You wake up in the morning. Immediately, you face a complex set of rules and norms – some spoken, others unspoken. Don’t make a mess in the house. Don’t yell at strangers. Don’t run into the street. Let strangers sniff your butt. Only pee outside.
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Sorry, I forgot to say – you’re a dog.
Social etiquette is complicated enough for humans. Even with the gift of language, all of us transgress these rules from time to time. And indeed, some social norms are woefully outdated. But at its best, etiquette helps us move through the world in a way that is more pleasant for ourselves and others, whether we’re human or canine.
“Any etiquette, whether it’s dog or human, is about being considerate of whoever you’re interacting with,” says Susan Smith, a professional dog trainer, behavioral consultant and director of the company Raising Canine. Dogs are not humans, Smith says, and they shouldn’t be expected to act like they are. It’s up to dog owners to make sure they and their canine friends are behaving appropriately in any given situation. That being said, dogs “certainly can learn human rules”, she says. “And we can learn more about dogs. There can be some give and take.”
Dog etiquette is more relevant than ever. According to research by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in England, pandemic puppy owners are struggling with behavioral issues like pulling on the leash, clinginess and aggression more than owners who got their dogs before the pandemic. Experts suspect this is because pandemic social distancing made it difficult to fully socialize puppies.
Teaching our pups how to move though the world involves balancing their needs and tendencies with our own.
“Do bear in mind your dog’s breed, as this impacts what is their ‘normal’ and what they need to be fulfilled,” explains Louise Glazebrook, a dog behaviorist, trainer, author and TV presenter. If your dog is a breed that is designed to jump, like German shorthaired pointers or Hungarian vizslas, Glazebrook says that expecting them to keep their feet on the ground all the time isn’t realistic. “Instead, teach them to jump on and over things you want them to use.”
Basic training and good dog etiquette are important because they make life easier for both dogs and humans, says Glazebrook. “It shows wider society that our dogs can be part of our communities and are not to be feared,” she says. Having clear boundaries and expectations not only allows us to bring our canine companions to more places, it’s also reassuring for them. “Dogs thrive off knowing what is expected of them in a situation,” Glazebrook says.
Above all, experts say that it’s our responsibility as owners to be aware, and to not put our dogs in situations that are unsafe for them or for anyone else. Training, observation and planning can help. “The biggest difference I’ve noticed between dog owners and dog professional trainers or behaviorists is that dog owners are reactive and dog pros are proactive,” says Smith. “We are always aware of what is going on in our environment, and if we see something down the road that our dog is going to react to, we deal with it before he’s even aware.”
So how should a dog be? We spoke to five dog behavior experts about good dog etiquette, and how much of it is about humans better advocating for our dogs’ needs.
Dog etiquette at home
Should dogs be allowed on the furniture? Everyone has their own version of what is right for them, because all of our homes are unique. My dog does go on my sofa, he is allowed on my bed and he does sleep upstairs at night. I don’t believe in huge restrictions unless you are struggling with aggression issues. – Louise Glazebrook, dog behaviorist, trainer, author, TV presenter
What are the basic behaviors and boundaries at home? Encourage good manners indoors – no chewed shoes, please. Establish a cozy corner, and make “sit” and “stay” the royal commands. Reward pup for preferred behavior, such as relaxing quietly. – Dr Hannah Lau, veterinarian at BondVet
It depends on the people and what kind of relationship they want to have with their dog. I’m a dog trainer, so I tend to be a little authoritarian. To me, basic things are house training and not jumping up on counters. – Susan Smith
How much barking is OK? When it comes to balancing a dog’s need to be a dog – whether it’s play, greeting or territorial barking, or barking because other dogs are barking – with the need to be a good neighbor, put limits on the dog. For instance, they can bark out in the yard for a few minutes but then they have to come in and do something else (play with an enrichment toy or chew a bone) or they can bark during the day when the neighbors are at work but not in the early morning or evening.
For other types of barking, the way to curb it is to address the underlying reason why the dog is barking (like separation anxiety or frustration) – Dr Pamela Reid, vice-president of the ASPCA behavioral sciences team
Dog etiquette on a walk
How should my dog act on leash? No pulling, especially towards dogs and people. But we also want to give dogs a chance to sniff and to explore their world and have fun as well. Just as long as they’re not pulling their owner all over the place. – Mike Shikashio, certified dog behavior consultant, founder and CEO of aggressivedog.com
What do I do if my dog is reactive? Be observant. If you see a potential problem coming, figure out how you can avoid it. Cross the street, or turn and go the other direction. – Smith
Do I need to clean up my dog’s poop? Yes, unless your dog is a registered seeing eye dog. – Common decency, and also city ordinances across the US
Does my dog need to be on a leash? If you see another dog with a lead on, put your dog on a leash if yours is off lead. You don’t allow your dog to run up to other dogs uninvited. This can be really unnerving for many dogs and it can create issues for puppies who are learning about the world. I believe it is crucial that we stop letting dogs run off. You don’t know anything about the dog or the person that your dog is running into. That is just being respectful of others. – Glazebrook
(Note: Check your local laws. In the US, many cities and municipalities have laws that say dogs must remain leashed except in designated off-leash areas. In the UK, rules vary between counties, but certain orders prohibit dogs from being off leash around children’s play areas, sports pitches, roads, parks and beaches.)
