My first dog, Ginger, was a sweet little Brittany who failed the Canine Good Citizen test for probably the best reason out there… she was just too friendly.
Ranger suffers from this same happy affliction. He loves petting and cuddles, and turns into a wiggly 85 pound ball of snuggles when someone touches him. Ok, looks at him. Ok, thinks about him.
Luckily, this effervescent quality can be tamed without being wounded. This is one thing I love about positive training – we aren’t punishing a dog for being friendly!
So how do we turn a Labrador shaped Tigger into a dog that greets calmly and politely? Read on!
Training a really nice sit for petting is a little more complex than it seems from the outset. A lot of people think they just need to tell the dog to “Sit” as someone reaches for it. They usually end up with a dog that will run up to someone, kinda sorta sit while he flails his butt around and licks nonstop, and then eventually sneak into a stand that morphs into a snuggle that morphs into a “Fido, NO! I said sit!” Fido, of course, is getting cuddles, so happily ignores the gyrating owner.
This is not what I am going for.
Instead, I like to break it down into a few stages and work on them separately.
1) Calling the dog away from a human. What? Yes. This is usually the very end of the greeting behavior, so we need to train it first. I usually will just say “Here, boy” but you can use “Leave it” too if your dog needs an extra reminder to stop interacting.
2) An actual firm sit-stay during petting. This means butt on the ground and front paws on the ground. The tail can move. The head can move. But the body and toes need to stay firmly planted.
3) A greeting cue. Instead of just running up to people, my dogs learn “Go say hi!” as the cue to approach. This follows the rule of putting a (sometimes) unwanted behavior on cue and making the dog ask you instead of getting it himself. The dog knows he CAN trot up to people and say hi, he just has to wait until I give him permission.
4) A polite approach. Even before we are in greeting range, I want my dog to walk nicely toward another dog or person, not flail on the end of the leash trying to get closer.
Another bit you can add is a release. At the end of our greetings, someone that really does want a slobbery big dog cuddletacking them can definitely get this if I say “Free!” and let Ranger have at it. But most of the time, I will just call him back to me, so this won’t be part of the routine training process.
It’s best to work a behavior chain backwards so that they end on the strongest behavior instead of the weakest one. We already have a pretty solid Leave it and Here boy, though. So, for this session, I set up a little Sit-Stay practice.
Here is Ranger working on his Sit for Petting in both the Heel position and facing me from a distance.
Now it is important that you keep an eye on your dog’s body language when you are working on a stay for greeting. If your dog is anxious about meeting people and you force him to stay and be handled, it will make him uncomfortable and he will be more likely to break from the stay (not good) and might even feel threatened and display stress signs (really not good) or a warning to back off (super duper not good). Always start in as low-stress of an environment as possible and respect his feelings about the situation.
Ranger is used to the kids and pretty happy with these encounters. I am pretty sure he looked at the ground at first because he thought I dropped a treat, not as a displacement behavior. You can tell that he has happy ears, a happy mouth, and waggy tail during the rest of the petting.
You will notice that Ranger ducks away a little from approaching child hands. Most dogs don’t really like having hands floating over their heads and into their face. However, this is something that will happen literally EVERY TIME someone else pets your dog because people don’t know this. So I prefer to turn this into a happy event and get them used to it as long as the dog is not too stressed about it. Thus, it becomes part of our training – intentionally. With a super anxious dog, I would work it up much more slowly, and avoid real-life scenarios where people might pet inappropriately. Every dog is different!
So this is what we are starting with – and what it looks like when a pretty decent sit stay (Ranger can go for a minute and I can walk away at least 20 feet) meets a new environmental variable. We will keep working on the Stay part, and once it is firmer, I will start to bring in the other parts of the behavior.