People Friendly Dogs

People Skills

As a society, we tend to have pretty high and pretty unrealistic expectations of our dogs.  One of those expectations is that dogs will be friendly, polite and well mannered with very little training.  

As a society, we tend to have pretty high and pretty unrealistic expectations of our dogs.  One of those expectations is that dogs will be friendly, polite and well mannered with very little training.  Most of the people who contact me for behaviour advice have rarely taken any training beyond a puppy class.  That means any formal training stopped pretty early!  A lot of these same people often share a common problem: “How do I get my dog to stop jumping on people?”

While I do believe that most dogs are born with the predisposition to be friendly, it’s really our job as dog owners to work hard to make sure that initial friendliness continues.  If you have a dog who isn’t particularly friendly or is perhaps a little fearful – maybe even a combination of both – then your job might be a little more challenging (see my Note at the bottom of this article).

Most people seem to understand that socializing puppies is important and something they should be doing.   However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what proper socializing is. 

Basically, throughout their lifetimes, we should be communicating and reinforcing 2 messages to our dogs: (1) the world is generally a safe place; and, (2) we will help you stay safe.  In order to get these messages across, you need to give your dog a lot of opportunities to have positive experiences with lots of different people, places and things. You need to spend a lot of time “practicing” safe in a manner that turns every possible experience into a fun and positive one for your dog.  The first socializing goal should be to help your puppy become a dog who is friendly, curious and can tolerate novelty with confidence.

The first step is to understand that “Friendly” and “Well-Mannered” are 2 different things, and they should be trained as 2 separate skills.

Friendly should be the initial training focus and Well-Mannered should be the ultimate training goal.

Friendly Training – Outdoors.  We need to provide opportunities for our young puppy to have positive experiences observing lots of different people doing lots of different things.  The key word there is “observing”.

Contrary to popular thought, letting strangers touch your puppy is not beneficial to your training and socializing goals.  Interactions that you don’t control will very likely hinder not only your Friendly training, but also your Manners training.  If you have a super friendly, loves-all-people type of puppy, then uninvited or unplanned interactions can easily reinforce over-excited, jumpy, mouthy, space-invading behaviour.  Or, if your puppy is shy, you can very quickly increase his concern about people if he is not given choices and support about his participation in these interactions.

This is challenging because you need to control people’s access to your puppy. Everyone loves a puppy so this is not an easy!

In order to teach your puppy to be friendly and to enjoy the presence of people you should:

  1. Take your dog out on a regular leash and body harness to many different, dog friendly places for the sole purpose of observing people.
  2. Ensure that you have plenty of super yummy treats that your puppy loves.
  3. Click with your Clicker or Verbally Mark (“Yes!”) and feed him a treat every time he spots a person.
  4. Watch your dog and be aware what his body language looks like when he’s happy and curious. Our goal is to keep him in this state the entire time we are training.
  5. If you notice your dog looking a little bit worried about someone, move further away and see if your dog looks a little more comfortable.
  6. A good goal would be to take your puppy out at least twice every day for short periods of time for your Friendly training.

(Information on Clicker Training: What is Clicker Training, Karen Pryor)

Every time you are out with your puppy, focus on Friendly training over anything else for awhile.  Be prepared for this – have treats on you at all times and focus on this whenever you encounter people.  Make a point of seeking out people in lots of different places instead of sticking to quick trips around your neighborhood. 

Be thoughtful about the locations you choose for training. While it may seem that taking puppy to a busy, outdoor public event might accomplish a lot of Friendly training in a very short time, resist this temptation.  It’s a rare puppy that will feel truly comfortable with teems of people all around, and it will be very difficult to keep people from coming over and touching your puppy.  Big public groups could be a long-term training goal but it may not be realistic for every dog. 

