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Inquisitive Canine: How Can I Teach My Dog to Play Nicely?

For a pet inclined to jump and nip, start with basic behavior training and environmental management

Dear Poncho,

Help! We’ve had family staying with us all weekend, and our dog, Wiley, has had a hard time behaving. At the family’s request, when we go outside, we have to put him inside, in his crate. That’s because if we let him out when we go out to play, he jumps on and nips at us, the extended family, neighbors, the gardener and anyone else stopping by for a visit. When we are inside, Wiley must be sent outside in the yard.

Wiley is part of our family, and I want him to blend in and be able to play with us. When we try to ignore him by turning away, he jumps on our backs and also continues to nip. We just can’t have him doing that, especially to my 85-year-old dad or our 2-year-old granddaughter. We’ve tried lots of praise when he sits and we pet him, but then he jumps and nips. I hope you have some suggestions for us — we’re so frustrated, we’re happy to try anything you suggest!

— Ellen (Wiley’s mom)

Dear Miss Ellen,

Sounds like Wiley is living up to his name — skilled and clever at getting what he wants. I’d be happy to offer some tips on how you can help your own inquisitive canine become part of the group, not left out in the cold.

Let’s talk about dogs and a few of the general behavior traits we possess: jumping to greet, having enormous amounts of energy (especially when we’re young or haven’t burned off the excess energy), using our mouths to explore the world, wanting attention (positive or negative), preferring to be around people than alone and always game for a good time.

Hmm, yep, sounds like Wiley is a full-blown canine extraordinaire! My first tip is to understand these characteristics and appreciate Wiley for who he is — a dog who loves people of all ages and wants to spend time with his family.

From what you’ve described, it sounds as if everyone is leaving it up to Wiley to figure out what is expected of him, without being clear on the requests. If he isn’t aware of what you want, then for my second tip, I say: Teach him. Taking the time to communicate with him exactly what it is you want will help clarify the what, when and how, in terms of behavior. Even just a few of the basic behaviors taught in most dog training classes, along with some management of his environment, can help make the picture much clearer for Wiley, so I encourage you to consider the following:

Tried-and-True Training

Sounds like he already knows at least one of the basics: “sit.” This is one of the top behaviors that can be used almost anywhere! In your situation, you’ll want to teach him to “sit to greet,” instead of having him do so after he jumps up. And you’ll want to add in “stay” to make sure he gets the idea.

You’re doing the right thing by interrupting him, asking for a better behavior and rewarding him. But it might work better if you ask for the right behavior before he has a chance to jump or nip. From what you’ve described, it sounds like the behavior chain is backwards — jumping up, getting attention for jumping, then the sit and praise. Try doing it this way instead: Person comes in, ask for him to sit, reward him. You can even practice using “down,” too, especially when the youngest and eldest family members are around.

As for the rewards you’re using, we dogs love praise, as well as belly rubs or tossing a toy. But for these to really be effective, you’ll first need to practice before he’s around all the fun distractions. After he understands, you can add in a distraction, one at a time. And to really help you reach your goals faster, I’d suggest pulling out the big ammo, such as pieces of chicken or steak, to motivate and reward for behaving nicely when company comes over. You can even recruit your friends and family to play along, similar to some of the easy, fun activities in my mom’s dog training game.

You can multitask by combining practice sessions with fun and games. One suggestion would be to ask for “sit” before tossing the toy or before beginning a game of tug. This makes for a Good Manners practice session, all while providing physical and mental activities.

Expend His Energy

If you’re expecting company, then set it up so Wiley is too tired to jump up — or at least tired enough so his training attention span is at its peak. A brisk walk or jog, game of tug and/or hide-‘n’-seek, fetch, attending a dog training class and/or a play-date with a doggy friend are just a few things we canines love that can help deplete energy. Again, you can even recruit some of your visitors to help. When they show up, hand someone a ball or leash to help you out — provided it’s safe for everyone.

Environmental Protection

Sequestering Wiley to his own area is understandable. However, you’ll want to avoid a situation I like to call the “Cinderella Syndrome” — tossing him in the dungeon with nothing to do while everyone else has fun. Providing enrichment, such as interactive food toys and chew bones, or arranging a scavenger hunt by hiding pieces of his kibble and a few treats in or outside your home are fun options for mental and physical activities. If you really don’t have the time or the inclination to monitor or train Wiley, then ask for outside help — an outing with a dog walker or arranging a doggy play-date with a neighbor are alternate ways for everyone to be taken care of. For detailed explanations of each of these options, click here to check out our blog posts on environmental management.

Paws and Reflect

Keep in mind, if all Wiley wants is to be part of the group, and he’s using inherent behaviors to gain the attention he wants, then guess what? He’s gonna keep doing what’s working for him. So I encourage you to spend the time to teach him what it is you want and when you want it. This goes for initial teaching as well as practice sessions, so he can maintain his skills.

And hey, if you can get everyone else on board with the plan and they practice with Wiley, pretty soon he’ll be the best behaved family member you have!

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and human-canine relationship coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt that knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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