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Dog Tip: Helping Dogs Cope with Visitors to Your Home

You or a fellow dog owner may have encountered problems with a dog greeting visitors in an unacceptable manner, be it jumping on them, repeated barking or displaying aggressive behavior. Few people anticipate such problems -- yet they are common among dog owners, especially those with newly adopted dogs. And holiday activity can make dogs more excitable. In any event, problems can be resolved and avoided with advice that follows.

* Leash your dog before opening the door for visitors. It is up to you to keep control of the situation.

* Reward calm behavior, and progress made by the dog. Use verbal praise immediately to reinforce positive behavior. You can also use treats. In addition, for non-aggressive dogs, you can have the visitor offer a treat to the dog as soon as the dog does a sit-stay or goes into the down position. Keep a container of small treats near your door for this purpose.

* Suzanne Arnold suggests setting up the dog to discourage unacceptable greeting behavior. Arrange a situation in which one or more people to come to your door. You keep the dog on a leash, then command the dog to sit and stay. (Of course, it is important to first teach your dog the basic commands of sit and stay, so that he understands what you want.) Then introduce the dog to the person. Using your hand, touch the person to get their smell and bring your hand back to the dog. Remember, dogs rely very heavily on their sense of smell in all of their encounters -- with people, other animals, plants and even inanimate objects.

* The tether station approach to teaching your dog to sit and be calm around guests: Set up tether stations in approximately 3 places in your home. Instruct your guests to say sit and then treat.

* Approaching new people with your dog. First, observe new people from a distance, instead of letting people approach too quickly. Hold your dog on leash beside you. Dont force introductions.

* Meeting a new dog ... or introducing a dog and guest ... using good body language: When introducing yourself to a new dog, take a sideways stance instead of looking at the dog head-on. Canines perceive the sideways stance as less threatening in general. Avoid direct eye contact until the dog displays signals that he is comfortable. Look at the floor nearby, or in another direction. Pretend to be uninterested in the dog. The sum total of this body language serves as a 'calming signal' to the dog. (Excellent insight can be found in the book 'Calming Signals' by Turid Rugaas.)

The dog will realize through this body language that you are not planning to threaten, lunge at, grab at or chase him. A nervous person makes dogs feel nervous. A calm person is likely to make the dog feel secure.

Other calming signals include: approaching the dog by walking in an arc, which is typically the way friendly dogs greet each other; sitting or squatting (again, sideways is best); licking or smacking your lips; yawning; and pretending to sniff or examine something innocuous. By showing the dog that you are directing your attention elsewhere, you help set him at ease and signal that you mean no harm. Thus, the dog has no reason to feel defensive.

* For detailed guidance to help you train your dog to greet people in an acceptable manner, read the Greeting Visitors tip sheet at www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/DogTip_Greeting.html. Another important tip sheet for any dog person is at www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/DogTip_UnsociableDogs.html. I recommend reading this even if your dog is sociable, because even a normally sociable dog can have a negative reaction to some strangers.

* Never try to introduce your dog to a visitor if the dog seems agitated. It is never good to force a dog into a behavior. If the dog's hesitation is based on fear, forcing the dog forward will not address the problem. Instead, you want to demonstrate to your dog why he should trust you as his leader while gradually introducing him to someone or something new...doing it gradually enough not to trigger a fear response. Dogs may respond to fear by attempting to flee, or even through aggressive display (such as growling, lunging or nipping) in an attempt to repel the stranger.

* If the dog is fearful, keep the dog on a leash and at a safe distance from the visit. Act calm and natural. Otherwise, you may telegraph your anxiety to the dog, which will cause the dog to believe there really is something to fear.

* If you have more than one dog, avoid having them greet visitors at the door. Even if the dogs show acceptable greeting behavior individually, when they convene at the door, they may excite one another while competing for the visitor's attention. The excitement might even lead to a fight between the dogs. Suzanne suggests not opening the door until things are under control. She notes that trainers often recommend not to open a door until all dogs are in a down-stay.

* Remember, by investing some time in teaching good behaviors, you will shape good behaviors from the start and avoid unacceptable behavior. As Suzanne notes, it simply takes time, repetition and consistent behavior on the part of the dog owner.

* For persistent problems or more direct guidance, consult a behaviorist/trainer.

Physical separation is another approach, and in many situations, the safest.

* Build a physical barrier just inside your front door, which can take the form of a tall baby gate to an actual secondary door in an entry hallway. While this approach does not directly modify the dog's behavior, it safeguards the visitor as well as prevents a scared, nervous or rambunctious dog from possibly escaping through the front door. In addition, it gives the dog a chance to observe from the other side of the barrier that the incoming stranger is causing no harm and gives him a chance to calm down.

* Place the dog in a crate or a separate room. This practice alone does not change desirable greeting behavior. However, it guarantees safety and is particularly useful for dogs who are not used to a lot of visitors, or who dislike strangers, or who have guard instincts, and for situations involving young and/or rambunctious guests or service people.

The removal approach does have some teaching value for social dogs -- when a dog is removed from social activity immediately upon displaying excitable or challenging behavior, the dog may learn that if he engages in certain behaviors, he will lose social privileges. In other words, "if I jump around, bark or rush the door, I get removed from the fun and the opportunity to meet visitors."

