When you have a dog, especially a young puppy, you may feel pressured to have your four-legged furry friend go and meet every single person out there in the big wide world. After all, that would be proper socialization...right?! If you didn't do this, you would be shirking on your dog owner responsibilities! Well, I'm here to tell you that it is far more powerful and effective for your dog to refrain from greeting every single person on the planet. Interested? Intrigued? Let's discuss.
Who's the Center of Your Dog's Universe?
This may seem like an odd question and totally unrelated to this discussion, but it is actually the core part of it.
See, when you do have a super-social puppy or dog and allow them to greet every single person they happen upon, it is super-duper reinforcing! They love it! As long as they are not assaulting whomever they are meeting (translation: jumping up, scratching, mouthing), the people love it too! So much fun to be had! Pets and giggles and wiggles galore.
"That sounds lovely! What could be wrong with that?"
Does your dog live with those other people?
Think of doing a super-awesome-wigglefest greeting as the highest of highs. Soon, it becomes addicting to your dog. It feels GOOD to get that wiggly, to have people petting you and ogling all over you.
What self-respecting dog would not keep seeking out such a wonderful time?!
Soon you have a dog who is SEARCHING for more people to get their greeting fix from and none of that involves you, not one tiny bit.
Can you see the problem here?
There has been a monumental shift in the relationship between you and your dog. No longer are YOU the center of their universe...the potential for greeting other people is. However, those very same people do not take care of your dog. They are not responsible for your dog, do not live with your dog, will not be training your dog...or attempting to do so and finding it incredibly difficult when there are other people around!
By allowing your social butterfly to become a social fanatic, you've painted yourself into a corner. Now when you are out-and-about, all your dog wants to do is greet people. Forget sitting, walking nicely on-leash, paying attention to you or anything else.
Instead its, "WHERE IS MY NEXT FIX?!"
Perhaps you realize after a while that your dog is getting a tad bit obsessive, so you start denying them the ability to meet everyone. How do you think that will go? Do you think your dog will go along with that idea willingly, or will they resist, complain and downright revolt! Maybe you start to see some pulling, even lunging, when your dog sees another person, as they desperately attempt to get their greeting fix! However, now they do not seem so inviting to the other person, so they stay away, frustrating your dog more. And with that, you've got one nasty cycle on your hands.
All of this is problematic, to say the least. Is it guaranteed to get this bad? Of course not. However, teaching your dog some balance in how they view greeting other people can prevent this worst case scenario from happening, while also ensuring that YOU stay the center of their universe, not someone else.
Most of the Time, Walk on By
The best way of doing this is by employing the "most of the time, walk on by" technique.
Nothing all that fancy, really. It is simply asking the dog to keep walking with you as opposed to focusing on other people. Giving a look or noticing other people are around is perfectly fine, but holding the expectation that your dog will greet every single person is not the name of the game.
Using treats and toys or opportunities to sniff and explore work really well with this, as does distance. We'll talk about how to use treats and toys first.
At home, determine what types of treats your dog likes best. Experiment. You want a range of tools in your toolbox to pull from. For instance, your dog may think "This is a yummy treat" for some of your choices, but you definitely want to have one or two options of treats that elicit the "OH MY DOG, ARE YOU REALLY GIVING THAT ME?" reaction from your dog.
Do the same thing with your toys. Figure out which ones they really like and are comfortable playing with in a variety of locations. Then, keep these toys special by not having them down all the time. They should live in a cabinet or on top of the refrigerator, only to come out for special training occasions.
What about sniffing opportunities? These can be super ways to reward your dog. Allowing them to check out the fire hydrant, the bush where the bunnies live, the tree all the dogs leave doggie texts on. Have a cue word such as, "OKAY, GO SNIFF" ready and when your dog has walked nicely with you for a few steps, release them to go sniff for a few seconds. When used properly, this can be a great way to show your dog walking with you is the best way to do the things they want to do. Having their head down and sniffing is also a calming position, so if we can integrate that into our training, that is a GOOD thing.
Now that you've got your tools ready, it's time to get your dog familiar with walking with you. Work on this in your house, yard or another familiar location. Whatever type of walking you will want your dog to do out in public, this is what you want to practice. They are your dog, so you set the rules. Some people may want their dog to walk at their side. Then work on that. You may be fine with your dog walking out ahead of you as long as the leash is loose. This is completely fine. Just ensure the dog understands the rules. Work on this until your dog has it solid in these familiar locations, then you can start taking the show on the road and working on your non-greetings. Use your treats and praise to communicate to them that they are doing a good job. Avoid pulling or holding your dog back with the leash. All this will do is cause them to throw their shoulder into the collar or harness and pull HARDER against you while also becoming mistrusting of you as you pop the leash over and over and over again.
Now let's say your dog is understanding how to walk with you when there are no other people around. Great! It is time to start adding some of those other people to the picture. Refrain from jumping into the deep end of the pool though. Instead, choose both a time of day and a location that is not too hectic or people-y. Scope it out to ensure you have areas where you can pull off of the path or create distance if necessary. Distance is always your friend and can help you get your dog's attention back if they get sucked in by the prospect of getting their greeting fix.
Your goal is to do one pass, out and back, walking with your dog past other people without greeting anyone. You need to adjust how long this "pass" is. For super social dogs, it may be 6'. For other dogs, you may be able to go a whole block and back again. While the goal is to walk past the other people, it doesn't mean you have to be rude. Feel free to smile and share brief pleasantries as you walk by, but do not open it up for your dog to greet them. Keep your eyes on your dog and maintain your connection with them. Your dog will follow your eyes, so especially in the beginning, keep them on your dog, not on the people you are trying to walk by.
