E115: Nancy Tucker - Greeting Skills: From Friendly Tornadoes to Warm Hellos

Ever wish your dog didn't pull in excitement when they see people or other dogs on a walk? Nancy and I talk about teaching skills to get nicer greetings when your dog wants to say hi.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Nancy Tucker.

Nancy is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training in Canada, the U.S., and in Europe.

She specializes in common behavior issues that affect the family dog, including more complex issues like aggression and anxiety.

Nancy has also written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to the Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she teaches a great class on desensitization and counterconditioning, which just ran and will run again in October of this year – and she has a self-study course that's coming out on how to treat separation anxiety. She'll be launching a new class in June that addresses helping dogs who are over-greeters, which we'll be chatting about today!

Hi Nancy, welcome back to the podcast!

Nancy Tucker: Hi Melissa. Always happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want to share a little information on who the dog is that you share your life with and what you're working on with him?

Nancy Tucker: His name is Benni, short for Bennigan, he's a Border Terrier, and since the last time we spoke he's developed quite a fan club, quite a following. He's going to be 2 in June, so he's almost all grown up. As far as what we're working on, Benni's a pet family dog, so I don't really have any projects with him in terms of training for anything specific, except that we just went through adolescence, so there were a lot of teenage-behavior-type issues that we were working through, and all I've done, really, is continuing working on his socialization. Actually, I'm taking a class right now that is for teenage dogs, and we just started taking it again just to be in that kind of environment, a group environment, having him learn some behaviors and be exposed to other dogs in an enclosed area, and he's doing so much better than he was when he was a teenager. So for those of you who — and probably people that I'll be seeing in my class — for those of you who have teenage dogs and who think that it will always be difficult, they do grow out of it.

Melissa Breau: Yay, that's good to hear. It's so funny, because I remember when you first got him, and him and Levi are just about the same age, and one of the other FDSA instructors' puppy is just about their age, so it's interesting to see everybody getting through those teenage years. I'm hoping Levi will eventually get there.

Nancy Tucker: They do. To a certain degree, I guess, everyone to a different degree, but they do. They do grow out of it.

Melissa Breau: So I wanted to have you on today to talk about teaching our dogs to greet a little more politely. To start with those absolute basics, with an untrained dog, a dog that hasn't had any work in this arena, what kind of greetings are likely? If a dog owner doesn't take the time to work on this, what are they going to get?

Nancy Tucker: When we're talking about what we consider to be impolite greetings and the types of behaviors that I'm going to describe here in a second, these are all perfectly normal behaviors for dogs — you know, jumping up to say hello, ramming into us or ramming into another dog. They are very common and normal behaviors, just not easily acceptable to us. There could be a lot of excited barking.

But I think that one of the main issues that I hear about, before the dog gets to the person or the other dog and actually jumps up, is the path that they take towards that person or towards the dog, which means when you're walking on leash with your dog, or you're in an area, or you're walking on the street, and the dog spots another dog, or spots a person, and he really, really wants to go see them.

We're talking about super-friendly dogs here who just want to say hi to everybody. What we'll see before we get to all the jumping is the pulling, making a B-line for that person, and they just need to get to them as fast as possible. That's where people begin to notice that there's a problem.

They begin to find loose-leash walking to be a problem. They see it as a problem related to loose-leash walking exclusively, but when you think about it, it's all part of the greeting package. It's all part of "How do I deal with the presence of another person or another dog?" Make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. You mentioned happy dogs that want to say hi. I imagine that the description of the behaviors you're going to see changes a bit based on whether that's a happy, excited dog or a nervous and fearful dog. I was hoping we could talk about some of the more obvious signs, those body language tells about how a dog is feeling when they meet somebody new. How do you decide that my dog is excited, or he's in that other camp?

Nancy Tucker: That's kind of a fine line between the two, because when you think about it, the dogs that appear to be very excited and very happy to see somebody or to see another dog, sometimes that could be that the dog is feeling a little unsure, or he's a little bit stressed, and he's exaggerating these affiliate behaviors — a super-wagging body instead of just a wagging tail, and the jumping up, and they're very, very excited to see somebody — there could be a little stress beneath all of that, so that's something that we need to keep in mind.

Melissa Breau: If you're looking at the body language, how can you tell if your dog is in that excited and happy camp or if they fall into a more fearful or nervous camp, if we're looking at some of the key tells?

Nancy Tucker: I think that if a dog is stressed and fearful and wants to avoid the person — I say person; it could be a dog — that's in their vicinity, they will either try to turn away from them, or maybe slam on the brakes, or they may bark.

Barking — again there's a fine line because it could be the type of barking that a dog does when they want to engage, as an invitation to engage, or it could be barking to increase distance. It's really, really hard to tell, and it's also individualized based on that dog's learning history. What has worked in the past is what they'll do again, so if they have barked in the past and that has permitted them to avoid any sort of contact with a person or with a dog, that's what they'll do the next time.