---- More step-by-step advice:

Greeting Guests with Success www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/DogTip_Greeting.html

What do you do when your dog doesn't care for some of your visitors? Some dogs will take a severe disliking to certain visitors -- perhaps men in uniforms or overcoats, people in big hats, or guests wearing perfume. Perhaps due to a lack of early socialization, the dog is fearful of the unfamiliar. And sometimes it's just hard to tell why a dog barks or lunges at a particular visitor.

But in every case, it is up to you to reassure your dog -- as well as ensure he or she doesn't frighten or injure your visitors.

First, if you have a guest who tends to make abrupt movements, talk loudly, or otherwise excite your dog, speak with the person in advance. Explain that you are working with your dog on politely greeting visitors, and that the guest's cooperation is essential.

You might arrange the following set-up before the next visit. Play with the dog before your guest arrives so that he is not carrying around so much energy and is not starved for attention. Then place a canister of small treats near the door but, of course, out of reach of pets.

When your guest arrives, snap on the dog's leash and place him by your side, holding the leash. Have him in a "sit" before you open the door. Verbally praise and treat him for sitting calmly. Your goal is to keep the dog in a calm mood. Be relaxed yourself, or you'll telegraph anxiety to your dog.

When your guest enters, have her take some treats from the canister, while you keep the dog in a sit, praising him for being good or giving a sharp leash correction to re-direct his attention to you if he is getting ready to bark or pounce on your guest.

Next, have your guest calmly greet the dog in a quiet but friendly voice. Your guest should pet and praise the dog only if he is reasonably calm. She can then dispense a treat, simultaneously saying "Good boy," to reward the good behavior. This shows the dog that the guest's presence is not threatening his world -- and thanks to the treats, starts building a new positive association. The dog begins to realizes that when a guest comes in, good things such as treats and gentle petting happen.

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Dogs and Strangers (Unsociable Dogs)

Some dogs don't like strangers, which can be a problem particularly during the holidays when many people have guests and added stress.

The following tips are adapted from "When Your Dog Threatens Visitors" from the November 2000 issue of DogWatch newsletter.

When confronting visitors, dogs who dislike strangers may bark, snap, lunge and try to bite. Sometimes, this behavior is rooted in the owner's reward history with the dog; many owners praise dogs for protecting the household. Some dogs are very protective due to genetics as a breed trait. Sometimes the behavior is rooted in the dog's early experiences. A socialized dog, one who has been exposed to a range of people and situations during key developmental periods during puppyhood, is usually easier to manage and more welcoming of guests. In any event, a dog threatening visitors can have unpleasant consequences.

It helps to realize that most dogs instinctively protect their owners, handler and territory. The dog regards his owners as his pack. The visitors are not part of the pack and can trigger excessive reactions.

What can you do about this?

* Reinforce your role as leader.

* Provide rewards when your dog listens to you.

* Provide rewards to condition a more acceptable response to visitors.

* Be aware of the signals you send. If your dog senses anxiety when you greet a visitor, he might interpret your stance or reaction as fearful. If he thinks aggression might work to ward off the threat, he'll display aggressive behavior. So make sure you greet visitors in a calm, relaxed and confident manner.

Specific ways to help your dog deal with visitors:

Technique 1: Extend your hand to the guest for a handshake, which the dog will interpret as a sign that the person is OK. Beware: hugging a guest may send an anxious dog a confusing signal.

Technique 2: Teach your dog "sit," "stay" and "go to your place" (establishing a "place" for him somewhere in the home, perhaps on a mat or dog bed). After he fully learns those commands, you can use them when guests visit.

Technique 3: Your dog will study each guest to determine whether the guest is a threat, and will keep watch for signs of threat. Usually this diminishes within a few minutes of the guest's arrival, but not always. So advise guests:

* Do not look directly at the dog, approach, speak to, raise your voice, or touch the dog. Do not move quickly. Take a seat as soon as possible and wait for the dog to approach you.

* Avoid suddenly stepping back, raising an arm, or showing fear; such moves can trigger aggression.

Technique 4: Upon a visitor's arrival, supply the visitor with a handful of dog treats or kibble. The visitor can casually slide them over one a time to the dog.

Using distraction: If the dog still shows some aggression or fear with guests, use distraction to help break the aggression cycle. Set up situations with the help of a friend or neighbor. Establish a signal that tells the dog a visitor is approaching, such as a knock or a ring of the doorbell. Play with your dog before the guest arrives and rings the doorbell. Your dog will learn to associate the doorbell ringing with fun, not threats. Play when the doorbell rings, or, for non-playing dogs, give a food treat. When your dog returns with the ball, praise "Good dog."

Counter-conditioning: Place a properly fitted head collar such as a Gentle Leader or Halti on your dog. When the guest arrives, calmly but firmly command your dog to sit and be quiet, or send him to his special place in the home. If the dog doesn't abide, gently guide (not yank) the dog into the position or special place. Do not raise your voice. Keep the event positive by immediately rewarding the dog by praise, petting and a food treat for following a command. Have a friend help by coming to your door twice a day for two weeks for these practice sessions. If the dog breaks command, guide him back to the position/place to assert your leadership position.

These techniques will not transform the dog into a burglar-loving pushover, but will help improve your ability to get your dog to look to you before he reacts.

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For more Tips about coping and other pet care information, visit our website at: www.paw-rescue.org

Partnership for Animal Welfare, Inc., P.O. Box 1074, Greenbelt, MD 20768

Last Updated: June 23, 2013 (LET) PawSupport