Animals Can Have Space Issues

Bonnie Kreitler
6 min readFeb 24, 2021

But when you’re in charge of the situation, your animal can relax because they know you have their back.

Photo Credit Tamas Pap on Unsplash

When you start working with a horse or a dog or any other animal in your life, are you aware of your default mindset?

People typically work with animals from the standpoint of control. Who’s the boss here? Who’s in charge? When they’re with an animal, humans feel safe when they feel in control of the animal.

Dogs and horses and other animals have different perspectives. Animals feel safe around humans when they are with a calm, reliable, predictable individual who is in control of the situation.

Can you see the disconnect here?

Consider this situation. A delivery guy knocks on the door, your dog hears the noise, rushes to the door, and barks at the intruder into the family’s space.

How do you react to the knock on the door? To the dog’s reaction to it?

Do you jump up and rush to the door, too? Do project your human perspective by yelling at the dog, grabbing its collar, or dragging it away while yelling “no” or “bad dog” or “rude dog” or “quit that’? Do you apologize to the delivery guy for the dog’s “lack of manners”?

A horse that won’t walk through a gateway is “stubborn.” One that spooks at a flapping tarp or a log that wasn’t there the last time you rode a trail is labeled “spooky” or “a maniac”.

What if you stopped to consider what is bothering the animal and could change to situation to change their behavior?

We adopted a teenage street dog, blissfully unaware of the challenges that lay ahead. For the first time in decades of dog ownership, we had a fearful, unsocialized dog and no other family or neighborhood dog to help show her the ropes. We were on our own. (And, did I mention the COVID lockdowns started just 2 weeks after her arrival?)

Multiple consultations with trainers, vets, and a dog behaviorist later, I found my mind circling back to a technique for catching horses that I learned from a horse trainer. But I never understood why it worked, the psychology behind it, until Jenni came along and a dog trainer showed me how to apply a similar concept to working with dogs.

It’s simple. And it’s complex.

The horse trainer said: “You want your horse to feel that you’re the safest to be.”

And exactly how do you do that?

It’s what the dog trainer said: “Own the space.”

Don’t do anything scary, loud, or angry. Just. Calmly. Own the environment.

I asked the horse trainer for advice on catching my mare, the boss of her little herd, when she was out in the pasture. Melodie evaded capture when I went out to get her by just walking away from me. The horse trainer taught me a way of following her, of keeping her moving slowly, until she finally decided to stop and stand still.

I didn’t chase or pursue. I wasn’t acting predatory. But my persistent following was an interruption of her desire to stop and graze. Annoying. Aggravating, maybe. But never threatening or “loud” in any way.

Eventually, she would get tired of me following her, turn to look at me, and stand quietly, waiting for me to put her halter on.

Amazing. All I had to do was calmly, slowly, persistently keep her moving until she decided I meant no harm. I was a safe place to be.

After I started using the technique, she started coming over to me when I came into the pasture. Game over.

I was delighted. But I was also still a little clueless about WHY the technique changed her attitude from “can’t catch me” to “on my way over.”

Which brings me back around to the dog.

A dog trainer we worked with introduced us to the concept of “owning the space”. It works like this:

  • You always walk through any doorway first.
  • You always make the dog stay behind you going up or down the stairs.
  • You walk through hallways and around in rooms as though the dog is invisible. If the dog is lying in your way, you “walk through” as though the dog isn’t there. That means you don’t go around the dog. You don’t step over the dog.
  • Gently but persistently push the dog along with your toes if necessary until she gets uncomfortable enough to move out of your path. Being annoying is OK. Scolding, yelling, or force is not.
  • You don’t look at the dog. You don’t talk to the dog. You just walk through the space and own it.

It was important to do this quietly and gently. The point was not to dominate or demand. Just calmly, confidently own the space.

Just like following the mare.

This wasn’t about training the dog. It was about training us to be, in the dog’s eyes, the responsible person in the space.

The dog trainer built on the concept, adding “sit” in a specific place when someone knocked at the door while we took care of the situation. We learned not to jump into an adrenalized mode. If an approaching dog was behaving badly and looked like trouble, we learned to do a 180-degree turn and walk away. Or, cross the street. Or something else to help Jenni.

I was amazed by the positive changes this concept introduced into our relationship with Jenni.

Once we were trained to confidently (never forcefully) “own the space,” Jenni became calmer indoors. After being attacked by another dog, she had become anxious and reactive whenever another dog so much as came close. When we moved the game outdoors, she wasn’t quite so ADHD or fearful when another dog was approaching. She began to be more relaxed, more trusting.

The dog training school created a program to help Jenni with socialization. After a time, we were cleared to join group classes. We started with a scent training class because it was held outdoors. Lots of space to maneuver and give Jenni enough space to feel safe.

Becoming a great tracking team was not the goal. The goal was to find the edges of Jenni’s comfort zone working in proximity to other dogs and to see if we could reduce the size of that safety bubble as the class progressed.

The first class started with handlers and dogs in a circle around the instructor as he explained how scent training would start and progress. I found the biggest gap in the circle and even positioned Jenni a bit farther back from the circle’s perimeter to minimize any space pressure.

Then a latecomer arrived with an energetic young Belgian Malinois. They filled the gap and cut Jenni’s safety bubble in half. Bad enough. Then the dog locked eyes on Jenni, lowered his head a bit, and stared hard. That made Jenni anxious (me, too!).

I had two choices. Move Jenni farther back from the perimeter and increase our distance from the dog. Or make it clear to the other dog that I “owned the space.”

I made a quick decision and, looking straight ahead at the instructor, stepped crisply between Jenni and the Malinois. I puffed my chest out, stood tall, planted my feet firmly.

The other dog looked away and both he and Jenni relaxed. Score one for purposeful body language.

On the last day of the class, the instructor stayed around to answer questions. Jenni and I joined the small circle around him, waiting our turn. And just as it was our turn, danged if that Malinois didn’t come up alongside us again.

Once again, I stepped around Jenni and quietly, confidently claimed the small space between them. This time was different.

Jenni looked at me, lay down, and crossed her paws daintily in front of her.

I could almost hear her saying, “You don’t bother me, buddy. I’m with my mom and she’s got my back.”

By quietly and confidently claiming the space, I become the safest place for her to be. And she could chill.

This brings me back to the horse.

I finally understood that, by quietly following my mare around the pasture without any fuss, just persistently moving back and forth behind her from her left eye to her right eye so that stopping and grazing wasn’t an easy option, I was owning the space. I was claiming the territory. That changed her mind from thinking of me as a pesky nuisance to feeling that if I was in charge, she didn’t have to be. She could relax.

Still scratching your head? Maybe a video can help make it clearer. In it, dog trainer Nigel Reed, The Dog Guardian, shows how he uses the concept to persuade an “aggressive” barking dog to chill instead of reacting.

Watch. Learn. Try these concepts with your animals.

© Bonnie Kreitler 2021. All rights reserved.

Writer Bonnie Kreitler creates content to help fellow animal addicts build rewarding relationships with the critters in their lives. See more at



Bonnie Kreitler

Author, journalist, animal addict, observer, and explorer creating connections between our critter relationships and life lessons at