When someone mentions a "spaghetti western," the mental picture is of an actor's lips moving out of sync with the words coming from the film's audio sound. Watching dogs go crazy on the end of a leash while they are trying to greet other dogs or people is akin to watching an old spaghetti western. The dog and the handler are clearly out of sync with one another.
When this crazy greeting behavior ensues, it is clear that the dog and hander have different agendas. It doesn't matter if the displays come from 10-pound Fifi or 100-pound Fido. They are highly embarrassing and leave many humans wishing they had a "meet you in the streets at noontime," showdown solution to make all the barking, bucking, and bravado stop. They just want to enjoy being with their dogs.
Along with the embarrassment of these displays come safety issues. Anyone who has had to restrain, hold, or wrestle a big dog that is lunging, whining, barking, or spinning has worried about his or her own safety and/or the dog's safety. This worry can also be present with some small dogs that seem to have super powers when they are excited about meetings.
It takes an understanding of the good, the bad, and the ugly of these displays before you can begin a program to combat the unwanted behavior. That understanding is the best bet for pet owners—without a "high-noon" showdown solution to calm the excitable greeters of the canine world. Consider carefully where your dog's behavior falls before beginning any behavior modification program, and examine the following categories and suggestions before moving forward.
If you live with a wild greeter, you might find it hard to believe that most positive reinforcement dog trainers love to hear from clients whose dogs are overly excited and behave outrageously when they see other dogs or people they want to greet.
The reason that trainers like this type of enthusiasm, and are passionate about working with these dogs, is that the behavior is still in a very repairable state. Excitable dogs just want to have fun. With a program that helps them relax and learn to focus and provides coping skills, it's pretty easy to override the gusto with a good outcome.
The exercises I've included below will help build foundation skills. Solid foundation skills offer a dog a variety of options and choices that divert attention from triggers when the dog is faced with something exciting.
Working with a trainer to build foundation skills is optional if you have good clicker skills and are willing to take the training time to ensure that the behaviors are strong and well-practiced. Consider a trainer if you don't have the time or the skills.
Unfortunately, far too often trainers are called after something has happened that pushed a dog over the edge of excitable into what appears to be more hostile behavior. A situation that can begin with a friendly dog that feels frustrated by leashes and other equipment, and a handler who is upset, yelling, and/or dragging the dog away, sometimes ends up as reactivity.
A dog's frustration can become a major source of irritation that becomes linked to or associated with other dogs or people. When this pattern continues, it can create reactivity and the potential for aggression each time the trigger is presented and the frustration is felt.
This level of behavior should be addressed with rehabilitation and guidance from a professional trainer. Look for a trainer who understands how to use positive methods and who can incorporate the foundation exercises, as well as other customized training that helps counter the unwanted behavior. Once your dog has some skills, you may be able to move to working with your dog on your own.
It is natural for people to want to take their dogs out and do things with them. But societal pressure to have "Lassie" (the perfect dog) on the end of the leash creates strain for handlers.
Unfortunately, when handlers seek help they sometimes receive advice that directs them to "correct" the dog for outlandish displays of overt friendliness. When dogs have been punished too often for a very normal behavior, eventually that punishment can become associated with other dogs or people, since it only happens when the other dog or people are present.
Another potential "ugly" result can occur when high-energy dogs approach other dogs with overly overt greetings. The greeting can trigger some dogs to attack to "correct" the rude behavior. The attack can, in turn, lead your dog, the over-friendly greeter, to learn defensive behaviors. The defensive behaviors can develop into aggressive displays fairly quickly if there is no intervention and the excessive greetings are allowed to continue.
When overly friendly greetings turn into aggressive behaviors, the road to a positive ending is much longer and more intense to travel. At that point, not only is behavior modification needed, but a relationship of trust must be repaired. Working with a professional who has a strong background in behavior, and possibly working with a veterinarian behaviorist, might be the wisest course.
What happened to my dog?
As you teach your dog new behaviors, it is also essential to look at the roots of the unwanted behavior. In other words, where did it start?
Many people point directly to puppy classes as the starting place for their dogs' wild displays. When puppy classes allow too much free-for-all play, and where puppies play with such intensity that all of their attention must remain on each other for safety, puppies learn to ignore their owners and invest their energy into even more intense play. This beginning can set up a lifetime of overly excited greetings toward other dogs, leaving owners following along like glorified pooper scoopers when the dogs see other canines.
Some puppy classes are structured this way in the name of socialization, but modern, scientific-based trainers understand that it is important to teach puppies to be attentive toward their owners and to learn how to be relaxed and calm around other puppies or dogs before they are encouraged to play. Then, with a spotlight on attention and calmness, puppies can be allowed to have short play sessions with other puppies—keeping the interactions very brief until they learn how to keep their impulses in check.
