We've all been there. We're walking down the road with our dog and we see another person approaching. We start to tense up, feeling the embarrassment creeping in. We think to ourselves, "My dog is going to pull on the leash, and maybe bark, and maybe jump...and it's going to be obvious that I can't control my dog." Then it happens. Our dog sees the other person and starts to bark or pull toward them. The other person approaches with a smile on their face, "Can I pet your dog?" Your dog is at the end of the leash desperately trying to greet this pleasant stranger. "Sure," we say. "She's friendly." After all, we don't want to be rude and this person is clearly a dog person. The nice stranger approaches within petting distance and BAM! As expected, our dog jumps up on the stranger. "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry. Doggy, DOWN!" we command. The stranger says, "Oh that's okay, I love dogs. She's just excited to see me."
What. Just. Happened?
Your dog got exactly what she wanted by acting inappropriately. That embarrassing and inappropriate behavior just got stronger. It wasn't inappropriate to your dog, of course. She's a dog. This is how dogs like to greet people. They try to get to the face. But your dog doesn't know it's "inappropriate." And besides, it worked just like it always does. She thinks, "This is how I greet people: I see them, I pull, and pull, and pull, and maybe I bark or whine, and then the person comes closer and I can jump on them and they will acknowledge me and pet me."
Is this what you wanted to teach your dog? If you want to greet a stranger, get to the end of the leash and pull as hard as you can until you get to the stranger. I don’t think that’s what you were going for. Ideally, your dog would sit nicely to be petted, right? Or at the very least, stand nicely.
The problem is that to get your dog to sit or stand nicely to greet people, you’re going to have to put your dog’s education ahead of pleasing others.
This past week I was listening to the brilliant Hannah Brannigan’s podcast, Drinking From the Toilet, and she was discussing internet trolls with the equally brilliant Scottish dog trainer, John McGuigan. John said something that resonated so strongly with me:
“We worry more about not offending a stranger than we do looking after our dog, or looking after ourselves.”
We will spend hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars to train our dogs to act “appropriately” in the human world, but when a real-life training opportunity like this comes up, we put the wants of the stranger ahead of the needs of ourselves and our dog. This is a training opportunity! We have a choice here: We can choose to make our walks with our dog more pleasant, or we can choose to put the stranger’s wants first, ignore this teachable moment, and strengthen the inappropriate behavior. I suggest embracing this teachable moment and using it to our advantage to teach our dog the proper way to greet another human.
So, what should we say to that stranger? How about, “She’s in training and learning how to act appropriately with strangers. You’re more than welcome to pet her, but she needs to be sitting calmly to greet you. If you have time to help me train her, I would really appreciate your help.” My guess is that this friendly dog person would be interested in helping. People like to feel helpful and needed. It’s reinforcing.
In the end, next time you see this person on your walk, they will know exactly what to do if they want to pet your dog (and your dog’s calm behavior will happen faster and more frequently - training goal achieved!). And hey, maybe you’ll even make a new friend out of the deal.
I almost forgot to mention that we offer Walk & Train sessions and would be happy to relieve you of the social discomfort you may feel in situations like the one described above. Let us get you moving in the right direction so you and your dog can walk happily ever after.
Train on, my friends!