Body Space, the finesseful frontier

teaching "move", "get back", "off" by use of body space techniques

by Pam Green, © 2010

This article discusses various techniques I've developed over the years to teach dogs to move out of my way, to get back when walking ahead of me, and to get off of my body and out of my space and stop being a pest, and to move over and yield space in bed.
All of these techniques make a lot more sense when considered in light of Pat McConnell's discussion of personal body space and related issues in her marvelous book "The Other End of the Leash" and Kilcommons and Wilson's excellent book "My Smart Puppy".
I wrote the body space theory parts of this some months earlier than I wrote the "how to do it" parts. There's a different tone and style in the two types of discussion.

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Space, the finesseful frontier

Like most people who live and work with dogs, over the years I've developed a few techniques that I've found work well for some dogs and that I consider benign as well as useful. In some cases these were discovered serendipitously and in others seemed simply common sense. Often the right side of my brain was in control and the left side looked for reasons later on. Now I am one of those people who like to understand the underlying reasons something works, because that understanding often leads to improved and expanded use of the method involved. But if a method works, I can use it without fully understanding why. Usually I do have some theory of why, but it can be vague or can be very clear. I did of course know a fair bit about Flight Zone and Fight Zone because of involement in Herding and in Protection sports. I also had some vague understanding of the concept of personal space or body space and I certainly was very aware that lower ranked dogs were very responsive to the body language of higher ranked dogs and humans as to space and movement.

Then when I read Patricia McConnell's great book "The Other Side of the Leash" I got more refined ideas about the variations of using my own personal body space to get the dog to move his own body space and his body inside of it. This did lead to refining and expanding this set of methods. Her discussion of "slappy pats" was particularly relevant, as well as her discussion of "body blocks".

Just a few days ago I discovered a wonderful book (and DVD), "My Smart Puppy" by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson. This book includes a number of lessons in which body space and body blocks are the key element. A lot of what they are doing is similar to some of what I've been doing, but the descriptions would be a bit different and the progressions are taken in smaller steps. This is a great book.

What is body space ? (and other "bubbles" of space)

Every animal (including the human animal) is surrounded by at least three "envelopes" or "bubbles" of space. (Maybe five if one were to consider Attraction Zone, the distance at which one starts to move towards something perceived as attractive, and Chase Zone, the distance at which one is triggered to chase a moving object. But I won't be discussing these in this article.)

techniques using body space methods (and other methods)

"Move" and "Move over"

"Move" is usually one of the very the first space lessons I teach to a new foster dog. The dog is lying or standing in a doorway or hallway or other narrow space and the dog is in the way of my intended path of movement. Often my just walking towards the dog is enough to cause the dog to politely move out of my way without my having to say or do anything else. But at some point I do want the dog to know the word "move" because there will be times in life when this can be very useful, even can save a dog or person from injury. For example, you are in the kitchen and of course the dog is nearby hoping food might get dropped. But you are carrying a pot of boiling water or even hot oil. So you need the dog to move away to avoid any risk that you would spill on him, resulting in painful injury. (Yes, there's the alternative of using stretch gate to bar dog from kitchen during cooking times. That's an excellent choice. So is teaching the dog to leave the kitchen on command (eg "get out" or "go" or "go to your bed") or stay out by habit when you are working there.) Or the dog is positioned where you'd trip over him if you continue to walk past him, possibly even falling on the dog and resulting in injury to yourself or to the dog. So it's an issue of safety. (Whether or not it's also an issue of dominence belongs to another discussion.)