But also, on the other side of the coin, if they've barked in the past and it's gotten attention and the person has come close or the dog has come close, then that's what they'll do to interact. So because of that fine line between the two, it's very, very hard to tell. However, if a dog has had obviously a bite history, if somebody is coming too close, and they'll bite or they'll growl and snap, that's obviously not a dog who wants to greet somebody or who wants to greet another dog.

I want to take a step back and talk about … when we're talking about socialization as a puppy, we really, really encourage puppies to meet as many people as possible, and to try to meet as many dogs as possible. It's all part of the socialization process. And then, when they're older, we're walking along with our dog, and he wants to go see all the people and all the dogs because it's been heavily reinforced in the past because we were trying to socialize our puppy. And suddenly we want them to stop doing that, so we become a little bit frustrated because we think, Do I socialize my puppy to do this? Do I encourage contact, meeting people and making it a very, very positive experience and end up with this problem later on, or should I just avoid it from the get-go when they're puppies?

What I always tell people is that I think it's a better problem to have is to have this over-socialized dog — and "over-socialized" is not the correct term — but a well-socialized dog who wants to see everyone. I think that's a good problem to have, because now it's just a matter of teaching new behaviors, and we can use positive reinforcement easily to teach that. So I much prefer that than to prevent dogs from meeting other people and other dogs in an attempt to avoid a problem later on. That's when we get dogs who are a lot more stressed about meeting people and other dogs, if they haven't gotten a chance to do it when they were puppies.

Melissa Breau: Right, absolutely, and I totally get all the pieces that you talked about in there. I have an excited greeter in my house, I have a not-excited greeter in my house who is pretty neutral, and I have a dog who sometimes isn't sure he wants to say hi to people. So I have all the varieties that you can get in terms of body language, and definitely I'm starting to think about those socialization ideas for the eventual next dog, who will be very eventual, because I'm not getting another one anytime again in the near future.

Nancy Tucker: If you're just getting them out of adolescence, I get them completely.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned positive reinforcement training. As good positive-reinforcement trainers, we are told to think about and to teach the dog what we want them to do, and not what we don't want to do, so don't focus on the "Stop doing that," focus on the "Do this" instead. So when somebody says greetings are a problem for them, what kind of behaviors are they typically looking for as a "good" greeting behavior? To put it another way, I guess, what does a well-trained dog's greeting look like?

Nancy Tucker: I'm pretty lenient about that as well in any circumstances. I never require military-precision behaviors out of my own dogs, and I certainly don't expect it out of the average family pet dog, either. But I think polite behavior is to keep four paws on the floor, if that's desired. Sometimes with my own dog, Benni, I love it when he climbs up on me, and he's completely allowed to climb up on me to say hi. But I invite him to do so.

So I think that what I'll be teaching, what I'll be focusing on, is allowing the dog to say hi to somebody, with four paws on the ground, and they can have a wiggly body; I just don't want them jumping up and accosting the person and being in their face.

The same is true for other dogs. Although in the class that's coming up in June, we won't be addressing … there won't be any contact between dogs, because that's something that I don't really want to deal with online if I don't know the dog and I don't know, "Wait a minute. Is that dog OK with other dogs?" It's not something that I can see for myself, so it's not something that I'll be teaching in the class. There won't be dog-dog interactions.

But the types of behaviors that we'll be teaching our dogs when they're with us, specifically when they're with us on leash, because that is when a lot of problems occur, four paws on the floor. That is what it comes down to: four paws on the floor.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that you won't be covering dog-dog behaviors. Do you want to share a little bit more about what you will be covering with the dog-dog greeting stuff?

Nancy Tucker: Just to highlight the dog-dog behavior topic and how I'll be dealing with it in class is, specifically when we're walking with our dogs, or when we're in an area — for example, people who take group classes or people who attend trials, when you're surrounded by a bunch of other dogs — we'll be learning to teach our dog to stay with us.

Not necessarily to stay focused on us 100 percent; again, there won't be any sort of military-style or hyper-focused behaviors that we'll be teaching. We just want the dog to be able to be … not necessarily neutral about the presence of other dogs and people, because I don't expect that. It is exciting when you walk into an environment where there's a ton of other dogs, and there's bound to be dogs barking, there's bound to be dogs who are rushing at them or who are also over-greeters.

So what we'll be aiming for is just a dog who can handle that situation and stay connected with their person. That's what we're going to be working on very, very heavily is not charging towards the other dog or charging towards people. Just stay with me when we're on leash.

Melissa Breau: That definitely sounds like an improvement over probably most of us.

Nancy Tucker: Yeah. And I don't expect a dog to sit when they greet, or to sit when a situation is really, really exciting and arousing. I don't expect them to sit through that. It's OK if they stand. We're just going to be working a whole lot on connectivity between the person and the dog, especially when they're on leash.

Melissa Breau: The next question I think that probably … certainly every pet dog owner asks this, if you say you're going to work on greetings. They always want to know, "How long is it going to take to teach this?" And I know the answer is going to be, "It depends." Can you talk about some of the factors that might make it harder or easier with a particular dog?

