How to Teach Calm Greetings

A question I get asked frequently in my classes and behavior consults is how to teach dogs not to jump up and bark when visitors come to their house.

Most dogs find it super exciting when someone’s at the door and the anticipation of meeting someone they know or the novelty of a stranger can evoke big responses, which are shown by … we’ve all experienced it …. barking, whining, puppy piddles, nipping, jumping up, or any combination of these behaviors.

Why do dogs bark and jump up? It’s because these behaviors match their current level of arousal. This high excitement can be positive or negative = happy or fearful. The behaviors shown by dogs will look very similar either way.

The good news is that we can teach dogs to remain calm or at least return to Calmness quickly and instead pick behaviors that come out of the CALM box.

To solve this all too common problem we are going to take a 2 pronged approach.

First of all, we need to implement some management strategies and secondly I’ll share with you my training approach, which is always training FOR the situation, not IN the situation. Right now, your dog probably simply may not have the skills needed to greet visitors calmly, so putting them into that situation over and over again, hoping that today won’t be a total disaster is NOT going to work.

Let’s start with the management component which has to be implemented until your dog has learned the skills necessary for calm greetings.

My Top Tip on how to handle excitement around visitors is to not give your dog access to visitors when they first arrive! It’s typically those first few minutes that are chaotic and noisy and the solution is quite simple: put your dog in another room, behind a baby gate, in a crate or pen until the visitors are settled in (I suggest at least 10-15 minutes). So, maybe your dog doesn’t appreciate being left out and will bark or whine while being separated? Have some long lasting chews prepared and ready-to-use for those situations (like a stuffed frozen Kong, puzzle feeder, snuffle mat or a bone) to make the situation less of a “bad deal” for your dog. For some dogs it may never be appropriate to be loose while guests are in the house, maybe because they don’t have the skills yet or maybe they are not trustworthy around strangers or small children? That’s o.k.! You have to think about what’s best for your dog and not to allow them to rehearse unwanted behaviors. It’s all about creating GOOD habits! If meeting your visitors after a calming down period is right for your dog, you could start by bringing them out on a leash so you can manage any potential outbursts of initial over-exuberance. A bit of a food scatter or something like a lickimat can really be helpful in calming your dog down once outside the crate.

Next I want to talk about training FOR the situation = training in preparation for visitors coming to your house.

  1. Practice the procedure I just described when there are no visitors and your dog is already calm. Get your dog used to not having access to you for a period of time here and there. Sometimes they may get a long lasting chew, sometimes not. Frustration stems from expectations not being met. By being flexible and unpredictable, we are teaching our dogs that having some alone time in a crate / pen / behind a gate is not a big deal … and that it’s actually a positive experience as they often get some of their daily food in some form of enrichment activity.
  2. For the next phase, let’s add some ‘triggers’ to this procedure: randomly ringing the door bell or knocking on the wall, followed by offering the tasty chew in a crate or special room. My preferred option is teaching my dogs about Boundary Games (check out my next zoom workshop on March 18th) which gives your dog a lot more responsibility as their skills grow.
  3. When you know that visitors are coming, it’s best to prepare ahead of time and have your dog already in the designated space, happily licking or chewing. When surprise guests arrive, it’s o.k. to ask them to wait a moment and put your dog away before opening the door. You have trained for this scenario and it’s well rehearsed.

As a BONUS I’d like to share a video with you, showing how I work with dogs so they can learn about calm greetings. Starting at an appropriate distance = where your dog is still reasonably calm and able to take food, I’ll toss a piece of food towards the distraction (= person) and the next several pieces are delivered facing in the opposite direction or walking away = rewarding DISENGAGEMENT. This approach also works very well for dogs who are a bit nervous around people, again, starting at a distance where your anxious dog is not scared of the person and able to take food and giving a release by moving away. Whenever a dog is unable to take food, it usually means that they are over the top excited or scared. If that happens, increase the distance or stop the training session for the day and start further away next time.

Here’s something that may surprise you: most of the time I won’t let my dogs greet people! What??? My dog needs to be socialized in order to be a good pet!!! My take on that is that I want my dogs to be able to be cool, calm and collected in the face of distractions (such as people or other dogs) and MIND THEIR OWN BUSINESS! Most dogs that I work with have learned to expect direct interactions with most everyone they meet. The anticipation creates over-excitement and when they are not allowed to say hi, they get frustrated …. the result of which is: barking, lunging, jumping up ….. Without making this blog about socialization, just think about what you would like the picture of you and your dog out in the world to look like … and make that your day-to-day practice!

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