Behavior & Training
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Q: Butters, our three-year-old Lab, is incredibly smart and affectionate. Although we have worked at training him, he is still overly “social” and excitable. Recently we were walking him and met a young puppy he’s befriended. Both dogs were overjoyed to greet each other. Then Butters jumped on the owner — which was really embarrassing — and I realized we should not have allowed him to say “hi” when he was so excited. How can we control his friendly exuberance? — Tiffany
A: A joyful dog is a wonderful thing to behold, but extreme excitement can be a nuisance for anyone at the receiving end. While training should be geared toward improving your dog’s greeting behavior — by teaching attention and impulse control skills — it should not dampen his joy and desire to socialize. Before you begin training, evaluate whether your past behavior has contributed to the problem; so much of a dog’s negative behavior is inadvertently reinforced by human attention. For example, if you allow your dog to jump and mouth while greeting you, it is an open invitation to jump and mouth on everyone else, so employ a “no jumping” rule at all times. Ignoring your dog’s leaps and only giving attention when he has four paws on the ground is a great way to extinguish jumping behavior, but some dogs need extra help. You can deter him by bodyblocking him: Step toward him or to the side just before he jumps.
Training an alternative greeting behavior that is incompatible with jumping and mouthing (such as teaching him first to approach and sit in front of you and then repeating the behavior with friends or strangers) will show him that greeting in a calmer manner is intrinsically more rewarding than jumping up. This skill also allows him to channel all his energy into an appropriate behavior. Start all training in your home where there are fewer distractions and gradually build up to more stimulating environments where it will be harder for him to succeed.
Increase your dog’s attention on you by incorporating a repertoire of calmer behaviors into everyday activities. Training induces a calming effect and will provide you with constructive tools to deal with his behavior. Everyday rewards such as feeding or walking can be introduced to enhance attention; with these activities, focus must be given to you and impulse control techniques employed before the reward is given. If your dog likes to chase balls, for example, give him the opportunity to chase a ball only after he has listened to your “wait” cue for a period of time. Waiting becomes a vital skill that allows him to think and remember what he has to do before reacting. You can set up a ritual of behaviors onleash when greeting a person or dog, such as having him wait, approach the person when he is told and sit in front of them to say hello. If your dog forgets himself and gets too excited, calmly remove him to a distance where you can both regroup and try again. Keep repeating this exercise until he greets calmly, the consequence of which will be the reward of the person’s attention or play with another dog.
Dog parks can be great places for dogs to run and socialize, but they can also be a problem when a dog gets too excited and greeting behavior causes fights. You should avoid the dog park while you are working on training so your dog has no chance to rehearse jumping behavior off-leash. Dog parks can gradually be introduced as an activity when he is more under control — but only after you’ve walked, run or played with him for approximately 30 minutes before going to the park. Make sure, however, that you get him to the point where he is tiring from the activity rather than getting more hyped up, which will only make him more excitable when he finally gets to the park. Plenty of daily exercise, outdoor experience and rehearsals of greeting compliant strangers on-leash will teach him how to greet appropriately and will eventually translate into polite offleash greetings as well.
Photography by Leesia Teh