If you have children, attending their outdoor sporting events can be a good place to get in some solid socializing but set these situations up carefully.  These are large groups of people, which I just mentioned should be avoided.  However these people are mostly sitting or standing watching a game, so there’s likely little chance of a rush toward you and your puppy if you set yourself up well. Have puppy at a good distance away, watching and getting treats for short periods – no more than 10 minutes at a time.  Make sure you give your puppy lots of breaks – take some quiet short walks away from the action and some rest in his crate in the car.

If you think you’re going to run out of treats, stop training and take your puppy home. You can undo a lot of your training if you encounter a scary situation and have run out of treats to use as a tool to help turn a scary moment into a better one.  Equally important is to avoid working too long at one time.  Make your training sessions short and take puppy home before he becomes tired and fussy.

Don’t waste the early time with your puppy by focusing on physical exercise.  Puppies should get surprisingly little physical exercise until their bodies are more fully grown (an excellent link for appropriate exercise requirements for puppies: Exercise should never be the focus at this point in their lives.  Don’t worry – Friendly training is tiring so you will still end up with a tired puppy!

Friendly Training – Indoors.  Having people over to meet and visit with your new puppy is a great way to pack in some Friendly training in a controlled environment.  It does become a little bit of both Friendly and Manners training just because of the situation.  Friends and family are people we do want our puppies having interactions with, but we need to set up some training boundaries so good Manners training isn’t jeoparadized.  \

Management comes into play here.  You need to plan your puppy’s visitors well so you can set things up for a successful outcome:

  1. Puppy should be on his harness and either in a crate, tucked behind a baby gate or on leash with a helper away from the entry point for visitors.
  2. Proactively, plan for a hungry puppy and give him a stuffed kong or beef chew to busy him in his confinement area just before anyone arrives.
  3. If you have a helper, ask them to begin offering your puppy treats as soon as there is any evidence of your puppy realizing that someone is here, which might be before the bell even rings to announce your guest.
  4. Invite your visitors in and get them settled before you bring puppy out to meet your visitors. Initially, keep puppy at a good distance just watching and eating some yummy treats: practice “look at the guest”, mark and treat.
  5. Gradually as puppy calms a bit switch to marking and treating calm behaviour: not barking, choosing to sit on his own, not pulling toward anyone, lying down, looking at me, etc.  Try to avoid asking your puppy for any specific behaviour and instead wait for him to pick things all by himself.
  6. If your puppy is still too excited to eat the treats or do anything other than bark or pull toward your guests, move further away and begin again.Be patient, it will all start to work!
  7. Once puppy is calmer, you can quietly let the leash drag and leave him free to go over and interact.
  8. The achievement here is that you have received some calm behaviour, which is then rewarded with freedom to interact if he chooses to do so.
  9. If your puppy immediately starts jumping on, mouthing or barking at your guests, just calmly and neutrally take hold of the leash, encourage him back to you and go back to your initial training until he’s calm again.There’s no need for any discipline or corrections, he just needs more time practicing calm before being free once again.

Make sure that your friends and family keep interactions within your guidelines and comfort zone. Your dog – your rules! No one should be disciplining or correcting your dog, no one should be wrestling your dog or getting them completely adrenalized, no would should be constantly touching and holding on to your dog, and no one should be feeding your dog treats except you and the family members who live with you.

Manners Training.  Training for Manners is really pretty easy.  It’s the management that people seem to have the most trouble with – or perhaps the concept that management is required.  This is where those high expectations again rear their ugly head. 

Stopping your dog from jumping all over people, involves YOU managing your leash and keeping your distance.  Furthermore, jumping all over a person is NOT an indication of friendliness.  I’ve met many dogs who jump up in an effort to get people away from them, out of frustration, or even anxiety. 

Without training, a dog that wants to jump is going to jump.  Once that jump has taken place, the damage is done.  No amount of correction or cueing “Down!” will help any learning take place in that moment.  Worse, corrections or other forms of punishment can very quickly turn a friendly dog into a suspicious one.  Punishment becomes associated with the people who, to your dog, cause it to take place – strangers they meet. 

