A few days ago I posted a blog about teaching dogs to keep their feet on the floor and off of people. That blog included an excellent video by Chirag Patel. In my opinion, his approach will work for a high percentage of dogs, especially puppies who are started correctly. But some dogs are a bit different. These dogs are not showing normal, thinking behavior patterns when they are in the presence of new people, because they are “hyper greeters.” In the presence of new people, they go over threshold.
“Over threshold” simply means that the dog is no longer able to make good (rational) decisions about their behavior. And since training assumes a rational participant who is maximizing good things and minimizing bad things, training often fails on dogs that are over threshold. Sad but true. The more time a dog spends over threshold, the more easily they end up in this bad place, which starts a nasty cycle.
A hyper greeter isn’t a happy dog who simply loves everyone. A hyper greeter is a dog with an uncontrollable need to get to people, yet the dog recognizes that their behavior is not appreciated. That leads to conflict, and conflict is bad, because dogs in conflict go over threshold easily.
This blog post will focus on dogs that appear confident around people, including strangers, but who cannot handle themselves in a socially acceptable manner at an initial greeting. My suggestions here do NOT cover dogs that are fearful of people but who are drawn to approach anyway.
What does a social hyper greeter look like? This type of dog goes fast and hard at people – at the door when people walk through, walking down the street, coming out of their crate, etc. They almost always look right up into the person’s face when they approach and then lunge forwards, sometimes mouthing or clawing their way up the person. Holding them down simply builds their energy to drive up into the person’s face, and dropping food often does not work because these dogs are fast; they eat and then launch, or they leave most of the food behind and go for the person instead. Turning your back has no effect whatsoever; the dog simply claws your back or grabs your hair.
Needless to say, this type of dog is rarely appreciated by the victim and as a result, either the new person or the handler is very likely to strongly discipline the dog for their behavior, which in turn intensifies the conflict experienced by the dog. Rather than subduing the dog – the punishment causes the problem behavior to become even more frantic, or worse, the dog starts out with the appearance of being under control and then launches “out of nowhere” when the new person is least expecting it. Even a calm owner is going to have a really hard time hiding their frustration with this behavior. If punishment makes it worse and traditional positive methods are not terribly effective, then what’s left?
There’s hope. However, while working on this behavior, you MUST manage the dog. You must! Every episode of failure will exacerbate your dog’s behavior and will increase your own frustration. Keep your dog on a front clip harness when you will be encountering people, and do not NOT allow your dog to get to people. Crate your dog when people come to your house. Keep the leash at a manageable length when you are working on this behavior. Remember – your dog is miserable in the presence of new people, and new people are miserable in the presence of your dog. Take a few weeks and really work on this.
Now – deep breath. You’ll need a dog savvy helper to get started. Here’s what you will do.
Give your helper a high value cookie. If needed, throw it so they can get it from you without approaching. Only one cookie, because the person is not going to give the cookie to the dog. The cookie is only to prevent the dog from looking up into your face and becoming over aroused. If the dog gets the cookie, the new person will have no way to prevent the dog from looking up at their face. Instruct the person on three rules:
- Hold the cookie at the dog’s nose level.
- Keep the dog focused on that cookie. Do not give it to the dog; it is only for distraction.
- The second hand will be used as a visual block of their face anytime the dog looks up – (if needed).
Ready? Open the door. Watch the following video that I made to show the process:
As soon as the person comes in contact with the dog, have them “magnetize” the dog with the cookie down at the dog’s head level. Keep the dog smelling the cookie! If the dog is mouthy then keep the back of your hand to the dog while making a fist with the cookie inside.The new person should be relatively neutral and casual. A silent helper is better for most dogs.
The cookie will redirect the dog’s focus and energy from the person’s face to the food. Now two things will happen; the dog will begin to adjust to the presence of the person which will allow them to practice being calm near a new person, and the dog’s focus on the food will re-direct their energy towards the new person’s hands rather than upwards.
Remember that the dog is not getting the cookie. When some dogs figure this out they will go back to leaping at the person’s face. If that happens, make the cookie a bit more active to keep the dog focused on it a bit longer. It’s important that the helper work hard to keep the dog on the cookie and off their face or this method will not work. It’s also important that if the dog is on leash, that there is no tension on the leash. We want the dog operating on his own power and showing self control without external constraints.
It is very likely that at some point, the dog will turn back to the handler. The instant this happens, the handler should give a cookie and praise their dog. Then the dog should be verbally cued and encouraged to return to the baiter – where the process is repeated. When the dog is barely willing to engage the new person anymore, it’s time for a quiet personal interaction. Still no cookies from the new person and ideally a low key greeting. The baiter continues to use the food as needed to keep the dog from making eye contact.
If the dog does not show any interest in turning back to the handler, the handler can make some small sounds or use another cookie to lure the dog back and then repeat. Most dogs quickly learn to turn back to the handler, especially if they have been taught a re-orienting behavior.
After several episodes, the goal is a dog that moves towards a new person on a loose leash, focused on the person’s hands rather than their face, and after a quick sniff at the stranger’s hands, turns back to the handler for a treat.
Soon, you will find that the new person no longer requires a cookie – simply holding out their hands as if they had one is enough to cue the dog to turn back to the handler after the dog investigates their empty hands. And since success allows the dog to stay calm and under threshold, the dog will soon learn that they can be near people without losing control – an excellent end result.
This method can work very well with dogs that are simply unable to make a good decision in the presence of a new person. It is NOT appropriate for dogs that are fearful – the ones that bounce off the new person, backing up and barking hysterically, or dogs that alternate between extreme greeting behaviors and nervous nipping or barking at a new person. Those dogs are fearful, and should not be allowed to approach new people until they show the ability to do so in a positive frame of mind.
If you apply this technique and the dog shows fearful behaviors such as growling or barking, you misread your fearful dog for a hyper greeter. Stop. This exercise is not for you. That is a story for another day.
I have had extremely good success with this method but like all behavior work, it requires consistency in the application and management the rest of the time. Good luck!