Rules in Dog Training, and Their Surprising Power to Affect Your Dog’s Happiness

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People often bring a dog to a trainer because the dog does certain behaviors they don’t like. 

Their dog isn’t following the rules, they say. Perhaps their dog doesn’t listen to them, and they want the dog to do what they say and stop doing the “bad” behaviors. A good dog trainer, however, recognizes the importance of looking at the dog as a whole.

When dogs do things we don’t like, it is often the case that the dog’s mental health is suffering in some way.

And I’m not talking about obvious cases of abuse or neglect, here. I’m talking about the difficulties inherent in living with a totally different species, with a different language and needs. 

There are a lot of things that can cause a dog’s mental health to suffer. As with humans, one factor that tends to create unhealthy stress for dogs is inconsistency in rules.

Imagine if you had a boss who sometimes had one set of expectations for your work, but at other times, became upset with you for the exact same quality of work. Wouldn’t that stress you out?  Not knowing how to please someone can be very upsetting. Imagine always living with the feeling that someone might, at any moment, become angry with you for no reason. And yet, all too often, this is the sort of behavior we exhibit with our dogs. 

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Recently, my Australian cattle dog/lab mix Wyatt underwent a minor surgery for a toe he’d injured while playing fetch.

That night, when I got home, he was being a bit needy (well…more so than usual). He stood up on his hind legs and laid his chest across my lap, whining a bit with a tone I’d almost never heard from him. He’d had a rough day…taken to the vet, handed over to people he doesn’t know, and all that. Or perhaps the pain meds had worn off and his toe was hurting. 

Whatever the reason, Wyatt seemed to be feeling a little distressed, and I don’t like seeing him like that.

When it was time for bed, he wanted to come sleep in the bed with me. He sat next to the bed and looked up at me, eyes big, ears pricked out to the sides like a bat. I knew that this expression was his unmistakable, “I want something. Can I please have it?” face.

This behavior is actually a bit unusual for him, too, as he always sleeps in his own bed at night.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with allowing a dog to sleep in your bed (depending on the dog), I happen to enjoy a night of sleep uninterrupted by little bed hogs. So in our house, the rule is that Wyatt may ask permission to jump onto the bed while we are awake. When it is time for lights out, I ask him to go to his own bed, and he does. There is no negotiation around this rule. 

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Even though I felt bad for the little guy, I knew I could not bend the rules that night.

In this situation, I needed to think about Wyatt’s long-term wellbeing, instead of simply responding emotionally to the situation. If I had allowed Wyatt to sleep in the bed that night, he would have wanted to sleep in the bed the next night, and I would have had to tell him “no.”

Rather than being a special treat for him that made him feel good, allowing him to sleep in the bed one night but not the next would have set him up for disappointment.

We can’t explain to our dogs why we might make an exception to a rule one day, but not the next. All the dog knows is that he expected to get something, and was then told he could not have it. It’s unfair, and it’s upsetting for a dog. 

When we create rules that we only follow some of the time, we create unnecessary stress for our dogs. 

If a dog is allowed to jump up on her owner when that person is wearing exercise clothes, but not when the person is dressed for work- well, that’s beyond a dog’s cognitive capacity to understand. All the dog knows is that they did something they thought was ok, and their person is now upset about it for no reason. 

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Inconsistencies aren’t good for the human-dog relationship, either. 

They create dogs who feel anxious and insecure, because they never know how we will respond to them. Even though it might not seem like a big deal to us, a multitude of inconsistencies with rules can create an environment in which a dog feels stressed and confused. Such rule-bending will also slow down training, and will create a dog who always seems to do things we don’t like. 

Being consistent with rules helps dogs to feel at ease in their environments, in part because it makes their worlds more predictable. 

When your world is predictable, you feel in control, and you tend to be happier. Imagine a time in your life when a lot of things were in flux, and you had no idea what was going to happen next. If you are a happy-go-lucky person, maybe you adapted well to this circumstance, and found yourself minimally affected. For the rest of us, though, not knowing what is going to happen next can be stressful. So it is with dogs. 

The next time you are tempted to bend the rules for your dog, remember that you aren’t truly doing your dog a kindness. 

Clarity and consistency are the kinder route, and your dog will thank you for them. Training will also progress much more quickly this way, and you will build a stronger relationship with your dog. So remember, the next time you find yourself in this position, just think long-term, and be kind but firm.

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