So the dog is lying or standing there right in my path of movement. I tell the dog "Move" or perhaps "Mooove" (emphasis on the "moo") and I continue walking with my posture tall , facing frontally to the dog and maybe even doing a slight "bust your bra" (front of chest up and foreward a little bit). If the dog doesn't get out of my way, then I will bump the dog mildly (usually not more than fly killing force, usually less than that) with my knee (standing Bouvier) or my foot (lying dog). For a smaller dog, doing a sort of duck-foot waddle so you shuffle your feet into the dog can work. Or if you are barefoot or sock footed, maybe just a slight pressure from your big toe onto the dog's foot might be just right. All that is being done is a very mild discomfort that will cease the moment the dog moves away. (Technically this is termed "negative reinforcement".) The real cue is that the human is claiming body space. The mild bump is just a reminder that "I will continue moving, will walk right through you, you need to get out of the way." Of course the dog should be praised warmly for moving, but the dog is also getting the reward of the relief of the mild pressure of your body space and your bump. Dogs almost always will catch onto this very quickly. Now we have a word that can be very useful to keep both of us safe. Later on my voice tone will tend to be more casual and even sing-song, because both the dog and I know the game and the dog is willing enough to respond.

An interesting incident where I had to get creative occurred on the second or third night Grover was here as a foster dog. Now he is a very self-confident dog and also he really dislikes being touched when he is resting or sleeping. So now it's the middle of the night and I really really really need to get from my bed into the hall and to the bathroom so I can pee. Grover is right in the way. So I tell him to "Move" and nudge him very slightly with my foot. He grumbles (growls). I speak with a bit more authority , nudge a bit more firmly, and he grumbles a bit more. OK, do I really want to have a fight right now with this dog I don't yet know well or do I want to get to the porcelline throne before I have an accident ? So I stepped past him, got my errand done, then I picked up one of the plastic buckets I keep in the bathroom (for washing or soaking small items) and returned to the bedroom. As I walked up to Grover, I said "move" in a matter of fact but firm tone and I dropped the plastic bucket on him. Now understand that this bucket couldn't have weighted more than 6 ounces. It could never have hurt him in the slightest. But it startled him, and I think maybe it added some sense in his mind to my telling him to move. He moved. From that time on he has moved for me very willingly, no grumbles, etc. He still grumps if other dogs touch or nudge or bump him when he is lying down, but that is OK because he is the top ranked male dog and he even can out-face my bossy little Queensland bitch Fox if there is an issue that mattered enough to him.

Note : I don't require elderly arthritic dogs or dogs with disability to move out of a lying down position, not unless it's really necessary. I step over them or around them if I can. These sweet old dogs find getting up and moving difficult physically. Some of them need a helping hand from me to stand up. So there's no issue of body space here (and certainly no issue of my authority as leader, no issue of status, dominence, etc).

Note : with very timid dogs, dogs who are still hesitant to approach me, I wouldn't be doing this lesson until after the dog has come to trust me and trust that I am not going to hurt or attack, etc. Then any physical bump is probably not going to be needed at all, but if it is, just the lightest touch is enough to aid the dog to understand what I want.

"Move" can be both a very serious safety issue for dog and person and a mild and benign way of the person reminding the dog who is in charge here.

"Move" will translate into "move over" when the dog and I are in bed (or on the sofa) and the dog is taking up too much room, usually by lying right in the middle of the space, or the dog is draped accross part of my body and that's becoming uncomfortable for me or I need to move to another position. I want the dog to move over so I can be comfortable. Sometimes I want the dog to get off the bed altogether briefly so I can pull the blankets up or use a soft brush to sweep bits of grit off of the lower sheet (see "Off" below).

So I say "move" or "move over" (with some emphasis on the "oh" sound) and I bump or mildly shove the dog over with an elbow or knee or a backwards bump from my butt, the body part used depending on how I am lying relative to the dog. Most of the time this will make sense to the dog and in response the dog will move over, maybe only a little and maybe more. If necessary, I can ask for a further movement. ( If the dog won't move over or is too reluctant, then I require the dog to get Off the bed completely and remain off until invited back up. It's my bed and the dog is a guest.) Of course when the dog does move , the dog is praised and stroked. And as I move into the vacated space, my body is again in contact with the dog's body, which is generally what the dog wants as well as what I enjoy, so we are both getting rewarded.

