Wouldn’t it be great if your overly friendly dog could sit calmly when your guests come into your home and not jump all over them? Or you can meet your neighbor on the street and be able to have a calm conversation. This takes on added significance with the approach of the holidays so start working on it now. (For this article, we are talking about friendly, exuberant greeters, not reactive, fear-aggressive dogs that do not want to greet but will continue to growl or bark at your guests.)
Usually the reason dogs jump up on guests is to get attention, to greet, or to be petted. But every time your dog pulls to get somewhere or jumps up and gets attention he is being reinforced for the bad behavior. To change misbehavior, you must remove whatever is reinforcing his behavior. Instead you will begin reinforcing only appropriate behavior.
There are several ways to accomplish this task when guests arrive. One includes sending your dog to a mat and teaching him (or her) to stay even in the face of distractions. This is an effective long-term solution and has lots of other applications, including going to friend’s homes, taking your dog to the vet, cooking or eating dinner, going out to a restaurant with your well-trained companion, or to get a dog out from underfoot when you are doing other tasks. Watch for the article that discusses mat training. In this article, we will build other behaviors to accomplish the goal.
ATTENTION IS KEY
It’s important that your dog is giving you attention and focus on a regular basis. If not, it will be hard to get his attention when something very distracting happens, such guests arriving. Begin by rewarding your dog every time he looks at you. Remember, behaviors that are rewarded increase in frequency. When he is doing this well, add minor distractions and wait quietly for eye contact. A distraction could be taking him to a different area in your house, then in the backyard, the front yard, on the sidewalk in front of your home, down the road, etc. If your dog is unable to give you any attention, the distraction may be too intense for him now; move further away or find another way to lower the intensity.
Most owners are not patient. They make noise, they nag their dog, or they yank on the leash. Give your dog time to think and adjust. Just wait your dog out, even if it takes a minute or more, and be ready to mark the behavior of him orienting toward you (by clicking or using a verbal marker such as “Yes!”) and then treating. The bigger the distraction, the higher value the reward should be.
Build up the focus in small steps. First reward just turning toward you. Later you’ll wait for eye contact.
An effective way to accomplish your goal of your dog not jumping on your guests is to teach your dog a solid sit and then build in distractions. If your dog is sitting, what is he not doing? That’s right; he is not jumping up. Begin by asking your dog to sit for all interactions. Does your dog want a treat, dinner, a toy, a belly rub, to jump on the couch and cuddle with you, play with a toy, go out the door, get on or off his leash? Guess what? Your dog can begin to work for these things that you are now giving away for free by sitting first.
Start with asking for a sit. Don’t keep repeating the cue, simply wait. If you need to, leash your dog first so he does not go looking for something easier to do. He will eventually sit and when he does, reward him with a treat. (If you use a clicker or marker word such as “Yes!”, you will mark the behavior as soon as it occurs and then treat.) Eventually, he will begin to sit automatically and the reinforcement will become the thing he wants (such as going out the door) instead of a treat. Build duration by withholding the treat for a second or two at first, and then longer and longer.
Here are the steps to polite greeting. Be sure to start in an area with low distractions, and build your dog’s behavior slowly. Your dog may be at a kindergarten level right now. Don’t expect college level results by setting him up to fail with distractions that are too great (such as with guests) until you have built up solid behavior. Be sure to train with an upbeat, positive attitude because your dog will feed off this and want to work with you.
Step 1. Practice in a distraction-free zone getting your dog to sit/stay at your side. Be sure to reward frequently with treats and enthusiastic praise to reinforce this behavior. He should also be offering eye contact while sitting. (This should be easy because you have just spent lots of time rewarding it, right?)
When he’s good at this you can add distractions (step 2).
Step 2. Start with your dog on leash at least 20 feet or more away from the distraction and ask for an immediate sit (eventually the sit should become automatic). Immediately reward. If he can’t sit calmly at this distance, increase it until he can. Your dog should not only be sitting, but also maintaining eye contact with you. Distractions can include a bowl with some treats, or a toy placed on the floor. These should be lower value at first (something your dog wants but is not overly crazy about), and increase the value as your dog improves.
Keep his attention by rewarding him frequently in the sit using treats and happy praise. (See video #1)
Step 3. After a moment, if he is still sitting, you can move a little closer and repeat the above steps. In the beginning of the training, only take one or two steps at a time before asking or waiting for a sit.
If your dog pulls at any time, he gets penalty yards. Move far enough away from the distraction to the point where he can again pay attention to you and choose the correct behaviors.
Continue this process until your dog is moving next to you, sitting immediately when you stop, and giving eye contact. The leash should always be loose. You need to give your dog a chance to choose the correct behavior, otherwise how will he learn? If he chooses incorrectly and pulls toward the distraction, the consequence will be to remove the potential reinforcement of or getting the treats or toy (or eventually getting to greet) by moving him further away before trying again. (See the article, “It’s Your Choice”.)
Step 4. When you are about 4 feet away from the distraction, stop. The leash should be shorter than this distance so your dog can’t self-reward and pull toward the distraction before you can control him by turning away; but it should always be loose. If your dog is calmly sitting, release him to go and get the toy, eat the treats in the bowl, or, eventually, greet.
ADDING A PERSON
Step 5. Start over at Step 1 and practice with a friend or neighbor who can stand still and not talk to your dog. That is a distraction that you will add later. You can speak with your friend/neighbor but don’t lose your connection with your dog. (Watch video #2)
If you get to Step 4 and your dog has not pulled or gotten up from the sit, you can release him and tell him to “go say hi”. If your dog begins to pull or jump, immediately turn and walk away to a point where he is able to focus on you.
Step 6. Within 3 seconds of the greeting, call your dog or lure him away with a treat so he does not have the opportunity to get over excited and jump up. Do not allow him to practice bad behaviors.
Remember to decrease the distance between your dog and the other person slowly. Your dog needs to be able to sit politely and pay attention before decreasing the distance to the distraction or the thing he wants.
Step 7. As he learns to sit calmly you will begin to increase the amount of time between treats and go closer before stopping and waiting for a sit. Eventually the reward is the greeting and no treats will be needed. You will also build in the added distraction of your friend speaking to your dog, first in a calm voice and then in a more excited tone.
Now that your dog can pay attention to you when he wants to greet, add in the sound of the doorbell or knocking, and then the person coming into the home. Alternatively, you should consider putting your dog in a comfortable room with a stuffed Kong until all your guests are settled, and then bring him out on leash, practicing his calm walking, sitting, and calm attention to you. When you and he are ready, give him permission for an abridged greeting to keep his arousal level low. If your dog is behaving calmly with your guests, you can either drop the leash (it’s there to step on if he starts acting too excited), or release him if you are confident of his behavior.
Enjoy your nice, calm companion! What a perfect gift for the holidays, or any time of year.