Overzealous Greetings (and Other Tales of Toddlers and Puppies)

The other day as I was grocery shopping, a toddler ran up to me and hugged me. I smiled and put an arm on his shoulder as his mother rushed up. “I’m so sorry!” She exclaimed. “He really loves to meet people.” I assured her that it was not a problem and spoke briefly with the outgoing little boy before heading on my way.

Later that same day, my foster puppy was accompanying me on a shopping trip at the local pet supply store. As we were ambling along the treat aisle, a large Husky came around the corner of the aisle on a flexi leash. My foster pup jumped on his head, and the Husky stood still with a soft, relaxed body while the squirmy pup wriggled around him in joy. I apologized to the dog’s owner as I calmed and corralled the excited puppy. “No worries!” she exclaimed. “Thor wouldn’t tolerate that behavior from an adult dog, but he really likes puppies.” We chatted for a few moments longer, and the dogs politely sniffed noses as we walked away, my foster much calmer and more polite after a few clicks and treats for appropriate behavior around his new friend.

Photo by Max Collins

Photo by Max Collins

Dogs aren’t all that different from us, if you think about it. I thought the excited greeting from a toddler was adorable. If an adult tried the same thing though, I wouldn’t react so kindly. In fact, if a strange man ran up and grabbed me in a bear hug, I’d likely respond quite violently in defense even though I’m not typically a confrontational or violent person.

Dogs also react differently to puppies, adolescents, and adult dogs. Most dogs are quite tolerant of rude and clumsy greetings from puppies. They understand that the puppies are still learning and aren’t all that polished. Just as we understand that toddlers are still learning social behavior, well socialized adult dogs generally forgive social blunders in pups.

The problem develops when puppies never learn appropriate social skills. Adult dogs who greet inappropriately (by rushing and jumping on other dogs, for example) become the canine equivalents of a forty year old man racing up to grope my breasts. It’s just not okay, and other dogs are likely to react aggressively even if they’re generally quite friendly and easygoing with other dogs.

A large part of the blame for such boorish social behavior in dogs lies at their owner’s feet. Just as responsible parents teach their children appropriate social behavior (for example, the toddler’s mother apologized for his rushing up at the grocery store and helped him to practice greeting me more appropriately by instructing him to wave and say “hi”), responsible dog owners can teach their charges to be polite around other dogs. Socializing your dog appropriately helps him grow into a model citizen of canine society.

So, how do I guide my foster dogs through appropriate interactions? First of all, I focus on teaching them to greet other dogs calmly. If puppies squeal and lunge in excitement every time they see a new dog, they grow into adult dogs who rush up to other dogs or react explosively on leash at the sight of each new dog. This isn’t a healthy social reaction, and preventing this behavior from developing is much easier and faster than fixing it once it’s become a habit. The solution is simple: I only let calm puppies greet other dogs. If my puppy is excited about the other dog, we move further away and do a few simple obedience behaviors until the puppy’s calmed down, at which point he’s rewarded for his calm behavior by earning permission to say “hi.” If my puppy absolutely can’t calm down, we may switch to the Watch the World game for a few minutes to get him in a better mindset. Just as parents of excitable toddlers may hold onto their children’s hands and instruct them on waving instead of hugging, gently guiding your puppy in social niceties will help him learn the best way to behave. Furthermore, since most puppies really enjoy meeting other dogs, they learn quickly that civilized behavior is the fastest path to gain access to their new friends.

In addition to teaching my puppy polite greetings, I also provide him with lots of opportunities to play and interact off leash with a variety of other dogs. Just as a parent will allow their child to converse with a variety of other kids, teenagers, and adults, letting my puppy socialize with others of his species keeps the doggy language skills he learned with his littermates sharp while also polishing away any rough bits. The bigger the variety of ages and sizes of dogs that I can safely introduce my puppy to during this time, the better. Ideally, I like to arrange 3-4 play dates a week for my puppy with known dogs. We avoid dog parks and other situations with dogs of unknown health and behavioral status for obvious reasons. Just as I wouldn’t bring a toddler to a frat party, I know my puppy’s not developmentally ready for the crowd of adolescents at most dog parks. And of course, I want to wait until my puppy’s vaccines are on board before going around other dogs who may be carrying potentially fatal diseases such as parvo or distemper, just as many parents are now avoiding crowded attractions like Disneyland until their children’s vaccines are current.

If you’re raising a puppy, remember that socializing him is more than just introducing him to others and waiting for him to figure things out on his own. Just as you would school a toddler on appropriate interactions with new people, it’s important to provide your puppy with lots of feedback on how to best get along in our world. Well-socialized adults of all species understand how to communicate with one another, including respecting one another’s space and using culturally-appropriate greetings.

Does your dog greet others appropriately? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

12 responses to “Overzealous Greetings (and Other Tales of Toddlers and Puppies)

  1. a good comparison, and a good piece… I once had an elderly, very well socialized dog with me when a doggie-adolescent bounced up to us (off leash) and bumped into her. she snarled at him to be more polite -he looked like a five month old lab, he could take it- and we wanted to move on, but then I got yelled at by the owner for having “a dangerous dog!!” … she corrected him only with sound and a show of teeth, nothing else.

    when the lady continued the path with her pup, he bumped into her legs with enthousiasm and she yelled at him to get off…so then I thought, what’s the difference between your reaction and my dog’s? besides the fact that the dogs’ correction was actually effective ;)

    usually a dog correcting a nearly old enough pup to tone it down a little is scaring the owners of the little one and they keep him away, on a tight leash and with a lost opportunity to be taught by his own kind – then he only gets bigger and keeps the same inappropriate behaviour (which they explain by “we’re surrounded by aggresive dogs”…*sigh*). people expect for any sound of growling or snarling a bit to be followed up by ferocious bites and dead dogs, but by a social dog that is meant to avoid bloodshed, not to have the other dog for lunch.