Dogs can be very willing to move over when they understand that doing so means they get to stay in bed with you, but not doing so will get them exiled to the floor for a while. Likewise they can be quite willing to hop off for short periods when they know they will get invited back up. If I ever had a dog who was surly about moving over or getting off, that dog would be permanently exiled from bed, even if that meant the dog slept in a crate or outside a bedroom door stretch gate. But I've never really had a problem with this.

Normally the only dogs invited to join me in bed or on sofa are my own personal dogs, who are already well schooled and with whom there is no real issue of leadership. There's already a well established relationship in which the dog already gives me respect and trust. I don't usually invite foster dogs onto the furniture because I think that's a choice that belongs to their ultimate adopter. It's better to leave the dog ignorant of the delights of the furniture in case the adopter would rather leave the dog on the floor and sleeping in a comfortable dog bed. I will invite timid foster dogs up on the bed because I find that it increases their trust in me and is a step towards gaining confidence with people generally.

Note : not all dogs want to be up on the bed with a person. Some want only short visits for petting, then hop down. Some don't want to be on the bed except when a person isn't there. Some don't want to be on the bed at all. Not a problem to me : it's a priviledge, not a duty. Though I certainly appreciate a dog's warmth on chilly nights.

The whole topic of dogs sharing the human's bed has probable been controversial since long before Arrian (96 AD - 180 AD) wrote in favor of the practice. I share this view, for all of his reasons plus a few more, but I will save a discussion for another article. However I will admit that a dog can live a good quality life without ever sharing a person's bed.


There are really two types of "Off" and if you want to use two different words, that's OK and probably even better than using the same word for both, though I do find that dogs understand using the same word for both.

"Off" can mean "get your body off of contact with mine" or "don't bring your body into contact with mine" (ie "don't jump up on me" would be the most usual situation). "Off" can also mean "get off the bed/couch/chair" or "move further away from me on the bed" (dog taking up too much room, pressed up against me, my butt hanging off the edge of the bed, etc). From one point of view, the moving away from my body on the bed really is related to the get off my body standing up. In any case, the use of the same word does not seem to confuse my dogs, nor does it confuse them that I also use "move" or "move over" for the bed situation. (some seem to respond better to one term than to another). Some dogs seem to respond better to one word than to another..

Come to think of it, I usually don't have to tell the dog "off" in regards to jumping up , because I've usually pre-empted jumping up by having the dog "sit". (Now if you believe that I am 100% about this and never ever let my dogs jump on me, well then buddy, do I have a bridge to sell you !)

The best way to have a dog not jump up on you is indeed to teach "Sit" very well and to pre-empt jumping up by giving the "sit" command in a timely fashion, then rewarding that sit by caressing the dog, probably also crouching or squatting to do so. The instant the dog's butt leaves the floor, all petting and attention ceases. So the dog is getting "positive reinforcement" for sitting and "negative punishment" (something good stops dead) for not sitting.

Alternatively, as Pat McConnell advises, you can hug your hands and arms away from the dog (no hand contact to the dog since hand contact would be rewarding to the dog) and move boldly into the space that the dog is moving towards. She suggests you swing your hip sideways towards or into the dog. This technique is using a body block to counter-act the dog's intention to jump or to meet his jump mid-way in a way that is supposed to be unpleasant to him (note : I'm not sure that all dogs would find this unpleasant : those who include body slams in their play might find it enjoyable). A growled "off" as you do this block would make the word meaningful. Then when the dog is again four on the floor, give a "sit" and praise and reward compliance.

A lot of writers say that if the dog is already jumped up or climbed up on you, the best response is to totally ignore the dog, refusing to even acknowledge his existence , until her returns to four on the floor at which event you now acknowledge and pet him. Well ignoring a dog is hard for most people to do, especially as you are being knockd off balance. Walking right out of the room silently and without voluntarily touching the dog is probably more feasible : walk out and shut the door so the dog can't follow, then wait to return. If jumping up to get attention results in total loss of attention, then jumping up should decrease. If sitting or standing four on the floor gets a greeting and pets, then that should increase.

