Should you teach your group class clients how to handle dog-dog greetings? I do, and I try to include at least one or two on-leash greeting sessions in each of my basic classes. I follow a specific protocol to minimize the risk of a fight breaking out, or a dog being traumatized by the greeting experience.
Dog-dog greetings during class are never a requirement — both clients and dogs may opt out if they’re uncomfortable.
Many instructors choose never to allow their clients’ dogs to greet in class. This is fine. My policy for clients coming into class is that they are never to allow the dogs to greet without prior permission from the instructor. When I do let the dogs greet, it is only after careful observation, and for no more than five seconds a time.
Why do in-class greetings?
I choose to teach dog-dog greetings in class, because many clients are inundated with unwanted greetings on their daily walks, and have no idea how to handle them. This can lead to fights, or increasing reactivity for clients’ dogs, as the clients will often shout at their dogs and pull on the leash anytime another dog approaches. Practicing in class helps clients feel empowered at home.
Naturally, take regular safety precautions in all classes (know how to safely break up a dog fight, and have safety equipment on hand), whether or not you plan to add dog-dog greetings.
Whether you choose to go “the whole hog” and teach in-class greetings, or instead explain to clients how to avoid unwanted greetings and handle them when they do happen, is up to you. But I think it is important for the instructor to cover information about dog-dog greetings in basic classes.
Should I add dog-dog greetings to my group class curriculum?
The instructor’s experience is key. If you feel uncomfortable with or uncertain about asking your class to practice dog-dog interactions, even if you’ve done it successfully in a past class, do not do it. Instead, talk to clients about how to handle dog-dog interactions, should they have an unexpected dog-dog greeting on the street. You can also explain how to practice this exercise with their dogs’ already-established doggy friends.
Whether you offer an in-class greeting option is always determined by one factor: Were the dogs screened for any fight or bite history prior to class? If a dog shows up on my class roster with a history of fights or bites, that dog is not allowed in group class, and is directed to private sessions.
Should I conduct dog-dog greetings at the first class?
Dog-dog greeting is an “advanced” exercise offered in the last weeks of class, when clients have more control over their dogs, and the dogs are used to attending to their owners. By then, the dogs have also seen and smelled each other numerous times, and the instructor has had the opportunity to identify any dogs whose behavior is “iffy.” By the final week or so of class, the dogs have had plenty of encounters with each other in a cramped space, on tight leashes, etc. Also, handlers are better at reacting when their dogs are feeling aroused or frustrated.
We do the greetings as “round-robin” sessions in pairs. There are never more than two dogs greeting at any one time. I choose the dog pairs based on what I’ve observed over the last 4-6 weeks of class, and the dogs’ behavior the day of class.
Choosing which dogs get to greet
When pairing dogs for this exercise, watch the dogs you’re considering pairing for a minute or so beforehand. What is the communication like between the two dogs you’re considering? I would not pair a dog who is targeting (staring, lunging or barking at another dog) and the dog who is being targeted. Separate these pairs in class via distance, physical and/or visual barriers.
I would not pair a dog who is aroused with a dog that is timid or shy. I also would not pair an aroused dog with a dog displaying signs of nervous behavior (panting or closed mouth, head turned, pupils dilated). Aroused dogs do best with a calm, relaxed and confident partner. Timid, shy and nervous dogs are best paired with happy, relaxed dogs who are more attentive to their handlers than to the other dog.
In general, young dogs tend to pair well together. Whenever possible, I try to match the dogs in size. Be especially mindful when pairing a larger dog with a smaller one. If there are no other toy dogs or small dogs in class, I may skip the exercise or have the toy dog work on something different.
Here are some indicators that it is not safe for a particular dog to greet:
- Dog is responding to the presence of other dogs (lunging, jumping, staring), rather than attending to handler;
- Dog is increasingly aroused;
- Dog is whining, crying or barking;
- Dog is standing front-facing other dog, with head, spine and tail in a line (body alignment straight);
- Any dog you feel uncertain or unsure about.
Whether you choose to add greeting to your class curriculum depends on the individual class — both clients and dogs. Can this group of clients follow instructions? Is this group of dogs demonstrating relaxed body language?