Can my dog greet other dogs? Whenever you are out with your dog and you would like your dog to say hello to another dog, it’s really important to ask that person if they want that as well, and respect it if they don’t.
Not every dog wants to say hello. It’s important for people to teach their dogs that they’re not going to get to meet every dog they see. You distract them with treats and you get them doing other things so they learn that sometimes they’re not going to get to say hello, and that’s OK. – Reid
Can my dog greet other humans? The first thing to consider is if your dog actually wants to meet that stranger. If your dog doesn’t want to meet someone, they don’t need to – don’t lure them, don’t use treats to tempt them. It may backfire.
If your dog is happy to greet people, I tend to advise the person to stroke under the chin, where your dog can see the hand go, not on top of the head.
It’s polite to teach our dogs not to jump up at people, while also understanding that jumping up can be the body language display of a dog that feels anxious. There’s nuance there. – Glazebrook
Dog etiquette at a dog park
How should my dog act at the dog park? Some dogs can play very roughly. What might look like playing to the owner could actually be bullying behavior. The easiest way to tell is if dogs start avoiding that dog, or you see inklings of aggression, like other dogs air-snapping. – Shikashio
How should I act at the dog park? Stay away from the gates – if your dog is off leash, it could get out. If you see your dog going to greet a dog coming into the park, you should get them away from that.
Pay attention. One of the biggest issues at a dog park is that owners often tend to think of it as a social interaction for them, and they’re not paying attention to their dogs. – Smith
The most important rule at a dog park is that you have voice control over your dog. So if your dog is being victimized or your dog is bullying in some way, you have the ability to interrupt your dog. – Reid
Dog etiquette at a restaurant/bar
Should I bring my dog to a dog-friendly restaurant? The biggest mistake that people make is thinking their dogs enjoy it, but maybe they don’t. It’s important people pay attention to what their dog is telling them. If their body language is indicating that they’re not having a good time, maybe it’s not the place for them. – Reid
How should my dog behave at a restaurant/bar? I think a dog should be able to go to a restaurant and lay under a table or close to a chair and nobody even knows he’s there. Because those places are not for dogs – they are for humans. –Smith
What kind of training does my dog need to be in these spaces? It starts at home. If you can’t teach your dog to lie on their mat and settle when you are eating dinner at home, I’m afraid to say you won’t stand a chance when out with more distractions. –Glazebrook
Dog etiquette in the workplace
Assuming my workplace is dog-friendly, should I bring my dog to work? It’s really important to be aware of whether your dog is enjoying it or not. Some dogs are just not comfortable around a lot of unfamiliar dogs and people, so they’re not good candidates for this kind of scenario. – Reid
How can I make my dog comfortable at work? The last time I worked in an office where dogs were allowed to come in, we made sure everyone had a little partition around their desk. That way the dogs didn’t have to be tethered, which makes them potentially feel a little more vulnerable in a space, which can lead to being more fearful or potentially more aggressive. By having that little space around them with pens or gates, they can be looking out at what’s going on if they choose, or they can be under your desk hanging out and chilling. – Reid
It’s important to get the dog the enrichment and exercise it needs during the day: having enrichment toys like stuffed Kongs, making sure they get a break and time to sniff outside. – Shikashio
What dog behaviors are unacceptable at work? If you’re in a place of business, you don’t want to create an issue by having that dog jump up on a patron or a client. – Shikashio
Dog etiquette in another person’s home
How can I manage my dog at someone else’s home? Reinforce basic commands like “sit” and “stay”. – Lau
Obviously you want the dog house-trained. And follow the same rules as in their own home. Don’t pee and poop on things. Don’t chew things. Don’t steal things. Get along with the other dog if there is one. Don’t jump up on people. – Shikashio
Show them where you want them to go potty. – Smith
Dog etiquette when meeting children
How can I prepare my dog to meet children? Teach your dog to be gentle and patient. Supervision is key to ensure tails are wagging, not stepping on tiny toes. – Lau
Tolerance of children is important, because we can’t always control what the child is doing. But it’s also important to advocate for our dog. We’re not just gonna allow kids to squeeze their ears and poke them. – Shikashio
It’s difficult to train and expose the dogs to this situation if they’re not around a lot of children. If that’s the case, you have to manage it. I’d keep my dog close so I can keep an eye on what’s going on. – Smith
How should children prepare to interact with dogs? Teach children to be gentle, respectful, and to recognize cues of discomfort in dogs such as wide eyes, lip licking, yawning, leaning away or a tense mouth. – Lau
Not all dogs enjoy children. They run around, they shriek, they are unpredictable, and they can be inconsistent with rewards and hand gestures or movements. I think a great step is to teach children to throw treats for your dog on to the floor for them to sniff out. This keeps the child from being heavy-handed, prevents issues and means your dog learns to keep their distance. – Glazebrook
Dog etiquette at the vet
How should a dog behave at the vet’s office? It’s nerve-wracking for most dogs to go to the vet’s office. The etiquette here is just helping the dog feel safe, giving them a lot of opportunities to express their choices, meaning they’re not so restricted. Maybe you can ask the staff to text you when your appointment is about to begin, then take your dog out to go sniff, and throw some treats in the grass. Let them enjoy themselves outside and not be stressed inside the office. – Shikashio