Note : some recent research published by Monique Udell at the Canine Cognitive and Behavior Lab at University of Florida shows that dogs (pet dogs and shelter dogs) and human-socialized wolves can be very sensitive to whether a human is directing attention at them. In these experiments the dog or wolf had to choose which of two humans was worth soliciting for food : one who was looking at the dog and one who was not , the latter having face turned away or hidden. (Presumably both had food in their posession but were not actually offering it with hand gesture.) Dogs and socialized wolves noticed the difference and solicitied the person who was looking towards them. The pet dogs were even aware that a person reading a book was not directing attention towards the dog and so was the less likely to respond to solicitation. (Very interesting to me , as I'd noticed that my own dogs seemed to understand that if I am reading a book , I am unavailable and unresponsive. I tend to really get absorbed in reading. Looks like I'm not the only one whose dogs have associated reading with unresponsive.) So this research would tend to bolster the idea that withdrawing attention, including your gaze, from a dog to discourage an unwanted behavior (if and only if that behavior is not intrinsically rewarding) really can cause the dog to not pursue a strategy aimed at getting you to respond. (But withdrawing attention will not discourage a dog from any activity that the dog finds inherrently rewarding. In some cases , such as counter-surfing for food, the dog might well be more likely to pursue the self-rewarding activity if the dog noticed that you were not paying any attention.)

I've also noticed that if I speak to one dog , especially a sharp "ach" or "eh , eh" to interrupt behavior, without using any dog's name, the dog who is directly in line with my mouth, is the one who will react. My mouth, and thus eyes and head, are aimed at that dog. Now possibly there is some subtle difference in my voice according to which dog I'm addressing. But dogs are very good, better than humans, at localizing the source of a sound (unless the dog is unilaterally deaf or , of course, totally deaf), so it's not that unreasonable that they can tell in what direction the sound is aimed.

Note : even though you have gotten your dog to the point where he never, well hardly ever, jumps up on you, he may still jump up joyfully on guests. The guests usually don't give the strong "sit" command quickly enough, and the dog may not feel he has to obey them. Also the guests are highly likely to reward the dog with some form of attention, often petting. That's especially true if the guests came for the purpose of meeting the dog or if the guests are dog-lovers (and why would you ever want to invite someone who didn't love dogs ? I sure don't.) To get solid sitting greetings for guests, you have to get several training accomplices to play the role of guests, entering and re-entering quite a few times in each training session.

Practical strategy for vulnerable guests : When I have a guest coming who is either a child or is an adult with balance issues or is otherwise fragile and at risk if a dog jumps up, I will crate my less reliable dogs before having the guest enter, then will have guest safely seated on chair or sofa before letting that dog out to interact. That's management (denial of oppertunity for something undesirable to occur) rather than training, but it's a perfectly sound alternative and keeps your guest safe. I don't have guests all that often. If I were having guests several times a week, I'd make sure to do the training to make sure all dogs greeted in Sit position and they'd get enough practice at doing this.

Pet peeve for most dog trainers (including me) :

Please don't let yourself get into the habit of saying "Down" when you really mean "off". If "Down" means "lie down" then it doesn't make sense to use it for getting off furniture when the dog is already lying down on top of that furniture. Nor for getting off your body when dog is lying next to you or partly draped upon you (in bed or on the couch). I suppose Lie Down could make sense if the dog was coming towards you (or towards a guest) about to jump up on you (guest), or if the dog had already jumped up, since he cannot be jumping up and lying on the ground simultaneously. I prefer Sit for this purpose as the dog is sitting in front of you with his head in good position for rewarding caress (and sometimes a treat or a toy) : Bouvier sized dog sitting in front has his head right in front of your hands, though a tiny dog would still be way below and you'd need to bend or squat down to caress him. Now of course you are free to use "down" to mean what I mean by "off" and use some other word, such as "couchez" for "lie down" Just don't use the same word for both because this is a case where the dog could find this confusing. And it makes you sound illiterate to any dog trainer.

