Of Chesapeake Bay  

The Civilized Dog:

Hello -- Welcome Home

By Lynn Franklin
Copyright 2008 by Lynn Franklin

Originally published in the International Parti Poodle Gazette

            One of the traits I've always loved about standard poodles is their exuberant outlook on life.  They greet each day with a high stepping, tail wagging happiness that never fails to bring a smile to everyone around them.  But when my 40-pound puppy hurled himself into the arms of a 65-year-old friend, knocking them both onto the sofa, I realized there might be some downsides to poodle joy.
            Though my friend assured me she wasn't injured, visions of dog and person toppling down a flight of stairs or onto the asphalt driveway haunted me.
            Fortunately, I'd already enrolled Charlie in an obedience class.  The instructor was not only a widely respected obedience judge; he bred standard poodles. So at the next class, I posed the logical question:  "How do you teach your poodle not to jump on people?"
            The wise-old man smiled.  "You don't."
            Speaking in the slow, gentle tones one might use with a child or the dim-witted, he told me that all poodles were natural jumpers.  In the 20 years he'd been breeding and raising standard poodles, he'd never found a method for stopping their enthusiastic greetings.  But don't worry; other breeds were like that, too.  Golden retrievers.  Jack Russell Terriers.  Many black labs.  Irish Set. . .
            "So what do you do when company comes," I interrupted.
            He blinked.   A minute passed.  When he spoke, he again used deliberate phrasing. 
            "I . . . put . . . them . . . in . . . the . . . bedroom."
            Okay, so maybe I was being dim-witted.  Clearly, I'd asked the wrong person.
            Lock up my friendly, happy dog whenever people visited?  I don't think so.
            Thus began a multi-year search for a method to teach Charlie not to jump on people.
            Suggestions abounded.  The most common:  When a dog jumps up, hold onto his paws until he gets tired of standing on two feet.  Presumably, this would teach the dog that jumping on people wasn't a pleasant experience.
            Perhaps that method worked with large bodied dogs who were uncomfortable on two legs or maybe dogs who didn't particularly like to hold hands with their human companions.  My slender poodle, however, happily stood on two feet for as long as I was willing to play.
            Just yell 'no' someone suggested.
            My booming voice had no impact on Charlie, but it startled my guest, who backed up so suddenly she crashed into the front door.
            Yelling off created the same result, as did yelling down.  Clearly yelling wasn't going to accomplish anything.
            The answer came while walking Charlie on the beach.  A woman and her little girl approached us.  Charlie wagged his tail.  The child stood only a head taller than him -- and that was when he had all four feet on the ground.  In a panic, I commanded "Sit."
            Charlie sat.
            The little girl asked if she could pet my dog.
            I again told Charlie to sit, gripped his collar, then allowed her to approach.  Charlie licked her face.  The child giggled.  Charlie not only continued to sit, he offered his paw.  The child accepted his paw and the two grinned at each other.
            Was it possible that this was the answer?  Could it be as simple as giving Charlie something to do besides leaping at people?
            Nah.  If it was that simple the obedience judge would have known about it.
            To my surprise, asking Charlie to sit before greeting someone seemed to help him resist the impulse to leap at people.  He wasn't perfect.  But he was much less likely to accidentally hurt someone.
            It wasn't until after Charlie died and I was training my new poodle puppy that I learned why the sit had been so effective.
            Turns out that dogs not only pick up on their owner's emotions, they outwardly express them.  So when Charlie -- and now Sam -- sensed I was happy to see someone, he was happy to see that person.  And, like me, my poodles sought a way to express that emotion.
            This is why yelling at him or trying to make the greeting unpleasant did nothing more than hurt my dog's feelings.  As he hung his head, those big brown eyes looked confused, not contrite. The dog actually thought he was behaving properly by showing the visitor a rip-roaring poodle welcome
            The sit and paw shake gave first Charlie, and then Sam, a way to express their happiness without endangering them or the person they greeted.
            Or, to paraphrase Diane Kowalski, one of the top U.S. dog trainers, when a dog does something you don't like, give him an alternative behavior to do.
            But why wait for the dog to do something wrong?  With puppy Sam, I immediately taught him the proper way to greet someone.
            First, of course, I had to train him to sit.  If you already know how to teach this, skip to the next step.  If not, please read on.

