Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Are You a Control Freak?

If you have an untrained puppy or dog at home, you need to become one.

The more variables you can control in a situation, the more successful you and your puppy/dog will be.

Laissez-faire might be good for market stability somewhere, but it doesn’t work for raising a dog to be a well-behaved member of your family. Dogs and puppies, when left to their own devices, by and large will not make the choices you want them to make.*

Taking control of your relationship is necessary, humane, and happiness-inducing. It may produce whining, moaning, tantrums, and avoidance. But once you buck up and stop whining, moaning, throwing tantrums, and avoiding the responsibility, you will be on the path to greatness with your canine companion. 😊

Thanks for laughing at my joke. In truth, your dog may whine about and avoid your attempts to control, especially if he has had too much freedom until now. (This is why I always recommend starting with more structure when the dog enters your life and gradually granting more freedom when he has earned it. Are you finally listening?)

For example: If you haven’t previously crate-trained him, and you begin the process, it may not be pretty. It may be noisy. He may tap into your emotions and fiddle with your sappy, bleeding heart. This can be difficult to endure, but it is indeed endurable—for both of you.**  My article The Crate is Great can help your reluctant dog enjoy his space.

If you stop allowing him on furniture where he was allowed previously, you might experience some pushback. It won’t be easy to keep him off. It won’t be a cinch to get him to leave the couch or bed once he has snuck up on it. But if it is what he needs, you will calmly persevere.***

Until your puppy or dog is trained, you need to be able to control where he goes, when he goes there, and what he does when there. We use structure to get that control, and it allows us to set the dog up for success. Once he has mastered some fundamentals, we can relinquish some control because he is capable of making better decisions. The more he learns and becomes proficient at, the less control we need to exert over him.

"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it." ~George Bernard Shaw

How can you use structure to gain control? Let’s talk about tools that can help you.

First, control freedom inside the home, to prevent accidents and destruction.

Use a crate. Use tethering. Use gates. Use a dragline. The pros all do it. Copy us.

Tethering helps with supervision
GATES—use baby gates to set boundaries and control the dog’s access to rooms or areas where he should remain, or stay out of. Walk-through gates are easiest to use. NOTE: smart dogs can learn to scale baby gates or push them over. Use them only when you are home until you know if he will try; crates tend to be safer containment areas, but exceptions do occur.

Next, control interactions with the dog and humans.

What does this look like? If you imagined it to be yelling at the dog to stop doing X, or physically “showing him who is boss” by hitting, shoving his nose in his waste, or body-slamming him, forget that crap. It’s counterproductive and we know better now.

Speak in your normal voice. Stand up straight unless you are inviting the dog into your space for a snuggle. Teach one-word commands and stick to them; dogs don’t understand long paragraphs. Be consistent and clear—the dog’s comprehension of our strange world depends on clarity and consistency.

In many household situations, you don’t even need commands. Dogs are excellent at paying attention to the things that matter to them. They are reading us all the time and learn quickly what certain gestures, ways of moving, and events mean. It doesn’t take but a few repetitions for the dog to learn that the sound of keys means you are about to walk out the door; the sound of the can lid popping, the refrigerator opening, or the microwave dinging signals food being prepared; even the sound of the toilet flushing signals something to the dog.

With a bit of practice, you holding his food bowl means sit, and eventually lie down and wait. You moving toward him means back up, please, or move aside. You pointing at a nearby bed means “go there and remain until I release you.” You patting your leg means “walk right here with me.”

Teaching the dog to do these things takes a bit of practice, but it's not difficult, and it makes sense to the dog.

Learning to wait at doors is crucial
It can take several forms, but the leadership protocol I’ve been using for years that works very well is having the dog perform a command before he is given something of value to him. This way, he sees that the things he wants and enjoys are rewards for his behavior towards you or other humans. Before you put down his food bowl, or open the door to let him into the yard, or put his leash on, or allow him on the furniture, or give him affection, you should have him sit, or lie down, or stay, or come to you, or even perform a trick occasionally. You can use any command or behavior the dog knows. I like to make the sit the default command for all “life rewards,” and then as the dog learns more commands, I “raise the bar” and ask him for harder things for the rewards he finds more valuable, like food.

Another way to control the interactions is to make sure you aren’t rewarding pushy behaviors like darting out of the crate, shoving a toy on you for play, banging into you when playing, putting teeth on you when playing, refusing to move out of your way or get off furniture when told, or grabbing food in any context. Don’t allow the dog to do these things and make him getting the things he wants contingent on his calm choices like sitting, lying down, coming happily when called, and ceding space to you.

Next, control your dog’s freedom outdoors.

Use securely fenced yards, leashes, boundary training, recall training, and pack-relevance training to teach your dog that you are worth being paid attention to, even in the exciting outdoors. Freedom needs to be earned. Far too many people make assumptions about what their puppy or dog will or won’t do outdoors in unsecured places. Don’t make assumptions. Dogs are good until the day that they are not. The only thing that gets you solid off-leash reliability is repetitive training with valuable rewards for compliance and eventually, well-timed corrections for non-compliance.

