Dogs reflect our emotions back to us in their behavior,” says Reed. Frustrated, angry guardians can create anxious pups. Training (and most relationships, dog or otherwise) can test our limits! “Think positive and always encourage the desired behavior with kind, loving responses. Dogs don’t respond well to harsh, stern tones… Even if a dog does cooperate when spoken to sternly, think about what you want your relationship to be built on. Fear? Or trust and respect.”
Our dogs are there for us at our high highs and lowest lows. Establishing a mutually respectful relationship with them means embracing them for what they are (dogs) and what they are not (people). Don’t force them to make the rules! Work with their instincts and unique perspectives to help them thrive. According to Reed, “If we don’t step up to the leadership role from a dog’s perspective, they believe that their only option is taking on the role themselves.”