The Belly Button Rule

blond haired baby smiling in bathtub

Creating positive associations with water in a safe place

When I was a young child and our family visited a body of water to swim in my parents instituted the the belly button rule. The older, more proficient swimmers could swim out to rafts in the middle of the lake or play in the waves, but the little kids could go no deeper than their belly buttons. If we lost our footing we would be safe and it was deep enough for us to pretend to be swimming. With our hands on the bottom of the lake we could kick our feet, put our faces in the water, blow bubbles, all the skills that one needs in order to swim, for real.

People living with fearful, shy or reactive dogs are often reluctant to limit their dog’s opportunity to go out into the world, for walks or car rides because they feel as though they are depriving their dog of exercise or variety. It’s thoughtful to take a dog’s needs in these areas into consideration, but not if they routinely end up over their belly buttons and have a bad experience because of it.

I remember wanting so badly to be able to swim with the big kids. My father shot Super 8 movies of me putting my entire face into the water and then coming up, wiping the hair and water from my eyes triumphantly. This was a milestone enroute to becoming a swimmer. My parents did not feel guilty that they were limiting my exposure to deeper water. They did not impede my ability to learn when they called me in when I went too deep or my lips turned blue and my fingers wrinkled.

Until a dog has the skills to come into contact with the things that cause them to react negatively, don’t risk them getting in over their heads. I didn’t have to almost drown to learn to learn to swim.

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22 comments so far

  1. sara on

    I needed this post today. I just scoped out a new park, with the thought of bringing my dogs there to walk to “add variety”. The minute I saw kids playing on swing sets, I knew it would be a challenge for my fearful dog. I thought, maybe early in the morning before kids arrive….but still, I know the open fields will stress him out as well (he does better in wooded areas). Better to keep looking for a more sheltered walking path rather than trying to micromanage this one.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad this post was a timely reminder that more is not always better or necessary!

  2. 2 Punk Dogs on

    People have recommended agility classes to help our dogs become more confident. Duke sat and shook for the entire first beginner obedience class, even though he can sit, stay, down, wait and more at home. Taking him to another class that would completely stress him out doesn’t seem like a good idea, and the trainer didn’t recommend agility for a while, if ever. He needs to spend a LOT more time getting acclimated to new things before diving into anything that stressful.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Agility is often thought of as the ‘magic’ confidence builder. What builds confidence IMO is being successful at a task, any task. Agility incorporates movement and that for many dogs is helpful. But if being around other dogs, people and equipment that makes noise, such as the teetertotter, it’s probably not a great option. Private classes can be a good alternative for dogs who like the activity but can’t tolerate others in the room.

      • KellyK on

        That makes a lot of sense. I would think that if a dog is stressed around people and other dogs, it might be better to do little agility activities in your backyard (teaching them to jump up on something or go under a bench or through a tube) than go to a class and subject them to major stressors.

  3. rangerskat on

    There was a period of a couple of months when Finna didn’t go for walks. Her physical exercise was fetch in the yard and playing race and wrestle with Ranger. It was a really good choice for us. She got to stay in a place she feels safe and build up her confidence. We’re just starting to take her for short walks in the neighborhood again. We try hard to make each walk successful even though we don’t always succeed. The day my 80+ year old neighbor saw us going by from her window and decided she’d like to walk with us is a case in point. She was pursuing us down the street calling my name in a loud shrill voice which totally freaked out Finna. I thought by now my neighbor understood that joining us when it’s Ranger on the leash is fine but not when it is Finna but for some reason she didn’t remember that day. She wasn’t very happy when Finna and I ran away from her as fast as I could go but she would have been even less happy if she’d managed to join us and Finna had tried to take a piece out of her or at least threatened to. Mostly though we manage to only see people in the distance (below Finna’s threshold) and Finna gets to look at her trigger in the distance and turn back to me for a treat.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There is a Facebook group for DINOS. Dogs in Need of Space. You might want to join!

    • KellyK on

      That had to be horribly frustrating. I guess the only thing you can do is call out “Sorry, Finna needs her space!” as you go running by, and remind her later that Finna is scared of people, and while you’re usually happy to walk with her, you can’t when you’ve got her.

      I have to wonder if part of the reason that people take it so personally if a dog is scared of them (or just wants nothing to do with them) is that we’ve built up this myth about dogs as fantastic judges of character, which can lead to people feeling really slighted or judged if a dog isn’t interested in them.

      • rangerskat on

        Most of the time our walks are uneventful with a few chances for Finna to look at things in the distance and be rewarded. And most of the time all our neighbors understand that Finna needs space. It’s those occasions when someone forgets or ignores what I’ve told them that cause problems.