You must make coming to you, staying near you, and keeping you in sight more rewarding for the dog than dashing off, running away, playing with other dogs, chasing cars or prey, or doing whatever feels good in the moment. And dogs are all about what feels good in the moment!

Until your dog has had enough training to show that he understands what is expected, especially in the face of distractions, he cannot be trusted off-leash in unsecured environments. Period. There’s a razor-thin line between safety and sadness.

Most young puppies don’t have the confidence to stray far from us, so people tend to get cocky and complacent when they acquire a pup at 7-8 weeks and it follows them everywhere, even outside. Up until about 16-18 weeks, most puppies don’t want to be far from us. But as they reach 16-18 weeks, they start to gain more confidence and want to see the world. If you have good recall training on board before that happens, excellent! Now it will be put to the test as you practice EVERYWHERE, ON LEASH, for the next several months.

You may want your puppy or dog to have off-leash freedom before he is ready, but what he needs is a lot of preparation. You don’t get to choose what he needs and your wants do not override his needs.

No matter how friendly your dog actually
is, he should never be allowed to charge
up to people on the street
If your dog runs up to people and/or dogs when he is off-leash, and you cannot prevent this, or at the very least call him back with one command, he should not be off-leash. This is rude and someone is going to get hurt. Leashed dogs do NOT appreciate being approached by off-leash dogs, and neither do their owners. Many of these owners are trying to work on leash skills and your cries of "it's OK, he's friendly!" are as helpful as a screen door on a submarine. You are allowing YOUR wants to mess up the training others are trying to accomplish--training you neglected to do. Leash your dog. Plus, it's the law, for good reason.

If your puppy or dog is the clingy type, you may have tried a few scenarios where he was allowed freedom and he never strayed far from you, or came back easily. You might have even done this multiple times, and have concluded that “he would never run away.” Believing this is folly and folly can lead to heartbreak in seconds. Even the “Velcro” dog needs lots of recall training because these dogs tend to be a bit anxious and when the chips are down, if they panic and bolt, it won’t always be in your direction. Also, do you know what your dog will do if a deer, snake, or bear appears in the woods when you are hiking with him off-leash? If you cannot answer that definitively, he isn’t ready to be off-leash.

What about taking your dog to the dog park?

This subject is long enough for a completely separate post, but I want to take a stab at it here because dog parks have become so ubiquitous. You probably aren't going to like what I have to say, but please bear with me here.

Dog parks are chock full of uncontrollable variables, which by now should be a red flag to you. Dogs must be off-leash in these parks for their own safety. So, strike 1 against the untrained dog: he is basically uncontrollable once that leash is off. Strike 2 is that not only is he uncontrollable, but he is in "Disney World for dogs who love other dogs": a place of unbridled hedonism where humans have very little authority. Playing with other dogs is highly rewarding to most pet dogs², and when the things your dog loves come with no supervisional strings attached, you become less relevant to the dog.

The fact that your dog seems to be super happy during your trips to the dog park and comes home super tired are irrelevant because you are teaching your dog that the BEST THING is barely attached to you. This lesson is not lost on your dog. He learns through proper structure and training that rewards are contingent on behaviors--a necessary lesson--and then every day, or twice a week, or however often you cart him to the park, he learns that there are exceptions to this rule. How many other exceptions might there be? Do you want him to test this theory? I don't. And you shouldn't, either.

"A tired dog is a good dog" is pretty much true, but how your dog gets tired matters. And if you like him tired because it means you don't have to do much with him, then you need to ask yourself why you have a dog. Seriously.

Is the dog park meeting your dogs needs? You may think the answer is yes, but when you look at the dogs actual needs, can you answer the question the same way?

This article explains why I am leery of dog parks. I wrote it long enough ago that it doesn't even touch on the idea of how your dog gets tired matters, but the short version of that is this: allowing your dog to tire himself physically in an activity uncontrolled by humans means he isn't getting much mental stimulation (if any) at the dog park, and while some learning is taking place (he is learning how to interact with other dogs), some of this learning could actually be detrimental. He could be learning how to bully other dogs, for instance. How would you control that? It's something to think about.

Remember: you don’t get to choose what your dog needs, and your wants do not override his needs.

The more variables you can control in a situation, the more successful you and your puppy/dog will be.

This “Mailey’s Maxim” applies even to public situations where your dog will be on a leash, such as public parks, restaurants, your kid’s soccer practice, stores that allow dogs, hiking trails, and fairs/festivals.

All of these environments come with something we haven’t yet touched on: largely uncontrollable variables like people, other dogs (both on and off-leash), and distractions of both the exciting kind (“someone just dropped a hotdog!”) and the frightening kind (traffic, large crowds, loud noises).

Put dogs in environments with fewer distractions until they are trained and have shown that they can handle themselves well. Use these environments to train them and prepare them for more distracting environments later. Add distractions incrementally to inoculate them for real-world situations. Quit on a positive note (earlier than you wanted to) and come back to it after hours or even a day or more. Use rewards that are commensurate with the level of difficulty and use corrections properly.

Before taking your dog in public, ask yourself: How many variables in this potential environment will I be able to control? If the answer is less than half, few, or none, rethink your need to take your untrained or partially-trained dog. If he must go, how can you set him up for success?

