Training Tip: Don’t put dogs in situations they don’t have the tools to handle.
Human behavior challenges
Why is it usually a bad idea to take a 2-year-old human toddler to a symphony performance? Toddlers don’t have the tools to get through a performance that lasts over an hour. What do they need?
- Appreciation of the music, to motivate them to sit still and listen
- Ability to sit still, quietly, for the entire performance
- Ability to set aside any minor annoyances that come up, choosing “still and quiet” over “I need to go potty” or “My clothes are bothering me”, waiting until the performance is over to deal with these inconveniences.
As a rule, toddlers don’t have these skills. Oh, there’s probably a quiet one out there somewhere who could do it. Likewise, dogs in general don’t have the skills to go to the symphony. Service dogs can be trained in the necessary skills when their handlers need them there. Most adult humans have the ability to sit still, be quiet, and get through a performance even if they don’t particularly enjoy the music.
Dog behavior challenges
Each pet dog has his or her challenges. What about other situations a particular dog is not equipped to handle?
If your dog is afraid of people, the holiday season will probably not go down in history looking like previous ones. If you were dreaming of a Norman Rockwell painting with the dog happily weaving through the legs of family and friends, snagging a crumb here and there, everyone laughing and having a good time, you may be disappointed. It is a training opportunity, though!
If your dog likes people a LOT, she may not have the necessary skills to resist jumping up and damaging visitors’ holiday outfits. She may not yet be able to resist sampling the buffet if she’s tall enough. If her potty training is not solid, you may have to interrupt your party to clean up a mess.
YOUR dog and visitors
What to do? If your dog has shown certain behaviors in particular situations, you can assume that’s what will happen again. She’s already “told” you what’s going to happen.
- Growling when people come in the front door.
- Stealing food off of your plate when you set it on the coffee table and turn away.
- Jumping up on people excitedly when he meets them.
- Surfing the countertops for snacks, even when you don’t have company.
- Cowering and moving away from people.
It’s a mistake to continue to put a dog in the same situations, hoping he’ll learn different behavior on his own. The behaviors he’s showing you are the ones associated with the situations he’s in. Every time the scenario occurs, the behaviors become more deeply ingrained whether they’re the ones you want or not. It just doesn’t make sense to think he’ll handle things differently if you haven’t started teaching him in controlled environments.
Teaching your dog a better way to behave around visitors
The quickest, most humane, and most effective way to start changing the way your dog behaves is to prevent the behaviors you don’t want. Keep him out of those situations that provoke these behaviors until you’ve gone through a teaching process to help him choose different ones. (If your dog is really afraid or has little self-control, it’s not realistic to think you can change that before holiday parties begin. But next year, or your summer barbecues, could be different!)
In other words, if you know what’s going to happen and you don’t like it, don’t set up the situation for it to happen. DO create scenarios that include one or two pieces of the situation you want your dog to handle differently. Use these as training sessions to change the behavior. It’s almost Christmas, so start reinforcing your dog’s “Sit” and reinforcing lying on a mat. Depending on your dog’s level of experience in working with you on training exercises, you might get the help you need from these simple behaviors.
Our article, “How Do Dogs Learn?” can help you set up helpful training environments.
Prevent the behaviors you don’t want
If you don’t like how your dog behaves around guests and you’re having guests during the holidays, your best bet is prevention. Preventing the repetition of behaviors you don’t like can increase your success with creating the behaviors you want.
Dogs that greet visitors exuberantly
If your dog is an exuberant greeter and doesn’t yet have the skills to greet politely, keep him with you, on a leash, during your holiday party. It’s great practice for learning to walk together as partners on leash! This is also a good alternative to letting a known counter-surfer scan the buffet. You can give your dog things to do as you move through the party with him. He can lie down on a mat next to you, sit by you while you greet visitors. Be sure to wear a treat bag so you can quickly reinforce good choices! Check out our article about teaching a dog to “sit to greet people” to start setting your dog up to greet people politely.
Dogs that are afraid of visitors
If your dog is afraid of people, practice NOW putting him in a room away from the party. It’s not a party to him – it’s a throng of monsters that scare him. However, if he’s not comfortable being alone in his room, you’ll have a different problem. Barking and howling from the back of the house is not conducive to a pleasant get-together! That’s why you must practice in short sessions, right now, in the days before guests come over. In his room, give him a soft bed, chew toys, food puzzles, and bones, and leave classical music on. Diffuse lavender essential oil or use a DAP diffuser in the room to help him be calm. Later, after the holiday season, contact The Mannerly Dog to help you teach your dog a new way of behaving around humans.
Dogs are honest about how they feel about visitors
We all want our dogs to love our friends and family as much as we do. But some dogs just aren’t ready. Dogs don’t lie – they tell you clearly when they are uncomfortable. They also tell you when they’re feeling better about things as you make changes to help them. Our Dog Reading Course is a great way to learn to understand the earliest signs of discomfort in your dog. It’s best to make the necessary changes right away, before she reaches the point of growling or cowering. Getting the behavior you want, as often as possible, is the key to helping your dog choose that behavior over ones you don’t like.