"Get Back"

I teach "get back" as a cue for a dog that is forging ahead of me and pulling on leash to get back to a position at my side and not putting any pull on the leash. I want all my dogs to refrain from pulling when they are on leash. The leash should always be loosened by the dog.

So here we are, the dog walking on leash and now the dog pulls ahead. Let's assume the dog is on my left side (often I have dogs on both sides, and if the dog were on the right, these directions would be reversed). I swing myself up to 180 degrees counter-clockwise so as to bring myself right in front of the dog facing the dog. Then I step towards the dog, saying "get back" (some emphasis on the "aack"), and continue towards the dog. Some dogs will yield ground easily, stepping back. Others will need the added cue of a mild bump from my knee into the dog's chest (for a Bouv sized dog). That bump is usually not more than fly-killing force ; it's at most mildly uncomfortable , but mostly it helps the dog to understand what he has to do, ie to move away. For a smaller dog, the bump would come from my shin or for really small dog or puppy, a duck-waddle shuffling of feet would do it. Initially if the dog yields just a step backwards, that's enough and I release pressure (cease walking into the dog) and swivel myself back to face in the direction we were walking and we continue to walk. That release of body space presure and being allowed to continue walking in the direction the dog wants to go is the dog's reward. A word of praise as dog steps back would also give the dog the information that this was what I wanted him to do. I am NOT going to give a treat or toy or any other reward other than continuing the walk. I do NOT want the dog to get into a sequence of forging /pulling sets in motion events that lead to a big reward.

Now after the first few times, when one step of yielding is enough, I am going to correct forging and pulling by requiring the dog to make several steps backwards. From then on, the rule is the greater the pull, the greater the penalty.

But when the dog has caught on to the idea, he gets to the point where I need only begin to swivel myself just slightly towards the dog's front while saying "get back" and the dog will scoot back. Soon enough a quietly voiced "get back" is sufficient most of the time. Of course if there is a very strong attraction ahead of us, then I may have to go back to an earlier version and require a penalty back up of half a dozen steps.

The ideal eventual result would be for the dog feeling the leash tighten on collar or halter to be associated with the command to "get back", so that that tightening leads to the dog making his own correction by getting back. Most of my dogs do learn quickly enough to keep the leash loose. (Indeed many dogs will learn this just from being walked in a halter or from a few sessions of "red light, green light" (see below) taught as a solo lesson the first few days in my care.). But some dogs, like my very pushy little Queensland bitch , Fox, are always wanting to go ahead and so will need to be cued to "get back" each time. Fox has been getting better because I've been getting more consistent about cuing her.

Red light , Green light : The alternative method for forging or pulling dogs is that the handler simply stops dead (becomes a tree) the moment the dog begins to pull. Then as soon as the dog loosens the leash (even if handler had to make a sound or use leash to cue dog) , the handler continues foreward in the original direction. Cessation of foreward is the "negative punishment" (loss of something dog wants) and resumption of foreward is the "positive reinforcement" (gain of something dog wants). Some trainers refer to this as "red light, green light". It's a very benign method. (Even trainers who claim to be "all positive" will use this method, conveniently ignoring that the "red light" part of it is an aversive, although an extremely mild one that should never arouse any fear or any other undesirable effect in the dog's attitude.) Very appropriate when you are walking only one dog, because that dog's own behavior is turning on or off the foreward motion that the dog wants. It's not so appropriate when you are walking two or more dogs, as the consequence of one dog's behavior happens regardless of the other dog's behavior. So give the new dog his "red light, green light" lessons on solo walks before adding him to your multiple dog walks. Loose leash walking is something I teach from first day in my home, so it's the first outdoor lesson, and the dog will get several solo lessons on this and on Sit before joining group walks.