I’ve never met a dog who gets a correction and immediately changes his behaviour and never jumps on anyone ever again.  In fact, you are creating an unintended behaviour chain, which is very likely to reinforce jumping.  The chain goes like this:  jump on stranger, get corrected (or cued to get down), jump down, get praise or treats (or relief).  In other words, in order to get the praise or treats, or maybe even relief from the stranger’s presence, jumping needs to take place first.

The nice thing about Manners training is that it continues to bolster Friendly training. Your dog will still be getting yummy treats in the presence of people, so you continue to build that all important association that people are good and safe – win, win!

The equipment you use will help you achieve your goal too.  Taking into consideration the association that dogs can make – intended or unintended – it makes sense to make sure our dogs are as comfortable as possible in the equipment they wear on their walks.  A well-fitted body harness and a regular leash (no flexi leads please!) is much more comfortable than any pressure on the neck from a collar and tension on the leash.

Manners Training – Outdoors, On Leash.  Manners’ training is pretty much just reinforcing your dog very generously for behaving politely in the presence of strangers.

The first important step is to determine what your criteria is for “polite” behaviour. 

If you have a very friendly dog who is always eager to meet people, then a Sit might be an appropriate choice.  A solid Sit will allow you to control your dog’s forward movement and essentially keep them in a position that’s the opposite of jumping.  However, you need to teach it well, reinforce it extremely generously and very gradually increase the challenge to be able to do it in the close presence of the oh-so-exciting new human.

I personally like to ask my dog to remain on his feet at a “non-crotch threatening distance” in the presence of people – also the opposite of jumping.  I don’t mind the idea of a Sit, but Sit isn’t a behaviour my dog enjoys doing.  It may actually be physically uncomfortable as he unfortunately came to us with a chopped off tail the tip of which touches the ground when he sits as opposed to naturally bending like his natural tail would.  Take into consideration your particular dog when you think about criteria. If your dog is a bit timid, it might be nicer to simply require feet on the ground because a Sit may feel like a “trap” if your dog would prefer to get a bit more distance from someone standing close by.

With a clear idea in your head of what behaviour you are looking for:

  1. Each time you approach a person on your walk, begin verbally marking your dog for keeping his paws on the ground as you continue to move forward.
  2. Stop moving forward well before the person is near the end of your leash length.
  3. If you plan to chat or they seem intent on visiting your dog, engage the person verbally at this point and explain that you’re training your dog to be polite and if they can keep their distance, you would be very appreciative.
  4. If they are merely passing by, move a bit off the path so you are keeping a good distance between them and the end of your leash.
  5. Continue to mark and treat your dog for keeping his feet on the ground.This is not a cued behaviour, you are simply starting early enough that his feet are on the ground and reinforcing fast enough that his feet stay on the ground – the temptation for jumping is well out of leash range.
  6. If you wish, you may ask for a Sit at some point during this sequence.Then you need to switch to marking and treating your dog for remaining in a Sit.  Again, reinforce rapidly and generously the entire time he is in that Sit. 

Another high expectation we seem to have is that dogs will learn to Sit and remain in a Sit all at the same time – these are 2 separate skills and learning to stay in that position takes time and training. 

  1. Keep your visits short, release your dog from his Sit if you’ve asked for one and and walk slightly away from the stranger as you head off – preventing the “after jump”.
  2. Practice a lot, choosing your distance from people wisely. Only begin to decrease the distance from people once you see your dog start to automatically perform either his Sit or stopping and glancing at you with his feet on the ground – anticipating that reinforcement.
  3. Continue to always reinforce generously and rapidly.

If you make a mistake and your dog gets a jump in, just calmly and neutrally call your dog back or move out of jumping distance.  Take a step back in your training and practice more at a less difficult distance before going trying the next step.

