Sitting on the couch in the lobby recently, I was caught a little bit unawares by the incoming class. First came an older, 40lb dog and she politely looked at me, sniffed and said hello. In came a younger happy looking dog who raced up, sniffed me and then went on to the classroom. And then in came an older dog who raced in, rushed at me barking and straining on the leash and tried to jump onto my lap. “He just loves people” said the dog’s person. “He just wants to greet everyone!”
Does he? Let’s put this into some perspective. If these were young children coming in past the principal of their school, the first child would be an older kid who made eye contact and moved on. The second kid would be a first grader who said “HI! I have a new baseball” and ran off to join his class. The third kid would be a fourth grader who charged at me screaming and tried to climb me. Describing behaviour in terms of how a child might behave often helps us to determine what is normal and what is not when it comes to a dog’s behaviour. I want to be clear-dogs don’t behave like humans, but we can draw parallels in social situations to help learn more about what they are doing. In this case, there is a strong disconnect between the dog’s behaviour and the person’s interpretation of that behaviour.
So just what does a normal dog to human greeting look like? Normal greetings may be enthusiastic but they should not be frantic. They should include lots of soft, curvy behaviour. They should reflect the behaviour that the dog gets in return; thus when greeting someone in a chair, the dog should approach calmly and quietly, and should reflect that the person is in a relaxed posture. Most dogs are not interested in sniffing hands to greet, but they will often sniff other parts of your body. The dog should be exhibiting at least a modicum of self control.
It is not difficult to recognize greeters who aren’t actually friendly. There are a number of signs and many folks don’t recognize them. The first is the barking greeter. If a dog is barking or growling while approaching you, he is not behaving in a way that should attract you to greet him. In fact, if a dog is on leash and approaching you while barking and growling, ask the handler to stop and wait until he settles. You don’t need to put yourself at risk when a dog is behaving in a way that is potentially dangerous. Barking comes in a variety of flavours (one presenter I saw at a conference found that dogs bark in 35 distinct ways each corresponding with a different situation) but in general barking to greet is a bit like screaming as you approach someone; generally it is not a good sign.
Jumping up is a tactic often employed by dogs who want to get closer to your face so that they can greet you at eye level. Usually this sort of jumping up involves putting feet on the person and turning the head away from your face while snuggling into your body. There is another flavour of jumping out though; it is the rocket launcher method of greeting. These dogs don’t approach closely and then jump up while attending to where they are in relation to your body; they either race in closely and come straight up into your face or they launch themselves towards your face from a distance. In both cases the dogs skip several behaviours that show us that they are behaving in a friendly manner. Friendly greeting is preceded by soft and fluid motions in the dog. It is not friendly to tackle me when you meet me, regardless of if you are a human or a dog! Often these dogs who launch themselves accompany their facial interactions with rapid short licks to the face, which may in fact be inhibited bites. Finally these launchers have very stiff bodies that come in like a bolt out of a crossbow. In a medium to large breed dog, this is potentially very dangerous to the person being greeted.
Another behaviour that is often misinterpreted as friendly is the dog who rushes in and throws himself on his back. This is a cut off signal; a signal dogs use to tell other dogs that they are not a threat, but also that they are not comfortable. Too often I see people confuse this fast, thrown to the ground roll over with the soft inviting “scratch my belly” behaviour that you see in a relaxed dog who wants to cuddle. The differences are usually easy to see. A dog who wants to have his belly scratched is usually already being touched. He melts himself into your hand, and slithers into the belly up posture. The dog who wants you to go away will usually throw himself to the ground and if you bend over him, he may launch himself into your face. In general, if you don’t know the dog, don’t rub his belly! If you know the dog really well and you are having touch time where you are both engaged and your dog leans into you and offers first his chest by lifting a front leg and then his belly by lifting his back leg, then you are dealing with an intimate and special invitation to cuddle. If your dog throws himself to the ground, he is not asking for cuddles; he is asking you to give him a little bit of space.
These three behaviours; vocalizing, rushing in and launching, or rushing in and throwing himself to the ground are all signals to me that the dog is uncomfortable with greeting so I just don’t greet. My response often results in a dog who takes a moment, composes himself and then settles down for a calmer greeting. Recognizing that you have a dog who is uncomfortable greeting is important though; if your dog is engaging in these behaviours, it is best to take a more structured and well thought out approach to greeting.
Greeting styles depend on a number of factors. The first of them is how the dog is wired. Some dogs are really, really social with people and think people are just fascinating. You can pick these dogs out by the way they behave towards people. Usually they are aware of what people are doing and like to be engaged with their people. I often said of one of my dogs that “nothing is done as well as it is done when helped by a German Shepherd”. It didn’t matter if I was digging a hole for a tree, or putting laundry in the dryer, Buddy’s head was right in the way, helping out. He might be lying beside me while I read a book. Or he could be trailing me on a hike, or even leading me out. He was always interested in what I was interested in, and if we met people, he was interested in what they were doing. I was a Scout leader when I had Buddy and he was fascinated by what the kids were doing; he would help to gather wood for fires, or set up tents or sometimes kill their soccer balls, but whatever we as a group were doing, he was interested. Buddy would approach nearly anyone and although he was invariably polite, keeping his paws to himself, he would circle around new people and bring them things that he found and stick his nose into things that the people were doing.
