The Deception of, “He Let Them Pet Him!”

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Petting is a big deal for a lot of people. People want to connect with dogs and touch seems to be the default choice. When the nervous dog barks, growls, or snaps at strangers, owners can feel embarrassed and frustrated by the hostility—they just want Fido to be friendly! The, “he let them pet him!” moments are clung to as signs of progress.

Unfortunately, as a professional dog trainer, this report almost always makes me squirm.

Having a stranger pet your dog without incident does not mean your dog is okay with, or enjoying the experience.

From a trainer’s perspective, “he let them pet him” is a red flag. There’s an implication that the dog is tolerating something that could be unpleasant, and he’s been pushed beyond his comfort level. Dogs who only tolerate petting will eventually run out of tolerance and when they do, they’ll switch to aggression or escape. Neither are okay.

If your dog is nervous around strangers, the first step is getting him to enjoy the stranger’s presence without the person interacting with him. Standing at distance from the stranger with your dog on a leash, and feeding him a treat every time he notices the person is a great start. Petting from the stranger when your dog is uncomfortable will only make the situation worse.

I don’t want the dog “letting” people pet him. I want him begging people to pet him. And if he’s not begging for it, it shouldn’t happen.

Pro Tip: it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with dog body language so you can tell how your dog is actually feeling about the situation.

If you need help fixing your dog’s guest manners, I can help!

Courtesy: How to Teach Your Dog to Stay Calm Around Guests

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Teaching your dog to stay calm around guests starts with prevention (see this blog post for details on the whys and hows). Once prevention is in place, your dog will be ready to learn new, courteous habits.

Before you begin working with actual guests, your dog needs some foundation skills:

  1. Volunteered Eye Contact. In a quiet room, put your dog on leash and reward him with a treat every time he looks at your face.

  2. Volunteered Sit or Down. Each day, count out 25 treats. Feed him one every time you see him choose to sit/down on his own. We want all 25 gone by the end of the day. You can also practice this on leash.

It's very important that your dog volunteer these behaviors without you asking for them. When your dog can earn 10 treats in 30 seconds, move to a more distracting room. When he can earn 10 treats in 30 seconds in that room, he's ready to practice the same behaviors with a guest present! The goal is that your dog pays more attention to you than to your guest.

Tips:

  • Keep using your prevention! Although your dog’s been learning that he gets good things for paying attention to you, his behavior won’t change overnight. Keep him on leash or behind a baby gate to prevent this behavior.

  • Distance is your best friend. Your dog should notice the guest, but not completely loose his marbles. The farther he is from the guest, the easier it will be for him to remember his good manners.

  • Wait. Resist the temptation to call his name or ask him to sit/down. Just wait for him to volunteer the behavior. Remember, you can move farther away from the guest if he's having a hard time.

  • Use an extra yummy treat AND verbal praise when he volunteers eye contact or a sit/down.

  • Ask your guest to completely ignore the dog.

  • Over time, your dog will be able to move closer and closer to the guest without jumping.

  • BONUS: one of my favorite tools for teaching dogs to relax despite excitement is Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation.

To fast track his training, bring him out for a few minutes of training when your guest arrives and then return him to his crate with a yummy stuffed Kong or chew until your guest leaves.