The more training he has, the more environments he can handle well. Good socialization is about preparing your dog for the types of environments he is likely to encounter in his lifetime, which include people, other animals, traffic, noises, hotdogs falling on the ground unexpectedly, and the like.

Let me give you some examples:

When you take a walk in your neighborhood, you will generally have more control over variables than when you take your dog to the local park or the fairgrounds for a festival. Why? You know the area, and so does your dog. You are more comfortable, and therefore will not trigger the dog’s anxieties. Is dog trained to walk nicely on leash? That definitely helps. You probably know neighbors and what dogs they have, how many kids you are likely to see, traffic and noise.

Is your neighborhood teeming with uncontrollable variables like off-leash dogs and lots of kids playing? Go at a quieter time of day or night if you can.

When you take your dog in the car to a place that allows dogs to come inside, you are still able to control some of the variables, like where the dog rides in the car (restrain in a crate or harness, please), and where you go in the store itself. If it’s a store you know, and your dog has been before, your chances are better.

But it could present several variables beyond your control, such as the Marauders, other dogs who are not so well-behaved, and chances for you to become distracted.

Practice inside a pet supply
store can be risky because
of marauders.
There are people who cannot see a dog in a store, even in a place where dogs commonly go, without making a gigantic fuss, following the dog and human around, touching without consent (from owner or dog), invading you and your dog’s space, and basically acting like they’ve never seen a dog before. I call them the Marauders and I do my best to avoid them because they scare my dogs and that puts me on edge. They are the main reason I don’t take my personal dogs into many dog-friendly stores anymore—half the time, these people work there!

Sometimes Marauders have dogs with them, and sometimes not. Sometimes, other people’s dogs in the store are the Marauders, who strain at the end of their retractable leashes trying to get to my dogs to play (or something more sinister) and their hapless owners are half an aisle away, distracted, or clueless.

Both of the above are uncontrollable variables that untrained, partially-trained, or anxious/fearful dogs should not be exposed to if at all possible. Marauders can screw up your dog’s confidence, or cause him great anxiety, or set him back, or all of these.

What about taking your leashed dog for a group hike, or to a festival in the park?

How many of variables in those environments do you think you can control? Has your dog shown anxiety, aggression, or unpredictability around large crowds of people and/or dogs? Then he is not ready!

Even the dog who loves everyone and everything is at risk of being overwhelmed and backsliding as the potential for lots of people in not-a-lot-of-space increases. Marauders abound, and even your super-friendly dog has limits. Don’t push it. Protect your dog from uncontrollable variables for which he has not been prepared until you can train him to tolerate or enjoy those situations.

How long will this take? It depends on several factors, including your dog’s innate temperament, his age, his breed (to some extent), how long you have had him, whether or not he sees you as a leader, his current habits, what he already knows, his distractability, the training tools you use, and your access to training opportunities and your willingness to put in the time.

In short, assume months and even years in some situations—not hours and days. Put the work in and get professional help if you need it. The payout is priceless, and you will both be enriched by the process.

The better trained your dog is, the less of a control freak you need to be.


*Do exceptions exist? Sure. Some dogs are just easier to raise than others. Some people have never used a crate and swear they haven’t ever used any other structural devices and ended up with a fine dog. It is certainly possible, but is it probable? No. Those people are the exceptions, not the rule.

**Some dogs cannot abide being in a crate when their humans are gone. They can easily escape, or will attempt to, and can injure themselves in the process, which we do not want. In some cases, they can be desensitized to the crate and learn to tolerate it, and in other cases, this doesn’t work and an alternative method of containment must be used.

***Whether or not dogs are allowed on your furniture is a personal choice on some level. If you don’t want them up there, don’t allow it from the get-go. They will adapt just fine. If you want them to be able to get on the furniture, that’s fine too, as long as they know the rules: they need to be invited, for the most part, and when they are told to remove themselves from the furniture, they do so without complaint, and quickly. If they cannot, they should not be allowed up. Stopping access to furniture is one way to curtail freedom and may or may not be a necessary part of your dog learning better behavior in your home.

² There are plenty of dogs who do not like dog parks. The reasons can be that they don't like playing with strange dogs, they don't like large groups of dogs, they are uncomfortable with the energy of the park, they prefer the company of dogs they know or humans, they have been injured or scared in dog parks, and more. If your dog doesn't like dog parks and doesn't have fun there, stop going. You are definitely not meeting his needs, and you could be messing him up.

Not sure if he is having fun at the park? Consult a reputable trainer to assess this.


  1. Very clearly stated.

    I hope the bilkygoats will approve.

    - Izzee's Mom -

    1. They do! You are far from a troll. Thanks for the feedback!

  2. I'm reading through this post and thinking, "Check, check, check. This is amazing! This is all the values we believe and how we've taught our dog." I get to the end and see that it's written by our own dog guru, coach, trainer, font of wisdom, Mailey McLaughlin! Butter and our whole family swears by your approach! Thank you for setting us up for doggie success!

    1. Daryn! Thanks for commenting! Hope you and yours are all doing well.


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