Some dogs are not at all interested in what people are doing. They are interested in other things in the world, but not in people or their activities. When turned loose in a crowd, they are often avoidant of new people and they are much more interested in things that are not being done by people. These dogs almost universally love their people, but not people in general. My friend Cooper the Welsh Terrier is a dog like this. He is always pleased to see me, and as well trained as he is, he is always polite when we meet. He is less enthusiastic about the students at the school; he is polite but obviously cool to them. He will approach if he is instructed to, but he doesn’t approach with the kind of enthusiasm that Buddy did. Even when his person, Seanna, came to pick him up after a long boarding, he was pleased to see her, but then wanted to get on with his plans for the day.
Buddy and Cooper are wired differently and although they were each taught to greet politely, they approach greeting related to their own styles of interacting with people. Buddy approached greeting as a whole body experience to be shared deeply with the person he was greeting all the while taking great care to remain soft and reflect what the person was doing. Cooper is more circumspect. He greets but he is less involved or engaged than Buddy was; he is happy to see people, but not so deeply enthusiastic that he devotes his whole being to it.
The next factor that impacts greeting is training. Whether we realize it or not, we are always training. If we habitually trip over the dog when we get up in the night, the dog will either learn to sleep elsewhere or you will learn to move more carefully in the dark. It is unlikely that interacting with your dog is not going to change either your behaviour or his or more often, both your behaviour and his. Many people don’t really have a good picture of how they want their dogs to greet when they are introduced to new people, and they leave the training to chance. The outcome of training is much more reliable if you know what you want the dog to do first.
The first thing I teach my dogs about greeting is that keeping four paws on the floor will result in more good things coming to puppies. When a young dog meets me and puts his paws on me I do nothing. I don’t knee him in the chest, or tell him what to do, I just wait. Standing on your hind legs is usually a short lived behaviour in dogs. Once the pup is back to having four feet on the floor, I then give him attention and sometimes a food treat. Unless you want to have a dog who keeps jumping up on you, telling him what to do to get a reward is only going to perpetuate the problem. It is much better for him to learn that keeping his paws to himself will result in attention. Later on, I add in sitting to the mix. When the dog and I approach, I wait until he is sitting to greet him. I also help him out by not greeting him with my hand over his head. He cannot see when you do that and many dogs will jump up to try and make eye contact with you. Gentle scratches under the chin can help dogs a lot because the dog has to stay down low to keep getting scratched and because you aren’t covering the dog’s eyes.
If you don’t know what you want when you are training your dog, it is hard to choose the right thing to do. If one week you pay attention to the dog while he is jumping and the next week you push him away, and the third week you send him to his crate when he approaches you, then you are going to have one mixed up pup by the end of the month. It is important to decide on the rules and then teach them to your dog systematically in order for him to be successful. If the dog doesn’t know the rules, then it is not a big surprise that he doesn’t know what to do.
Then there the dogs who have been well bred, but who may have missed important socialization milestones. These dogs often lack the impulse control necessary to be successful when they are meeting and greeting either dogs or people. These dogs may be able learn to greet nicely, but often they start out in the rude greeter category. If a pup leaves the litter too early or too late, if they don’t meet enough different people before they hit 16 weeks, or if they were a singleton in a litter, then they may have difficulty understanding social signals. These dogs grow up to have it really tough. They may in fact want to spend time with people, but they may just not know how to do that particularly well.
I often think that poor greeters are somewhat like strangers in a strange land. No matter why these dogs are greeting poorly, they are really struggling and their behaviour can make them really hard to be around. It is difficult for families to take these dogs down the street because people approaching means an uncomfortable dance to prevent the dog from getting overwhelmed and jumping or knocking people over. Approaching people may have reservations about the whirling jumping whirlwind that seems trapped in your dog’s body and they may say unpleasant things or cross the road to avoid you. It can be even more difficult for these dogs to cope with day to day in home activities such as guests and visitors.
So how should you approach rude greeting? If the dog is not your dog, there is absolutely nothing wrong with stepping back and excusing yourself from greeting that dog. We don’t need to greet every dog we meet! Likewise, if you live with a poor greeter, he need not meet every person you encounter; giving him a break will help him in the long run to learn some self control. Sometimes just redirecting your rude greeter to some treats will make things easier for everyone. There is a nice side benefit to this tactic; you will classically pair the person approaching to the treats which will help the dog to achieve a calmer state of being as he approaches people, and that will allow him to think carefully about what he does when he is greeting. As a final note, if you have a rude greeter many trainers have tips and tricks to help you out, based on what is going on with your dog. Finding a trainer to help with rude greeting is often a really good way to proceed as they can often figure out what the best tactics are with your dog.