Dear Bark: Thanksgiving’s coming and I’m looking forward to hosting the dinner this year. However, I’m a little concerned about the greeting behavior of my high-spirited pups, who tend to bark, jump, lick and generally carry on when someone new comes through the door. Most of my friends and family are dog-friendly and don’t mind the fuss, but a few just don’t like dogs all that much, which I completely understand. In the past, I've tried redirection, keeping the dogs confined in another room (this works for the greeting issue, but not the barking), and having a dedicated dog person monitor the dogs. Do you have any other tips?
Having guests is a real challenge for people with friendly, exuberant dogs. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to ease the social awkwardness when enthusiastic dogs collide (sometimes literally) with humans. You’re definitely on the right track with your plans to manage the situation. The smallest details can make a big difference, so by tweaking what you’re already doing and adding some new tactics, we can develop an approach that will help your dogs be their best selves.
Redirection. This is a great strategy, but it only works if what you offer is amazing enough to keep their attention. For highly toy-motivated dogs, a game of fetch or tug as visitors arrive may help them channel their excitement. Also, using top-quality, rarely offered treats or chews that the dogs care about can make all the difference. A list of options that may refocus even the most social dogs’ interest includes real bones; Kongs stuffed with steak, chicken or peanut butter; Greenies; bully sticks; and stuffed cow hooves. (A caveat: Check with your veterinarian to find out what items are safe for your particular dog, and which should be avoided.)
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Brief confinement in another room. Consider putting the dogs in another room until guests come in and are seated. The whole entrance thing—seeing new people as the door opens, then seeing them cross the threshold and enter the house—can be especially stimulating for dogs. Some can greet guests far more calmly and politely if they don’t witness the actual arrival. It’s common for dogs to be less excitable when they come out of another room and see people sitting down.
Try a gate. Some dogs are able to greet guests in a calm way if they first see them from behind a gate, which prevents them from rushing up to the newcomers. Once the novelty wears off, they can greet more politely. (However, perhaps out of frustration, some dogs get more revved up if they’re gated-off from visitors. Test this with your dogs in advance to find out how they respond.)
Train for the big day. There’s often so much focus on what we don’t want our dogs to do that we miss opportunities to teach them what we do want. How would you like your dogs to greet visitors? With that picture in mind, actively teach them to do it. One option is to train them to sit and stay in a specific spot when visitors arrive. Make it a comfortable place, such as a dog bed or bean bag. If visitors want to greet the dogs, they get to interact; if the visitors choose not to, then the dogs stay quietly in their place. Begin teaching them the behavior (going to their spot) when there are no distractions, and work up to more challenging and exciting situations.
I wish a happy Thanksgiving to you as well as to the dogs and others who share in your celebration!