When I hosted a book club meeting a few months ago, my dog Lulu stayed upstairs in her crate. As guests arrived, they asked if she could join the group but I politely declined. Lulu can get overly excited around guests; a house full of people toting plates of cheese and other goodies could lead to doggie-induced chaos.
I convinced myself that everyone was better off with Lulu upstairs. It prevented me from having to pull her off someone’s lap, and it saved guests from pretending they enjoyed being licked by a 48-pound dog. As we ate and discussed our book, Lulu provided her own mournful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” It was annoying, but I stood my ground.
After interviewing and observing quite a few dog trainers, I realize we should have practiced proper behavior around houseguests. Dog trainers Michael Upshur and Deandre Weaver offer a few tips to keep your dog in line around other people or pets.
Focus on the positive. Upshur tells clients to pick a phrase such as “good dog,” and use it often. “When someone reaches to pet your dog, say ‘good dog,’” he says. “That puts the dog in a relaxed mood.”
Our body language also affects a dog’s behavior. Resist the urge to automatically pull the leash when strangers approach. This subtle movement puts the dog on alert, says Upshur, a police officer and dog trainer with Dogma Dog Care in Smyrna, Georgia. “People don’t realize it but that leash sends a signal,” he says. “When you are tense and tighten the leash, you tell the dog something is wrong.”
Weaver, an anti-dogfighting advocate with the Humane Society of the United States, also reminds pet owners to stay focused during walks. “Just try to be more aware [of surroundings] than your dog is,” he says. “Keep the attention on you, and divert attention from the other dog or cat. It takes training, and patience.”
If you see a cat, squirrel or other potential distraction that may trigger negative behavior, Upshur suggest offering a command such as “sit” and petting the dog. This helps calm anxious pets.
Take the high road during walks. Every dog behaves differently around other dogs. “If my dog doesn’t know the dog, I don’t walk directly up on another dog or person,” Weaver says. “Pass each other [at a safe distance] and see how the dogs react.”
Maintain a short leash when stopping. If you stop to greet someone during a walk, Weaver suggests maintaining a short leash — about a foot or so — limiting your dog’s ability to jump. He also notes that dogs jump on people out of excitement. “Give them no attention when they jump; turn your back, walk away and try again. It’s really a process.”
Allow strangers to pet with care. When someone asks to pet your dog during a walk, Weaver says allow the dog to smell the person’s hand first. Then allow them to pet the dog’s side or back, avoiding its head or mouth.
Practice makes perfect: Find a pet-loving friend and practice proper behavior around houseguests. “Let your dog approach the person and smell their hand,” Upshur says. “Then tell the person to lift their knee and turn as soon as the dog tries to jump.” It also helps to turn your back to the dog and fold your arms across your chest, ignoring the dog until it sits or calms down.
“Your dog has to learn the boundaries of your house,” Weaver says. “Otherwise it will be hard to keep her under control when someone comes into her house because that’s her couch.”
Introduce four-legged guests slowly. If you are introducing a puppy to your older dog, Upshur says things should go smoothly. But it’s important to remain calm when adult dogs pay a visit. “A calm owner sends a signal that it’s OK for another dog to be in the house,” he says. “Let them sniff each other, but watch the hairs on their back. If hairs on the neck and butt go up, pull the dogs away,” he warns. “If one dog goes down into what we call the praying position, he’s trying to tell the other dog, ‘I’m friendly; all I want to do is play.’”
If your dog is a bit willful like my pooch Lulu, Upshur suggests keeping it on a leash during visits. “Let the other dog roam because he isn’t getting into trouble,” Upshur says. “That will rub off on your dog, and it will understand, ‘I must be in trouble because I’m on a leash.’” Allow your dog to approach, sniff and move away, then repeat this process until both dogs are calm enough to mingle.
Every dog needs a place. Upshur and Weaver are firm believers in giving dogs a designated place in the house. It may be in a quiet corner or a favorite spot on the couch. Every time you give the “place” command, your dog should go to that spot and remain there until you allow it to leave. Reinforce that behavior by praising the dog for following commands.
“Saying ‘good dog’ does a lot,” Upshur says. “If your dog gets tense for any reason, say ‘good dog’ and pet it.”
Weaver also recommends the “place” command, particularly when guests arrive. “Once you teach them, ‘Go to your place,’ call them to that spot when company comes.” He notes that Lulu’s howls of protest are all part of the process. “If you don’t stand your ground and deal with it, you won’t stop it,” he warns.
A little bribery never hurts. Weaver is not afraid to bribe a pet. Take the time to learn your pet’s favorite food, toy or treat and use it to your advantage. “What is your dog going to work for?” he asks. “A lot of dogs will work for a tennis ball or chew toy. Once you make it interesting to them, you can get their attention.”
If you notice a cat during your daily walk, move away from the distraction and then pull out your dog’s favorite item. “As you walk, the dog will walk and try to get it,” he says. “Once you get a certain distance away from the distraction, give her the toy or treat. Do a sit command and say, ‘good girl.’”
He adds that it’s important to stretch out the rewards program. “Once they do the right thing a third time, then you give them the treat,” he says. “If you give a treat every time, they will only behave for food.” This approach gives the dog an incentive to work for treats.
Set boundaries for foster pets. Opening your home to a foster dog can help your pooch stay young at heart, and strengthen social skills, particularly if it’s an older pet. “They know the rules of the house; they are the alpha dog,” Upshur says.
“A new dog will get used to the other dog and will try to establish dominance.” To ease the transition, he suggests moving slowly with initial introductions. Not surprisingly, he says that pets adjust better to dogs of the opposite sex.
During the first two days, keep the foster dog crated and allow your dog to sniff the foster pooch in its crate. “Over time, your dog will understand, ‘This dog belongs here now; his scent is here,’” Upshur says. Also, use a leash during free time with the foster pooch as it learns house rules and boundaries.
Practice consistency. Use the same command every time you address your dog. That means avoiding shorthand such as “down,” when you typically say “lay down.” A little bit of consistency can help even an older dog like my Lulu learn some cool new tricks.
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