  2. I agree completely, JS…most people don’t recognize a correction for what it is, because we’ve decided all growling or showing of teeth is “bad”… thus inadvertently possibly teaching our dogs to not give ANY warning before escalating to a bite. I also love the owner dragging their ill-mannered dog away from mine (who just corrected theirs) with, “come on Toby, that doggie doesn’t want to play with us.” 😜

  3. Loved this post. I definitely struggle with this. I got my dog at 7 months, 45lbs and he had never been walked on a leash, previous owners didn’t even own a leash! (He was paper trained and kept inside in the kitchen or crated in a small apartment). It was a real struggle to teach him to walk with a loose leash because he was already so big and had no leash manners. He caused me to fall a few times & definitely dragged me to other dogs in the first few weeks. He initially would jump, lunge, spin, & bark with excitement when he saw another dog. I had no previous dog experience so read up a lot and enlisted the help of some positive reinforcement trainers. 4 years later he is down to pulling on the leash. If the other dog is calm he may even pass nicely but if the other dog is excited he will be too. I think it will be that one thing we will always have to work on. So important to start training and proper socialization early! Thank goodness at 83lbs he has improved, I can’t imagine the mess we would be in if we hadn’t worked on it so much.

  4. Marlene Berman

    When my three terriers were puppies, they loved other dogs they met and loved to be social. As they’ve grown older, they’ve become much more difficult, and I try to avoid having them meet other dogs when we’re on walks because they are impossible. I know most of the fault (or all) is mine, but I cannot seem to correct this bad behavior. I also live next to a bike path and they go crazy (in a bad way) when they see someone walking other dogs on “their bike path!” The barking is truly out of hand. Any suggestions?

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  6. Very true! I have found almost all adult dogs to be very tolerant of puppies, but unfortunately, mine just isn’t. His overall social skills are okay, but he just doesn’t seem to pick up on the wiggly, nonthreatening body language coming from pups, especially if they’re close to his size. On the other hand, he is unbelievable at bringing shy, nervous dogs out of their shells. I guess you can’t win ’em all.

  7. Very nicely put. When pups come here, one young female always takes control of teaching them, while the others give the pup space. Once he’s ready to go further, her brother comes in for more teaching, then eventually the older dog comes over to teach more manners. They’ve worked out that routine with dozens of pups and scared dogs, to where they mostly run things. One group at the local dog park works together when a new young pup shows up. Besides advising the owner, their dogs are well socialized and they make sure the puppy doesn’t get overwhelmed. But, other times at the dog park have the issues you noted and are not a good idea for new pups.

    The large variety of dogs that you noted is a very important aspect of social learning. We’ve had people with two or three dogs at home bring them to the park, and assuming that all will be fine simply because they live with other dogs. Some of them even yelling at other people because their dogs were being corrected by others for bad manners.

  8. My comment is more of a question please. I don’t think my 5 yr old female Silky Yorky mix rescue knew how to play with how to play with other dogs by running/chasing. She’s been with us one year.
    While on walks (on leash) when she sees another dog she barks- a lot. To me it’s as if she’s excited. She would do it uncontrollably but I have worked on it by focusing on her only, attempting to get and keep her attention until the dog has passed. She has improved greatly but it’s not a behavior she has mastered or chooses to do with out me expecting it.
    Yesterday she did this, alarmed an off leash dog to the point it was advancing on us with hackles raised. I didn’t realize this dog was there as I was bent over just ready to pick up the waste of the 2nd dog with us (on leash as well). It became a very tense situation.
    Myself and the 3 dogs backing away (ending up away from the advancing dogs yard) and in the street, leashes wrapped around me/my legs, my dog still barking, the second dog (with me) jumping around thinking its playtime and the loose dog nearly touching my dog nose to nose several times. I kept a steady stream of clear even “no-no-no” going while trying to pick up my butt head dog.
    It was to the point that I knew even bending down to scoop my dog up was putting my head/face too near the loose dog. Dangerous for my face as it could be perceived as a challenging threat to an already agitated dog.
    If my dog had not been barking I think the off leash dog wouldn’t of become threatened or displayed possible aggression. Question-what suggestions to address this? Thank you

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  11. I really enjoy reading the many writings of owners, whether about their puppies or their adult doggie children. As a very proud and happy ‘dad rescue’ my 4 1/5 yr old giant schnauzer had absolutely NO social manners a year and a half ago, when he rescued me! Seriously now, he’s a beautiful creature yet comes on very playfully with another dog or person. We’ve spent hours together working on going to ‘sit’ position when seeing another dog or human coming forward. As time and learning goes on, we’ll have even more practices at staying put, seated and calming. As I get impatient and frustrated, I remind myself of all those years he was NOT under any supervision or companionship and was pretty much a feral animal existing on his own terms. Amazingly, this dog has through our relationship taught ME to be more tolerant, patient and even kind. What a pair we are!!!!

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