The Importance of Space

Winston is not happy with me in the photo to the left. Not only am I in his “space”, I am restraining him, so he can’t getmore space between us, which is probably what he wants.

Winston is not happy with me in this photo. Not only am I in his “space”, I am restraining him, so he can’t getmore space between us, which is probably what he wants.

GIVE ME SOME SPACE, PLEASE!!!!!! Who among us hasn’t felt like this at some point in our lives? Well, here is a news flash: sometimes our canine friends could use a little space too.  Owners don’t have to look far for examples of their pet wanting a bit more space. Many dogs take their “special” toy or treat and move further away to ensure they are at a “safe” distance before they can enjoy it.   In multi dog households where fights have broken out, the fights very often happen in tight quarters (doorways, hallways, under the kitchen table). The tighter the space, the less options dogs have to get their point across. Many resort to snarling, snipping, and biting if they have no other options. Even hugging your dog can encroach on his comfort zone when it comes to his need for space.

The importance of proximity in a dog’s life is something that trainers and behaviorists are continuing to study. What we have determined is that a dog’s freedom to give or take space helps create a sense of safety for them. In almost all aspects of a dog’s life, the use of space is the difference between success and failure, conflict and resolution, stress free situations and stressful situations. The good news is that owners who grasp this concept can use it to their advantage! The appropriate use of space is one of the easiest and most underused tools available.

A prime example of this is when dealing with dog/dog introductions. Most owners are aware that it wise to keep a loose leash when their dog is meeting another dog. Ever wonder why? A tight leash restricts a dog’s options when meeting another dog. If the leashes stay tight, then the choice to give or take space is not there. By keeping leashes loose it lets each dog circle, sniff, play bow, ignore, or walk away from another dog. Without that choice, communication between dogs is limited. Without the ability to communicate properly, stress or frustration builds and that often leads to growling, snapping, or biting. Imagine trying to let someone know that they are standing too close and making you uncomfortable. If they don’t (or can’t) move back and you can’t move back, it can get pretty stressful. I might find myself a bit snappy after awhile!

Nowhere is having a safe sense of space more important than when working with reactive dogs. Finding enough distance is the number one tool used with these dogs.  In all of my reactive cases, the first meeting has everything to do with proximity. The first question is “At what distance can the owner’s dog handle seeing the trigger without reacting?” Once we find the correct distance, we have a starting point in which everything else is built.

Is there enough space between these dogs? Do both look comfortable? Can they move away if they need more distance to feel safe? The option to gain space can help prevent conflicts.

Is there enough space between these dogs? Do both look comfortable? Can they move away if they need more distance to feel safe? The option to gain space can help prevent conflicts.

Providing enough space during any type of training is key in helping your dog succeed. I was observing a basic training class at a local pet store last week. Four out of the five dogs in the class were able to “sit” when requested. The fifth dog was too distracted by the other dogs to focus on anything, much less “sit” when asked. Watching from behind the lines, I saw the inevitable happen as both trainer and owner began to get more and more frustrated. They finally began pushing on the dog’s hind quarters, jerking his collar and hovering over him yelling the cue “Sit!”.  This, in turn, stressed and frustrated the dog even more. Needless to say, there was not a lot of success during that exercise. By using available space to their advantage, things may have turned out differently. It would have been a good idea to move this dog further away from the distractions, get him to refocus and start again. Owners must practice at a distance where their dog is successful and build up to closer distractions over time. Being able to provide enough space is the first step to garnering improved focus from your dog in these distracting circumstances. Owners that are in class rooms that are not able to provide enough distance may find themselves a bit frustrated.   Often, the difference of moving a dog 2-3 feet further away can lead to success! Teaching owners to creatively utilize space with their dogs can help them defuse many frustrating moments.

Proximity always matters to your dog.  Training, meet and greets with people or with other dogs, parties, events, distractions….success with these has everything to do with distance.   Using space to your advantage throughout your dog’s daily routine will help you keep your dog’s stress level low, set yourself up for successful training lessons and avoid unnecessary conflicts with other dogs! Now that is a tool we could all use!


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Positively Expert: Amy Weeks

Amy Weeks, M.A. (VSPDT, CPDT-KA, CAP-1, CGC Evaluator, Family Pet Paws Presenter) is owner of “Amy’s Canine Kindergarten”, a dog training company based out of Tampa, Florida which provides in-home and group training as well as bite prevention presentations.


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