Another thing that encourages wild greetings is permitting street play, where dogs are allowed to meet and play with other dogs when they are out on walks. Rapidly, dogs can learn to demand a visit with the other dogs they see while out on walks. This can also happen with people if a dog is allowed to pull toward a person and receive attention.
Dogs learn that if they make enough of a fuss to visit with other dogs or people, they might be rewarded with a meet and greet. The meetings can be even more problematic if the dog is large enough to pull or jerk the owner to the action. When that happens, the dog not only learn about the ability to use strength, but is also reinforced for doing so, which makes the behavior stronger (no pun intended) with each success.
Of course there are many other reasons that dogs display high-spirited greetings: the need to submit to other dogs, lots of attention from owners, and the jubilation dogs feel about seeing other dogs. Each piece of your own dog's history should direct your training. Information and exercises that are explained below can give your dog foundations skills that lead down a new path toward the ability to focus attention on you when you are near other dogs or people.
What to do
When a behavior persists over a period of time, there is only one reason for it to continue in spite of the efforts to curtail it: the dog believes it is the correct answer to receive reinforcement. In other words, it works! What the dog wants or sees as reinforcement can be anything from the handler's attention, to the actual excited greeting, to moving some distance away from the greeting area (something an unconfident dog might want and so would behave wildly in order to compel the handler to move on to avoid an embarrassing scene). Rest assured, dogs continue unwanted behaviors because there is a "payoff."
Equipment can play an important role in how well your dog behaves around other dogs or people. Switching to better equipment can be an easy fix. However, your equipment is only as good as the training that goes along with it. So, if your dog pulls to get to another dog or person, all the while choking and coughing, not only do you risk your dog causing permanent tracheal damage, the discouragement of the behavior is not working. It's time to consider other options.
Switching to a front-clip harness (Halti, SENSE-ation®, or Freedom harnesses) can relieve pressure from the neck, help your dog relax and not pull away from strain, and give you more control if your dog does try to pull. However, a harness is not magic, and dogs need to learn how to walk with you in the new equipment before triggers are introduced. You need groundwork. If your dog's history of pulling on leash is an extensive one, you may want to work with a trainer who understands how to build solid foundation behaviors for leash walking before you try to take behaviors on the road. Locate a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP) here.
Two of the exercises I have found to help most in solving the problem of the overly excited greeter are Automatic Eye Contact and "Get it." If both of these behaviors are taught to fluency, you will be able to give your dog a different focus and teach him to check in when distracted rather than act on impulses.
The simplicity of this exercise is also the beauty of this exercise. Your dog is trained to find treats on the ground in response to the verbal cue, "Get it." It really is as simple as it sounds. If you follow some basic rules, your dog will be on the way to a newly trained behavior that has many benefits.
The main goal, and ultimately the main benefit, of the "Get it" game is to divert your dog's attention away from things that might distract him or trigger the unwanted behaviors. Use food rewards that are extremely powerful in the beginning stages of training so that the behavior becomes very strong right from the start, strong enough to override any distractions.
Consider food rewards that are your dog's absolute favorites. These may include, but are certainly not limited to, cut-up hot dogs, small pieces of cheese, diced cooked chicken, small pieces of steak, Red Barn roll, kibble, cream cheese, and other small training treats. Have a variety of food in the mix so that your dog is excited to discover one of the special treats that you have included. Hoping that the next treat will be that special chicken or that hot dog helps to keep your dog in the game (gambling, if you will). Pea-sized is best, but be sure to adjust (reduce) your dog's portion size at meals when you use a lot of training treats.
Training "Get it" for its many benefits
Begin your training in a low-distraction environment with lots of breaks between each session so that your dog has time to process each step of the exercise. Since you want to take the "Get it" behavior on the road, your goal is to train to fluency (85% or better in at least 20 locations around your home is a good rule of thumb) so that the behavior becomes generalized and strong. Once the behavior has been mastered at home, start to add distractions such as people walking in the room. Step outside to practice, but always keep your dog on-leash. You want your dog to learn how to perform the behavior with the same equipment he will be wearing when you go outside. If at any point your dog is unable to "Get it," be sure to go back to a less distracted environment, or raise the reinforcement rate with a more rapid delivery of treats or higher-valued rewards.
There are other benefits to the "Get it" game apart from diverting your dog's attention from distractions. The "Get it" exercise is actually a classical conditioning exercise (the "Pavlov's Dog" effect). It leads the dog to try a natural calming behavior (sniffing) that is then highly reinforced as the dog finds the food on the ground.
