13 Jun 2015
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The over-friendly dog
It takes all kinds to make up this world, and the canine world is not short of great variety. There are dogs who always have their face away from you and their body in a stance that all but screams “leave me alone”. There are dogs who manage the canine equivalent of a nod and a handshake, happy to wag their tail at you and allow you a pat or two, but quick to get on with life without you, shortly after. And then there’s Abigail. Abigail or Abby is a 1.5-year-old Indy who came to the shelter as a puppy and has grown up amongst several dogs and humans. If Abby were a human, she’d be the clown at a children’s party. Or Santa in a mall after one too many glasses of eggnog.
Abby greets new humans as well as dogs with great pomp and show, each new human visitor, a celebration of life; each new abandoned dog to enter the gates, a reason to pop the champagne. Sometimes, it’s great to watch. Sometimes. For all practical purposes, excessive and overtly friendly behaviour – often characterised by jumping, pawing, mouthing, and excited yelps – are not a good thing. For one, if you’re on the other side of the leash, depending on the size of the dog, this can go from mildly embarrassing to highly dangerous.
A small dog leaping around for attention can be handled with a blush and an apologetic nod, but a large dog lunging for attention is a recipe for disaster or, at the very least an accident, on our busy streets. The safety issues far outweigh the embarrassment. Trying to restrain a large lunging dog can cause serious damage to your arm and, if this is repeated behaviour, equal damage to the dog’s spine and/or trachea. In the long run, it’s a great idea to train effervescent greetings out of your dog as soon as and as gently as possible.
So why do dogs over-greet?
There could be a variety of reasons, and finding the right one in your dog’s context is often the key to eliminating the habit. Does your Abby get too little attention or human interaction at home? Does she behave this way outside, because you immediately call out to her and she has all your attention, which is what she wants? Or, is she actually trying to tell you she’s clamouring to get as far away as possible from the other dog or human? If it’s Case #1, it’s entirely yours to solve. Spend more time with your dog. Play a game of fetch, have a quick chat, tell her a secret. If it’s Case #2, every time she’s over-excited on a walk and you’re lunging after her shrieking her name, you’re providing Abby with the positive reinforcement she needs to continue her wild-and-whacky behaviour. If it’s Case #3, you’ve got to listen more carefully and work things out with your Abby, before she goes from nervous-hence-overenthusiastic to unhappy-and-snappy.
How do you go from Grabby Abby to Princess Abigail?
First off, get equipment that works for you and your dog. Put Abby on a harness, if it facilitates better, safer control over her, rather than tugging on a collar, causing her to cough and choke as she continues to display behaviour that’s getting her a reaction.
Now, address the brain. If you’re well in control, the next time Abby lunges don’t react at all, besides hanging on to the leash firmly. The minute she stops lunging, even if it’s to catch her breath, congratulate her with a cheerful “good girl!” and give her a treat. Continue the “accidental” positive reinforcement over the next few walks, till she begins to connect the treat with good behaviour.
In a controlled environment, practise name recall with her, till you’re quite confident that she’ll look at you every time you say her name. Again, positive reinforcement. Give her a treat only when she responds to her name. Don’t drag out these training sessions, though. Do them in batches of 10-15 minutes and practise it with her again, at random, when you’re lounging around the house. Name recall is the single most important command you can teach your dog, one that could get her to listen to all other commands. Walks will get more and more controlled, because Abby has begun to respond to her name, no matter what the situation. Enough distraction to get her away from the object of her attention.
Find a safe word or a verbal cue that you both are comfortable with. When you speak the word or phrase, your Abby should be trained to stick her nose to the ground and look for treats. With dogs who respond to food, this is a great way to get them to stop being overenthusiastic on walks. I have a particularly articulate Labrador Retriever who drops everything and runs to me when I say, “Who does these things?” But I’d recommend a shorter, simpler command, something as quick as “What’s this”, “Find it”, or “Get it”. Besides serving as an immediate distraction, sniffing is a natural calming signal for dogs. If there’s another dog Abby’s trying to be gregarious with, your command and her reaction are basically informing the dog that Abby is calm and there is no “situation” to be wary of.
Finally, instruct people you meet. Often a happy gambolling dog on the street encourages strangers to engage in play, further reinforcing her overt behaviour. While this is fun in the moment, your Abby is never going to learn to calm down. It’s perfectly okay to instruct strangers who are engaging with your dog, to be less friendly with her. Instruct them to greet her with a low voice, back away and leave if she pounces, and say “no” quite firmly, if she continues her behaviour.