Teaching the Sit

            I use a simple method that will work for an adult dog as well as a puppy.  Say "sit" and hold a treat above the dog's head to make him raise his chin.  As his chin raises, his rear will naturally drop to the ground.  Say yes or use a clicker to tell him this is what you want and give him that treat while his butt is still on the ground.  Remember, you are rewarding the sit; if you allow your dog to stand while getting the treat, you'll confuse him.  Poodles are especially smart and you may find that you've been teaching sit/stand.  You want him to hold that sit.
            After only a couple of repetitions you'll find your puppy or dog sitting as soon as you say "sit."  Transfer the treat to your other hand, but pretend it's still in the original hand.  Repeat:  Sit, raise hand to tilt chin back, dog's butt hits the floor, "yes," give treat while dog is sitting. 
            Congratulations.  You've just transferred the behavior from a lure to a hand signal.  Now take a break and play with your dog.
            Throughout the next couple of days, practice the lesson in five-minute segments and in different places in your house.  Dogs are very context oriented.  When they learn something in the living room, they don't understand it's the same thing as doing it in the bedroom.  Or at the front door.  So you need to teach them to generalize.
            If you started teaching the behavior, take your puppy into the bedroom:  Sit, raise hand to tilt chin back, dog's butt hits the floor, "yes," give treat.  Later try it in the kitchen while you're waiting for the water for the pasta to boil.  Later still try it at the front door.
            When your dog is reliably doing this in different places in the house, take him outside on leash and teach it again.  You'll find this is more difficult because now there are wonderful things to see and smell that weren't in the house.  Distractions make it harder for any dog to focus on what you're saying.  To get a reliable sit -- or any behavior -- you need to teach the dog to do the behavior no matter what is happening around him.
            Start with small distractions.  These might be the sights and smells of the front porch.  Then move into the yard, where there are more smells.  Then try the sit while going on a walk. 
            As the level of distractions increase, you may find you have to use food to get your dog's attention and lure the sit.  That's okay.  Do it a couple of times with food, switch to the hand cue and finally to the verbal cue.  Don't increase level of distractions until the dog is sitting reliable at the current level.
            The goal is to teach your dog to sit no matter where you are or what is happening around him.
            Once your dog is reliably sitting nine times out of ten, in nine out of ten training sessions, you're ready to introduce a visitor.

Greeting the first Visitor

            For this first training session, you need to enlist the help of a family member or friend who will follow your instructions.  The instructions for your helper are simple:
            1.  Knock on the door
            2.  Enter the house
            3.  If the dog is sitting, say hello and pet him
            4.  If the dog is standing, your helper should turn her back on the dog and don't turn around until you tell them.  (Dogs want to see people's faces, so turning the back removes all possibilities that your dog will be inadvertently rewarded for jumping.)
            5.  Face the dog again and if he's sitting, pet him.

            Your job is to prevent the dog from jumping in the first place and reward that sit.  To do this:
            1.  Use a leash
            2.  When your helper knocks, tell your dog to sit.  If he doesn't immediately sit (and most dogs won't), use food to lure him into the sit.  Feed for sitting.
            3.  Tell your helper to enter.
            4.  Remind your dog to sit -- and reward him when he responds.  If necessary continue stuffing food into his mouth to keep his butt on the floor.  You can even feed him while your helper is petting him.
            5.  Use the leash to keep your dog from jumping.
            6.  If he stands, cue the sit again.  Use food lure if necessary.

            The idea here is that the dog doesn't get his reward -- the chance to greet the visitor -- unless his butt is on the ground. 
            Once your dog has calmly greeted your helper, remove the leash, and play with him.  This is supposed to be a happy time, and you need to tell your dog that you're proud of him.
            Periodically repeat this lesson using different helpers.  Once your dog is holding his sit when greeting people at the door, it's time to take the lesson on the road.

Greeting during walks

            Basically, you're going to try to duplicate the lesson while out walking your dog.  For the first couple of times, enlist a helper, someone you can trust.
            Walk down the street, dog on leash.  Your helper approaches.  Cue your dog to sit.  If he sits, the helper continues to approach.  If your dog stands or lunges, helper turns her back on the dog (staying out of leash range).
            Your job is to get that sit and maintain it.  Again, use a food lure if necessary.
            The idea is that your helper will only approach your dog if he's sitting.  So your dog doesn't get to say hello and get petted unless he's sitting.
            If the dog leaps up while being petted, have your helper back off while you again cue the sit.  No sit, no petting.

Upping the challenge

            As you train this behavior, think of creative ways to strengthen it.  Remember, the more variety of places and situations you expose your dog to, the more reliable the behavior will become.
            For example, after Sam had all of his puppy shots and it was safe to leave the house, we started our days walking to the school bus stop.  Once there I gave the children dog cookies and instructed them to not feed or pet Sam unless he had all four feet on the ground. 
            Notice that I did not specifically ask for a sit.  Given the level of excitement and the age of the puppy, I decided keeping all four feet on the ground and not jumping was hard enough.  The children loved it, the puppy loved it, and I got a chance to solidify an important life skill for dogs.  As Sam grew older and more in control of his body, I had him sit while the children petted and fed him.