Okay, so far so good. Your dog knows how you expect them to walk on-leash. You've scoped out an area where you will practice and know how far you will go. But what are you actually doing with your dog?!
It is actually fairly easy. Simply feed them those awesome treats in three separate stages as you are walking by the other people: 1. when you first notice the person, 2. as you are passing the person, and 3. after you have successfully passed them. Feel free to use your best, "I love you Fido" voice during this process, telling them what a good job they are doing. Doing so is not only reinforcing to your dog, it is also a sneaky way to keep you breathing. If you hold your breath, you will get tense which will go right down that leash and cause your dog to start scanning for the boogeyman! They will see the person instead and shift into "I'VE GOT TO MEET THEM!" mode. Instead, talk to your dog, keep breathing and feeding treats.
After the person has passed you and is several feet away, whip out your toy and play with your dog. Make this FUN! Remember: bunnies do not jump into predator's mouths, so keep the toy low to the ground and fleeing away from your dog, eventually allowing them to grab it so you can do some light tug with them. After 10-15 seconds, ask them to give the toy to you (they should know how to do this ahead of time) and do a thinking behavior, such as a sit. Love on them and then head back to your car, fully prepared to do the entire process again should you run upon any more people.
As you and your dog get more proficient in this "most of the time, walk on by" game, you can start asking them to do other behaviors as they are walking by people, such as fun tricks they enjoy. "Oh look, it's a person! Let's do SPIN!"
The key is to make focusing on YOU fun and engaging.
Does this mean that your dog can NEVER greet other people? Absolutely not! Still, there is a way this should be done as well.
Proper Greetings Without Doggie Accosting
Something we all have to recognize is our dogs are not the only ones who get greeting obsessive. For some reason, there is a high percentage of people you will happen upon who want nothing more than to accost your dog! They will hover, stand and reach-over, crowd, grab, hug, squeeze...all of which can put the most social of dogs at unease. As our dog's advocates, we must keep our dogs safe from being accosted by strangers in public!
So while we do want our dogs to greet some people, we want to also make certain that these greetings are appropriate! Having a plan can really help.
Remember: you make the rules. This is your dog. If you want your dog to sit quietly as people appropriately feed them treats and pet them, then that is what should happen. Likewise, if you do not care if your dog jumps up, then at least warn people who are greeting them that is the case. Most people out in the public are not too keen about being jumped on and may simply pass up on the opportunity to greet your dog.
Show your dog what is expected of them first. Practice with family members or friends. Ideally, you will choose to have your dog either stand or sit as they interacting with the person. Doing so will make your life easier when you are out in the public.
When you're ready to practice, have your super awesome treats ready. Do some connected walking toward where the person is standing. Stop roughly 6'-8' ahead of them. Have the person ask, "MAY I PET YOUR DOG?". Give your dog a treat for staying with you. Reply with "YES. OKAY, GO SAY HI" and invite the dog to greet the person.
As the dog is going to the person, hand them three of your super awesome treats. You may give them some instructions, such as, "GIVE THEM 1 TREAT WHEN THEY COME TO YOU. HOLD YOUR HAND AT YOUR SIDE." This avoids having the person reach out to the dog with the treat. We always want to make it the dog's choice to go to the person, not the other way around. Your next instruction can be, "ASK THEM TO SIT AND GIVE THEM A TREAT". The final bit of advice being, "GIVE THEM A TREAT AS YOU PET THEIR SHOULDER".
Once the greeting is over, have the person stand up and be still. Say your dog's name in a kind tone of voice and then feed them 2-4 treats one right after another close to your knees. Then go back to your connected walking. When you are first practicing, you may want to jog in the opposite direction to make this a super fun game, even whipping out your toy to play tug with them. But after a while, get your dog used to walking in the same direction you were initially going.
After you've practiced this with family and friends, take the show on the road to practice on real people out in the world!
There are several key things to take away from this:
- Allow the dog to go TO the person. We want the dog to make a choice here. Even a super social butterfly may not want to meet someone. Maybe they are wearing a weird hat or the dog just prefers to stick with you instead. Honor this! NEVER force your dog to greet anyone!
- Give the person things to do. You are the owner and trainer, they are not. Give them the chance and opportunity to be successful. Saying something like, "You could really help me out with his training! I'll walk you through it" can make them feel as if they are in on the game. Then provide your instructions.
- Structure your instructions and sequence of events to avoid issues. For instance, you will avoid the ever unnerving "claw hand" where people try to reach over the dog's head by asking them to pet the dog's shoulder instead.
- Reward the dog for approaching appropriately, interacting appropriately and accepting appropriate petting...all while sneakily "training" this person to be appropriate with other dogs too!
- Make being with you BETTER than interacting with the other person. That is why we make the re-connecting with you such a big event. Greeting the person was fun, but being with you was AWESOME!
We want our dogs to be comfortable out in public, but we do not want them to be obsessive about greeting other people. Having your dog walk by 90% of the time and practicing appropriate greetings the other 10% can go a long way in ensuring your dog doesn't become a greeting fanatic. You are still their Numero Uno and your training technique will help the public gain skills in properly interacting with dogs too. Win-win!
What tips will you be using to help your dog better navigate the big wide world full of fun people to meet?
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!
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