If you encounter a person who insists that they don’t mind your dog jumping or who insists on getting into your dog’s space and trying to touch him, just move away and avoid the interaction.  If I’ve clearly explained that I’m training my dog and asked for them to keep their distance, I don’t feel any requirement to stand there and be polite while they ruin my training efforts.  I don’t mind if someone doesn’t want to participate and simply leaves, but I sure don’t want anyone touching my dog without my permission.

Manners Training – Outdoors, Off Leash.  Once you have done a lot of practice with leash Manners training, you can start to help your dog generalize his polite behaviour to people he encounters when he’s off leash.

Another high expectation we often have:  even though a dog may be very good at something in one context, he does not automatically transfer that knowledge to all contexts.

In order for off leash training to be possible, you need to have some good off leash skills in place so you can replace the management of your leash with that of a well-trained beahaviour like a Recall.  You need to be able to call your dog to come to you the moment you spot anyone approaching.  Once you have your dog with you and are close enough to the person approaching, you can practice the same way you have been on leash.

If your dog is still super excited at the prospect of people to visit, you can consider teaching an additional cue like Heel or Close for an added management tool. This behaviour will keep your dog close to your side and allows you to keep moving (while you continue to mark and treat for remaining Close or in Heel) while someone passes by.

Manners Training – Indoors.  Like outdoor training, indoor Manners training also requires you to choose your own criteria for polite behaviour and teach your dog skills that will help him be successful.

If you don’t mind your dog milling about (not jumping), greeting people that you let into your house, then consider keeping a leash on him, initially, when you have visitors.  Mark and treat him rapidly and generously for keeping his feet on the floor in gradually closer distances to the people coming into your home.  A solid Recall is always a handy skill just in case your dog gets away from you or someone pops in unexpectedly and you aren’t close to your dog.

If you would prefer that your dog go to his bed and stay there while you let visitors in, this will take more training time and effort.  Make sure that when you teach this, you begin by teaching him to go to his bed separate and apart from the context of visitors coming in.    Once you’re ready to work with visitors, consider using either a helper to keep him leashed on his bed or a tether that will keep him on his bed.   Rapidly and generously reinforce him for staying on his bed. Initially the goal is that he can remain on his bed without putting pressure on his leash/tether.  Gradually work toward the leash/tether being unattached, and you or your helper being able to move further away from his bed.

A Release cue is important in “go to bed” training – whenever you are ready for your dog to leave his bed and greet your guests, make sure you let him know he is now free to move about the room by using a Release cue.

During that eventual greeting with guests, continue to reinforce polite behaviour and be ready with your Recall if necessary.  You might consider keeping your dog’s leash on for the first few visits until his skills are solidly in place.

In Summary.  You can certainly combine Friendly training and Manners training if you have the time to do so properly.  However, few people have that kind of time each and every day!  It’s always good to prioritize and have some simple, achievable goals in order to make the best use of the time you do have.

Even though I’m occasionally referring to puppies throughout this article, you can do all of these exercises with dogs of any age.

The photos in this article feature Tacoma who is a mutual client of mine and Pamela Murray’s. From Tacoma’s Mom, Charlene: “I think the most important lesson I got from our training during Tacoma’s puppy days, and later as she grew up, was that it wasn’t just for our dog but even more for us as people living with a dog — learning how to read her body language and the feedback she gave us and what we needed to do to ensure every situation was positive and rewarding.” 

Thanks to Charlene for all the beautiful photos of Tacoma – whose lovely, friendly personality is so reinforcing for us as trainers!

How are your dog’s people skills?  The approaching holidays are a good reason to start working early to perfect your skills, and then you can get some good practice in when festivities start.  Keep your dog safe and keep it positive!

Note: If you have a dog who you believe isn’t friendly at all with people or appears to be fearful of people (perhaps labeled as shy, aloof, stand-off-ish, reserved, reactive or even outright aggressive or defensive), please seek out the help of an experienced and qualified trainer like myself who uses positive reinforcement methods only.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.