But can my dog learn this?

            Some dogs pick this up faster than others.  Charlie, and then puppy Sam, figured it out the first time someone turned their back on them.  Both poodles were friendly and denying them the opportunity to greet someone made a huge impact on them.
            Other dogs, including other poodles, might take a little longer to figure this out.  And all dogs will periodically need to be reminded not to jump on people.  Dogs are not robots; they make mistakes.  When they do, use the incident as a teaching moment.  Instruct the person they were greeting to turn her back if the dog doesn't sit, remind your dog what he's supposed to do, and try again.  You'll see an "Oh, yeah" expression in your dog's face and he'll be more likely to remember next time.


            The key to all dog training is consistency.  B. F. Skinner, the often-quoted psychologist whose theories underlie modern animal training, talked about the power of intermittent reinforcement.  A behavior is less likely to go away if it's been periodically reinforced.  This is why dog trainers talk about varying the rate of reinforcing your dog.
            For example, when teaching a sit, you would reward every time the dog's butt hit the ground.  That's how you clearly communicate that butt on ground is what you want.
            Once the dog knows the sit, however, you increase the likelihood of the behavior happening by cuing the sit but keeping the dog guessing about when he'll get his cookie, e.g. first sit, third sit, second sit, sixth sit, etc.
            It's very much like the one-arm bandits in gambling casinos.  If the machines spilled out a few pennies with every pull of the arm, customers would get bored and walk away.  If the machine spilled out bunches of dimes every ten pulls, again the customers would become bored.  The attraction -- and some people's obsession -- comes from never knowing when the machine will spill out coins or how many it will spill out.
            Where it gets scary for the dog trainer is a little scenario Skinner observed in his local grocery store.  A mother with a young child is walking down the aisles filling her cart.  Predictably, the child periodically points at an item and mom says "no."  Child cries or pouts.  Mom ignores it.
            All is well until mom and child encounter dad's boss.  Child points at candy, mom says "no," child starts to cry . . . and mom, terrified of making a bad impression on boss, shoves candy at the child.
            Skinner said that the mother has now just reinforced the child's temper tantrum.  It's now more likely that the next time she says "no," the child will throw a tantrum.  And it will take months and months of suffering through tantrums before the behavior starts to disappear.
            This means that every time you allow your dog to jump on someone as a greeting, you are undoing all of that difficult training and increasing the chances that your dog will continue to jump.
            So once you start training the civilized greeting, never, ever allow your dog to revert back to leaping and jumping.

Dealing with untrainable humans

            While most dogs can be taught civilized behavior, the same can't be said for most humans.  At some point you're going to meet a stranger who encourages your dog to leap at them while saying "Oh, that's okay, I love poodles/goldens/whatever."
            No, it's not okay.  Remember B. F. Skinner.
            There are several ways of dealing with the untrainable human:

            1.  If your dog is light weight enough, pick him up and allow him to greet the person from your arms. 
            2.  If your dog is too large for this, turn your back on the person and, if necessary, walk away.  Yes, it appears rude.  But you don't want this uncivilized person undoing all of your hard work.
            3.  Teach your dog that sometimes it's okay to jump on someone -- but only when you tell him it's okay.

            Most people will want to use number 3.  This involves a new lesson for your dog, which you'll find in the "Beyond Barking" segment of To Bark Or Not To Bark.
            In the meantime, when you encounter the uncivilized human, use number 1 or 2 to deal with him.  Remember the importance of being consistent in what you ask of your dog.

A final note

            A friend with miniature poodles once watched me wrestling Charlie into a sit before allowing him to greet a stranger.   She said she admired my attempt to teach an old dog (he was only 5) new tricks.  But it also made her appreciate her small poodles.  Small dogs couldn't knock people over and no one minded their enthusiastic greetings.
            A few weeks later, the friend got a new miniature poodle puppy.  We took all of the poodles to the park.  As we walked, a middle-aged woman approached us.  Without waiting for my cue, Charlie automatically sat.  The puppy, however, charged the woman, leaping at the end of her leash.
            "Keep that nasty little dog away from me," the woman screeched.
            Dog hater?  PMS?  Crazy?  All of the above?
            Whatever the woman's problem, one thing stuck in my mind:  That darling little puppy cringed and trembled, its eyes wide and confused.
            Maybe small dogs are less likely to injure people they jump on.  But people can damage our sensitive poodles' psyches.  By teaching our dogs -- small and big -- the proper way to greet people, we lessen the chances of anyone getting hurt.  Including our dogs.


Proper Ways to Say Hi