  4. 47 on

    I would love to hear more on this. I have two calm, normal, well behaved dogs. One has his CGC, the other is 3 months old, and doing wonderful in basic training. Then there is a dog I got about six months ago, at the age of eight months, from someone else.

    The dog (Chihuahua, like my other two.) has, for lack of a better description, panic attacks, when it knows it is not physically restrained. By this I mean she is 100% on a leash, on a 30 foot dog lead, on a piece of string, in the house, anywhere. She is fine 100% in a fully fenced area, knows come, sit, down, etc.

    I’m very proud of her, and how far she’s come. Unfortunately, if for what ever reason she is off leash in an unfenced area, and realizes it, she has a panic attack, and basically runs in circles oblivious to everything till she finally bumps into something and stops. Last time our neighbor let her out (the front door!) To go potty, and she ran for a quarter mile before being football tackled.

    I’d like to introduce recall off leash, but I can’t find anything “belly button height”.

    • fearfuldogs on

      If she’s on leash in an unfenced in area and the leash is dragging, so you are not putting any pressure on it, is she ok?

      If so you could try-

      Working on recalls with the leash or line on her. Every week or so cut the line down by a few inches. Don’t cut too much or too often. This is not going to work if you need to be holding the leash to make her feel comfortable because the shorter leash is just going to mean you’re going to get closer and closer. The goal is to fade out the leash.

  5. Nicole on

    What a truly wonderful post. It’s a hard thing, sometimes, to accept that what is in your dog’s best interest might be limiting their exposure. I have been working with a certified veterinary behaviorist, and we are limiting my dog’s “outings” (which include walks) to keep her stress levels down. I never wanted to be the “bad dog owner” who never takes their dog out of the yard, but for my dog, exercising her in her own yard most of the time is actually better for her. This post is a great reminder that we need to put our dogs’ needs ahead of our own expectations and egos.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for saying! You have a lucky dog.

  6. volunteer4paws on

    Reblogged this on volunteers 4 paws and commented:
    Such a great reminder of why we do what we do with Kitsu and Kiba, and it gets my head in gear while we take on working with Janie, too.

  7. houndblogger on

    Great post to start my week with. I think there’s such a difference between “limiting a dog” and “thoughtful training,” and it all just comes back to taking the effort to listen, understand, and honestly evaluate your animal–and, as another poster put it, “put our dogs’ needs ahead of our own expectations and egos.” We see this in the horse world, too, and I’m sure it’s common in all kinds of lives with all kinds of animals. In riding, putting a horse in over its belly button generally is called “overfacing,” and it’s real and has consequences, often of the “Okay, let’s go back to the drawing-board” kind!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks! And I learned a new term ‘overfacing’.

  8. Angela on

    This is a great post, as usual.

    I realised a long time ago that our rescue Collie was much happier within his familiar environment and didn’t want or need to be pulled into something new. He’s happy with home and the walks he knows well and since he’s a dog, there’s always something new to sniff even when things look exactly the same for us, from one day to the next. He has certainly grown in confidence since we adopted him, but he will never be the kind of dog “you can take anywhere”. He’d behave, he just wouldn’t enjoy it.

    On the other hand, one of my other dogs will walk into any situation with a look of “oh wow, all these people are here to see me?” look upon her face.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I know what you mean Angela. I have 4 dogs and luckily at least one of them is a ‘go anywhere’ kind of dog. I’ve got two who have varying degrees of discomfort in the car, one it’s the ride itself, the other doesn’t like being left in the car without a person. Once upon a time I had dogs who I didn’t think twice about bringing alone, wherever I went or whatever I did. Though each of my dogs have the skills they need to deal with stuff that needs to happen (vet visits, visiting family), I too often choose not to put them in situations in which I know they will be uncomfortable for a long time.

  9. Cherie on

    Wow. Where were you three or four years ago before I learned this the hard way?!? 😉

    There have been days when I felt guilty taking the other dogs to the farmers market or the dog park or even the outdoor mall where he sometimes is fine, but I’ve seen the meltdown when the crowds are overwhelming or there are too many dogs or too much noise or, or, or … So, no more guilt for not letting Sam go in any deeper than his belly button. He’s much happier staying home or going for a walk just around the neighborhood or chasing my other two dogs in the backyard. No one needs the stress of forcing him out into the world where he isn’t comfortable and confident. He’s come so far from the scaredy dog I adopted 6 years ago, and he makes little strides all the time. Most people who meet him now have no idea what a little bundle of nerves he can be still, and he charms people rather than nibbling ankles these days.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think I might have been right here four years ago Cherie 😉

      Even with information most of us still have a steep learning curve when it comes to handling our fearful dogs. It sounds as though you are heading in the right direction and we can only get where we are going at our dog’s pace. How nice to now have a charmer rather than a nibbler!

  10. Grisha Stewart on

    Well said, Debbie!


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