How to Set Limits for your Puppies

As children grow, they test limits often—the limitations of their bodies, their minds, and your patience. We often have to remind ourselves that they’re supposed to do that; there’s something wrong if a child demonstrates no curiosity and shows no desire to push boundaries. Good parents give children plenty of challenges while making sure they’re safe. Puppies, of course, do the same thing, but in ways that we might not be prepared for. They love to play games that they control. The most common are keep-away and tug-of-war.


With keep-away, the pup generally grabs something you don’t want him to have and then taunts you with it. Puppy grabs a (dirty) sock from the floor, parent tries to get it, puppy runs away with it, parent chases puppy while yelling obscenities, puppy hides behind couch, grinning wildly. This is FUN. But how do you cope with this behavior?

Set Limits  Puppies

First, of course, there’s management. Put your socks in drawers or the dirty clothes basket, and keep other entrancing items out of harm’s way. However, you can’t keep everything out of the pup’s reach, so when the inevitable happens, here’s a suggestion. Treat this as though it’s the beginning of retrieving (which it is).

A puppy’s favorite objects are often your valued possessions. If your puppy picks up one of his toys, we don’t pay much attention. But if he picks up one of our toys—a sock, a shoe, a child’s toy, or an expensive watch—he gets lots of attention. He also gets chased all over the house or yard while having a blast. He probably thinks you’re having a great time, too. Unfortunately, keep-away teaches a dog all kinds of things we would rather he didn’t learn—that he’s stronger, faster, smarter, and more agile than we are!

Before you fall into the keep-away trap, try this little trick. It will seem counterintuitive, but try it anyway. It won’t hurt, and it’ll probably work. When your pup grabs something of yours, instead of yelling and grabbing it back, praise him! Tell him he’s wonderful, he’s grand, and he’s the best puppy you ever met in your entire life. Let him flaunt the item in front of you and don’t reach for it. Keep praising him until he brings the item to you. Then, if you wish, you can offer him a treat for being so clever, but resist the impulse to take the item from his mouth unless he lets it go easily. And don’t fight him for it under any circumstances. You are actually building a lovely little habit that you’ll be very happy to use later—a retrieve. When he does drop the object or open his mouth so you can take it, either throw it for him or give it back to him. After this little scenario plays out several times, he should be finding all kinds of stuff and bringing it to you. If he brings you something you want him to play with, great! Play with him. If it’s something you don’t want him to have, then do a trade for one of his toys and let him play with that. For the moment, it’s important to play with the object without playing tug-of-war. If the dog holds onto it, then just let it go and wait for him to offer it again. If you don’t want to play right now, still praise him, but get up and give him a food reward for his housecleaning efforts.

This is a win-win situation. Instead of being frightened of you or learning how fast he is, your pup is actually being trained to bring objects back to you. In addition, he’s deferring to you and he’s playing with the toys you want him to have. You’ll love this later, when you don’t have time to take him on a long walk, but you do have time to throw the ball in the backyard.

Unfortunately, many dog parents are successful at breaking this behavior, so they override their dog’s natural retrieving instinct. Then they’re upset when he won’t retrieve a ball or Frisbee®; he won’t because he’s afraid he’s doing something you don’t like.

Set Limits  Puppies


Tug-of-war has a bad rap in dog training circles. Many people think it can lead to aggression toward the owner. There haven’t been any conclusive studies done on the subject that I’m aware of, but I stand squarely in the middle on this one. I actually recommend tug for some dogs, especially shy ones. It’s a great opportunity to teach your puppy that objects aren’t any fun unless you’re involved. So go ahead and play tug, and if he won’t give the object to you, then shrug your shoulders and leave. Or find another great tug toy and play with that. He’ll soon figure out that it’s you who is interesting, not the toy. Later on you’ll be very happy that you taught your puppy to be toy (object) oriented. It will keep him focused on you rather than other animals or people.

Tug-of-war is also a good opportunity to teach the “give” lesson. While you and the puppy are pulling the toy, use your free hand to hold a treat next to his mouth. When he drops the toy, give him the treat. Then start to play tug again. After you’ve done that a few times, cue him to “give it,” as he begins to take the treat. After many repetitions, he won’t need the treat, and he’ll give you whatever you want upon your request.

Filed Under: Pets & Animals


About the Author: Fred Goodson has a passion for pets and animals. He has 4 dogs and is planning to have another one. He is also a blogger who writes about pets and animals. Currently, he is living in New Jersey.

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