So, with the "Get it" game not only will you create a positive association between the environmental stimulus that excites your dog and a reward, but your dog is calmer. Calm is desirable, first of all because the natural inclination of a pet owner is to maximize a pet's emotional well being. And, with a calmer animal an owner is best positioned to address a behavior situation rather than simply react to it. One more plus to note is that the natural calming behavior, sniffing the ground, is a signal to other dogs that everything is okay; they can relax, too.
Start right—with gear and treats!
Begin with your dog on-leash, since you will be using this exercise in public where your dog will be wearing the harness and leash. It's important for your dog to learn the game with his "travel attire," so always practice with the necessary equipment.
Have a number of high-value food rewards in one hand and the leash in the other. Drop a random number of treats as you say, "Get it." The goal is to be able to say the cue, "Get it," and your dog's nose starts toward the ground as soon as you say the cue.
In the early stages, make the treats an obvious reward by dropping the food just in front of your feet. Then, drop the food to one side, then to the other side, and, finally, drop the food in back of you so that your dog has to move behind you to find the rewards. Mix up the number of rewards you use each time—sometimes one, sometimes ten—so that your dog never really knows what is coming and gambles by staying in the game in case the next reward is ten pieces of chicken!
When your dog will go behind you to find treats, keep that position really strong by doing the majority of the training behind you. In this way you can block your dog's view of worrisome or exciting things, and take the pressure off of your dog to make a decision about what to do next. You are giving your dog permission to "clock out" and not take on the job of greeter to the world. With your dog behind you, you have a few seconds to assess a situation and decide if you need to move to a less distracting environment.
While training "Get it," do not cue your dog with the leash. "Get it" should be a calm, relaxed behavior that doesn't include being hauled around by the leash. Keep your leash with enough slack to form a "U," even if it means following your dog around to ensure that there is no added pressure to respond to the leash. This exercise should be one your dog chooses to do, not one that is cued by the leash.
Be prepared to up the ante with even better food rewards or a higher rate of reinforcement (more and faster presentation) when you take the show on the road. Plan to be more interesting than the environment. If you find that you can't, don't train. You will be wasting time and treats if your dog is so aroused or worried that he can't think.
If your dog is distracted, but not reactive, try raining treats over your dog's head to see if that draws his attention away from the stimulus. Practice doing this at home, however, so that it's not an irritation to your dog if you try it in public!
Don't consider your training a failure if the behavior falls apart. It is simply information for you to use the next time you work in a new area. Improve or strengthen the behavior with lower-level distractions before moving on to bigger and more exciting things.
Always be ready to take a break from training if your dog seems confused or stressed. Training sessions should be short, no more than 10 minutes long. Training a few times a day will cement the behavior in just a couple of weeks.
Automatic eye contact
Automatic eye contact is the second helpful behavior to train when you are working with a dog to decrease overly excited greetings. Automatic eye contact is when the dog knows to check in with the handler when a distraction appears. You can find full and detailed instructions on how to train automatic eye contact here.
Automatic eye contact should be taught with a clicker. If you have not used a clicker before, please read about and practice the technique. You can even watch a video about how to use a clicker correctly.
By teaching your dog how to check in with you when faced with a distraction, you are starting to teach your dog how to do that same check-in when faced with other dogs or other people. Keep in mind that when you add new distractions to training, there should be enough distance between your dog and the distraction for your dog to continue checking in. If the dog cannot maintain the check-in behavior, you are too close to the distraction and need to increase the distance between you and the distraction.
Putting it all together
Building on "Get it" and automatic eye contact, the next step is to transfer the two behaviors to leash-walking outside of the home. The final goal is to teach your dog to walk beside you and check in when he sees a distraction, any distraction. If you are patient and positive, following instructions, that goal can be reached in just a few weeks.
Use "Get it" when you are not confident your dog will be able to check in with you. Mastering automatic eye contact will soon override the need to use "Get it" moving forward. However, do not be afraid to use "Get it" at any time if your dog is excited and you would like to offer the opportunity to relax.
To get to where your dog can walk with you, checking in as necessary, you will need to practice in many controlled situations that don't offer surprises. Find neutral dogs and calm humans to help you work through the different levels required to get closer to triggers. These helpers shouldn't be distractions that add to the problem! Enlisting friends who are calm, finding relaxed dog companions, and even consulting a trainer can really help to build your dog's skills.
All of this planning and careful, and fun, training will get you back in sync with your dog without exaggerated drama. Your Spaghetti Western days will ride into the sunset.