Obviously this exercise is not for reactive dogs, but any reactive dogs who have been making progress might do a modified version of the exercise by coming closer to, or walking by, another dog.
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How greetings work
I introduce the topic by explaining that I rarely allow my dogs to greet other dogs on-leash, because of the potential for fights and bites. Clients are often surprised to learn that working dogs and dogs competing at dog shows never greet on leash — it’s considered a no-no. In class, I offer clients strategies and dialogue for dealing with well-meaning people who want their dogs to greet on the street. The simplest of these is, “I’m sorry, I’m training him right now, and he’s not allowed to greet other dogs.”
I explain each step of the process to the class before we try a greeting, and ask if anyone has any questions. I ask each dog and handler pair if they want to greet, and if they are ready, before I say “Go.”
Dogs greet for 3-5 seconds at a time. I usually count to three to time the first greeting. After 3-5 seconds, it’s more likely that the dogs will snark at each other, begin to play, or fight. Limiting greeting to 3-5 seconds is also important to prevent leash tangling. Most clients are unprepared to handle the dogs circling or crawling. You must be prepared to step in and take the leash when necessary.
Position dogs and handler pairs at a T, or on a curve, to minimize frontal greetings. Dogs and handler pairs are, no more than 4-6 feet apart. Keep the distance short, so the dogs aren’t pulling the handlers to get to their partners.
Use start and end cues for the dogs
I instruct clients to tell their dogs, “Go play,” or “Go sniff,” then to recall their dogs and offer them a treat. Ask clients to get their dogs focused on them before telling them “Go play” — luring the dog with a treat is fine. Later, drop the treats in favor of a head turn towards the client, before dogs are released. This use of the Premack principle — attend to client followed by the opportunity to sniff/interact with another dog — is used to increase the value for the dog of attention on the client.
Narrate the greeting
The instructor counts out loud and the clients are instructed to physically move their dogs:
Instructor: “Ready? OK, go!”
Client to dog: “Go play!”, takes two or three steps forward.
[Dogs greet] Instructor: “One, two, three… OK, call your dog, walk away and feed a treat.”
Clients will call their dogs, turn and walk two feet away, and offer a treat. If a dog follows but doesn’t take the food, instruct clients to keep moving away, until the dog chooses to eat.
Things to keep in mind
I find that if one client and dog pair isn’t skilled at walking away, the other usually is, and I will help the person whose dog is “stuck.” If both clients are stuck, I physically intervene by putting my hand on the dog’s leash. I then ask the client to turn and walk away. Usually this action jump-starts the client’s feet. “Good!” I say to the client. “Now feed her a treat.”
The first time dogs greet in class, I do not have them perform more than one greeting in a row. After the recall and treat, clients and dogs return to their stations and work on something else. Then we try greeting again at the end of the class.
Reasons I wouldn’t repeat the greeting exercise:
- There are growls, lunging, barks or scuffles during greeting or as dogs are separating;
- One or both dogs freeze (stiffen), stare, or otherwise get tense;
- Dogs do not easily disengage when asked;
- A dog becomes aroused during greeting and cannot calm down afterwards.
If I repeat the greeting exercise the following class, I’ll allow the dogs to greet a bit longer (4-5 seconds), and do two greetings in a row, as handlers feel more practiced the second time.
Do I have to tell clients to feed treats after the dogs separate?
Feeding a treat (or two, or three, or six!) at the end of the greeting is critical. This is the point where the dog receives reinforcement from the client for moving away from another dog. Greeting the other dog is undoubtedly the most interesting thing the dog did that day!
Not feeding the dog at the end of the exercise can cause dogs to strain back to reach the other dog. This increases arousal and can increase the dog’s desire to “get to” the other dog. It also damages the client’s recall. I don’t encourage the use of favorite games or toys as reinforcement for this exercise. The goal is to lower arousal and create a relaxation response. Even the most food-grubbing dogs will still have to go through the motions of eating, which promotes a relaxed physiological state around other dogs. A dog who takes treats harder after a greeting is communicating nervousness and uncertainty. Any additional greetings for these dogs should be carefully orchestrated. A dog who will not take treats at all is too aroused or nervous to greet again that class period.
Be sure the dogs are at least 2-3 feet apart before clients offer the treats, to avoid resource guarding.
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