In the "red light, green light" method, if merely stopping dead is not getting the message accross, you can instead do a 180 turn and go half a dozen steps or so in opposite direction. This is especially appropriate if the dog's desire is to reach a particular goal. For instance this is an excellent method for dogs straining to reach the dog park gate. It might take you an hour to get to the gate the first time, but it will take half as long the next day, and you may only have to do one or two turn-arounds on the third day. Dog learns that fastest way to reach the goal is to go politely at handler's pace.

Of course you can combine "red light" cessation of foreward motion with swiveling and doing "get back". Dog starts to pull. You halt. If dog doesn't loosen leash, then you go into the "get back" sequence. Once dog is back far enough for the leash to be loose, you "green light" into foreward motion. The two techniques blend together well.

You can also teach "get back" in the hallway of your house. The narrow space may make it easier for you to teach because the dog doesn't have the same opportunity to react to your walking towards him by simply dodging to the side and trying to shoot on past you. Of course if your reactions are as quick as the dog's, you can block by steping sideways. But it's easier in a hallway.

Note : as you can see in the little video that accompanies my Nordic Walk article, on walking with treckking poles, at one point I try to correct Fox for forging and pulling by giving her a light tap with the pole. While that does get her to back off briefly, it doesn't seem to discourage her from resuming her over-eager ways soon again. I've tried combining the cue "get back" with the pole. That works a bit better, but what really works best and has finally decreased her over-all tendency to pull is the voiced "get back" plus the body space swivel towards her , even just a few degrees of swivel. She's getting better, though I doubt she will ever be a habitually loose leash dog : just not in her very pushy nature. Fortunately she never has pulled more than just a mild pressure.

"Wait" and (getting into habit of) Waiting at the Door

All dogs need to know "Wait" as meaning a pause and wait for permission to proceed or wait for the next cue. Dog is in motion towards you, step foreward towards the dog , say "Wait !" and then throw up your hand into a traffic cop's "Stop" signal or (as advised by Job Michael Evans) the flashier Supreme's "Stop in the Name of Love" hand gesture, right into the dog's face. Later on you can do this from a distance. Or if dog is at distance on a Stay and you see the dog thinking of moving foreward, just leaning your body foreward an inch could be enough to change the dog's mind and settle him back into Stay, thus saving your qualifying Obedience score. In "The Other End of the Leash" , Pat McConnell describes saveing the lives of a couple of dogs and helping them cross a road safely, simply by very astute use of shifting her body foreward (to stop the dogs) and backwards (to let them come onwards).

I describe several methods , some based on body space, in the article Teaching Dog to Wait at the Door . If the dog already knows "get back", then this can be used when the dog crowds the door or rushes towards the door. Then throw your Stop hand towards the dog's face and say firmly "Wait".

My working trial dogs all learned "Whoa" (standing halt out of motion) and "Wait" and to do these regardless of whether I am facing them and regardless of the distance between us. . So I use "wait" a in Tracking when I need a dog to pause so I can get my footing (eg going down steep or slippery slope) then "OK, there's more" to give permission to continue tracking and pulling strongly on the tracking line thus pulling me along following. (I needed this a lot during Bones' TDX .) There are times in herding when "wait" might be the right word, when "whoa" (dead halt standing up) might be a bit too much of a break in the dog's pressure and contact with the stock. Other times both "whoa" and "wait" are the right amount of pressure break. (A really experienced herding dog will often know when to pause or suck back a bit , but a less skilled one may need to be told.) .

In ordinary companion dog life, there are just so very many times when "wait" is useful or needed to keep your dog safe. "Wait" at top or bottom of stairs. "Wait" before entering or exiting the car ; waiting to exit car or door or gate to outdoors should be made into a habit, but if there's a temptation such as a squirrel, best to enforce it with a sharp "wait" command. "Wait" before stepping off the curb into the street. The list is endless. Likewise for "whoa", the stronger version, for a sustained halt rather than a short pause.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/19/2010 revised 10/29/2010
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