Your dog needs to learn to remain calm while allowing a friendly stranger to greet you. Your dog should be able to remain seated at your side while you spend time talking to the stranger or while the stranger pays attention to your dog.
Why is it an important skill?
As a CGC or therapy dog, your dog will be out and about in the community a lot more than average pet dog companions. As such, your dog acts as a canine ambassador, and should set the best example:
• Your dog should show no sign of resentment, aggression or shyness
• Your dog should not rush or jump on strangers in order to initiate contact
• Your dog should be under control throughout the whole experience. You should not need to use excessive corrections or force to keep your dog from behaving badly.
A stranger greets you but ignores your dog
- Do a quick warm-up by cueing “sit” a few times and reinforcing correct responses.
- Take your dog to a local park or pet store. Ask your dog to sit at your left side as a stranger passes by. Can your dog remain sitting when the stranger passes at about?
• 15 feet away?
• 10 feet away?
• 5 feet away?
- Can your dog remain sitting while you initiate contact with a person that is about 5 feet away? “Isn’t this a beautiful day?”
- Can your dog remain seated while the stranger approaches you, talks to you, reaches out to shake your hand? In this part of the exercise, the stranger does not touch your dog.
- Can your dog do step 4 while being approached by all sorts of different people? Males, females, adults, children, different ethnicities, etc.
- Can your dog do step 4 while the stranger varies their level of animation? From calm, quiet, slow-moving people to hyper, excited, loud, or energetic people?
- Can your dog remain seated while you and the stranger engage in a lengthier conversation?
A stranger wants to pet, hug or make a fuss over your dog
a) Do a quick warm-up by cueing “sit” a few times and reinforcing correct responses.
b) Next, ask your dog to sit at your side whilst a familiar person approaches you and your dog, asks to pet your dog, pets him briefly, and then backs away.
c) Gradually extend the duration of petting while your dog sits at your side to a minute or so.
d) Then practice this same behavior with a stranger: a strange person approaches you and your dog (you cued your dog to sit as the person approaches), asks to pet your dog, pets him briefly, and then moves away.
e) Again, extend the duration of the stranger petting your dog to about a minute.
Practice these behaviors at every opportunity. A really active dog may take up to a year to learn to be calm and under control when people approach to pet him, so the more opportunities he has to practice these skills, the easier it will become for him.
In the actual CGC and Therapy Dog tests, you can be guaranteed that the “strangers” your dog will be required to interact are fairly dog-savvy. Your evaluator definitely is, and any other people you will get to meet during the test will have been coached to some extent on how to behave towards your dog.
Real life is a little different. Each person that you meet is an individual. You will not necessarily know their background, their likes, dislikes and fears, or what their disabilities are (remember that there are a lot of invisible disabilities these days too – people with PTSD, anxiety and panic disorders, depression, etc.). Keep cognizant of the fact that you don't know a person’s background, treat everyone with respect, and don't judge people before you know all the facts (and when does that ever happen?). As a therapy dog team, you and your dog both need to project a compassionate approach to your clients at all times. Here are examples of the types of people that you may get to meet:
- Someone who is hard of hearing
- Someone suffering from dementia – they may ask you over and over again what your dog’s name is.
- Someone who can’t move their right arm, and whose left arm has spasms and moves involuntarily.
- Someone who walks unsteadily.
- Someone in a wheelchair, or with a cane, walker or crutches.
- A blind or partially sighted person – they may peer at you.
- Someone with really bad breath
- Someone who says “Get that dog away from me!”
- Someone who insists on telling you a very traumatic story from their childhood – over and over again
- Someone who is afraid of dogs
- Someone who is allergic to dogs
- Someone who starts to cry when they see your dog.
People vary a great deal in the way that they respond to dogs. It is important that our canine good citizens and therapy dogs learn to accept that some people will touch them in ways that may appear rude to the dog. The vast majority of people will lean over your dog and pet him/her on the tops of their heads. As an analogy, picture an elephant wanting to come up and pet you! Can you imagine that huge elephant foot bearing down on top of your head?
You can be proactive by asking strangers who want to pet your dog to “please scratch him under his chin”, or “he really likes his ears being rubbed”, or “please pet him on his rump/shoulders”.
Note that if your dog lies down belly up for the stranger, then he is probably showing extreme submissive behavior, and you would be well advised to terminate the stranger contact, and adopt a much more conservative approach in gradually socializing your dog to these situations in such a way that your dog does not feel threatened by the situation.
Finally, be aware that there will always be people (especially children) that will simply rush over to your dog and start petting him or her without asking your permission first. This is rude behavior (can you imagine a stranger coming up and groping your toddler? You would be right to be incensed!). But, I’m sad to say, that retaliating to these people is not a good idea as it doesn’t educate anybody about the appropriate behavior. In these situations, you might simply just ask the person to “scratch him under his chin”. If a child rushed in to your dog, you might suggest to the accompanying adult that this is not safe behavior and that not all dogs are as friendly as yours. Children should be taught to ask permission, both of their own adults, and of you, before they reach in to touch a strange dog.
As Kay Laurence, a UK trainer, says: “Your contract with your dog is for the next 15 years of his life; your need to be polite to that stranger lasts all of 30 seconds or so. Your primary responsibility is towards your dog, his safety and comfort.