Nancy Tucker: Harder. When a dog gets to practice a certain behavior for a very, very long time. In most cases we're talking about age here. I'm not trying to say that an older dog is harder to train. What I am saying is that a dog that has been practicing a behavior for a very long time and has been heavily reinforced for a very long time, it will probably take a little bit longer to switch over to a new behavior, compared to teaching a brand new behavior to a dog kind of fresh out of the box.

But it's completely doable, and how well you reinforce the new behaviors will dictate how long it takes for the dog to take that new behavior as being the behavior of choice. So how long will it take? Well, you're right. It depends. It completely depends on how often you get to practice, and it's always a matter of reinforcement history whatever behavior becomes more reinforcing.

Melissa Breau: I also wanted to talk about management for a second, because obviously training does take some time. So are their management tips you can share that people can use while they're teaching these better behaviors and these better skills for greetings?

Nancy Tucker: Management plays a big role in preventing the dog from practicing these behaviors. In terms of specific management tips, if it's possible at all to avoid those situations where you know the dog is going to be pulling out those behaviors that you don't want, and that can be really, really tricky. If you attend two or three different types of group classes a week with your dog and I'm telling you, "Don't put your dog in that situation anymore until you can work on it," that's probably not going to happen.

So in terms of management, of course we'll be talking about that in class, but I'm trying not to give too many details here of what we're going to be working on so I don't confuse the issue. But we will be using a lot of food, and we will be using a lot of engagement and play. The difference between using that as reinforcement and using that as a distraction is something that we'll be discussing in class, that there is a difference between a distraction and reinforcement. But during the time when you're trying to manage a situation, it's OK to distract your dog with food or with play.

So, in other words, if you're walking down the street, and you see somebody on the other side of the street walking their dog, and you know your dog is going to be gravitating towards those other people and really pulling on-leash, it's OK, during management, to be feeding the dog constantly as you walk by, if you can get away with that, if that works, to get your dog's attention. It's OK to turn around and go down a different street if you want to avoid that situation, just to stop them from practicing that behavior.

But because we're not talking about a fearful behavior, where the dog is put into a situation where he's highly, highly stressed, or he's feeling some seriously negative emotions, it's not that bad if he does display … do you know what I mean? There's no harm done, in other words, if he keeps displaying the behavior. He's just practicing it and there's no real harm done, unless of course he's jumping up on somebody and knocking him down to the ground. Then there's harm done.

It's funny, we joked about that on the Facebook group page a couple of weeks ago. I didn't mean to joke about that, but I sort of did, where somebody had described that somebody had been knocked down and seriously hurt, and I thought, Well, the content of the class is easy enough that if you're in that position and you're on crutches, you can actually take the class and learn some of the basic behaviors. We're not going to be doing a lot of work in that arena, where the dog will be full-on pulling towards other dogs. There's going to be a lot of foundation work, a lot of basic work, before we get to that point.

Melissa Breau: Certainly an important thing to note the difference between … the different pieces there between management and training, because those are two things and they can sometimes look similar, but they're not quite the same thing. And then the idea that, OK, when we're training and putting foundations versus when we're dealing with it, getting through it, and sometimes that means food.

Nancy Tucker: Yes, lots of food. And I have no problem with that. I really am a big fan of using food in training. I think it's super-effective, and I think that all of the dogs agree.

Melissa Breau: I like that. I like that line. All the dogs agree that using food in training is a plus.

Nancy Tucker: They all support me on that.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier that you're OK with Benni jumping, and stuff like that, once you invite him, and I know that I've heard people say that that's one of the things they're worried about working on these skills: they don't want to dampen those happy feelings that their dog has when they're meeting somebody new or they're meeting other dogs, that they don't want to take away that joy. Does training really do that? Is that something to worry about? Can you talk about that?

Nancy Tucker: That's a really good question, and you know what? Training should never remove any sort of joy like that. It's such a good question because I get asked that a lot, especially with these types of behaviors. I've gotten messages from people asking if their dog is a good candidate for the class and this comes up a lot, where they say, "You know, she's just so happy when she sees the people. Am I going to have to stop her from seeing people? She's just so happy."

No, we're not going to stop her from being happy. We're not going to stop her from seeing people all the time. There will be appropriate times and appropriate ways to greet people, but we don't want to suck the happiness out of your dog. Absolutely not. I'm not going to be using any punishment, to begin with. Training should never be a negative experience for the dog, so we're going to be aiming for happy, sociable dogs with manners.

It's like the difference between the kid at the party who's running around, popping all the balloons, and pulling hair, and having the time of his life, and really enjoying the company of other kids, but maybe not behaving appropriately, where we can teach him, "That's not quite how we behave at a party. Here's how we behave, but hey, have fun. It's still going to be fun."

Melissa Breau: It's OK, you can jump around and still be crazy in the bounce house and maybe not pop things and pull hair.

Nancy Tucker: Yeah, yeah, unless that's what the party's about. So we'll be teaching appropriate behaviors, and the dog will still be happy and still super-sociable for sure. And if not, if we see that that's changing them, then we're doing something very, very wrong, and we'll need to re-evaluate what we're doing and to adjust our training plan.

Melissa Breau: I love the title you came up with for this class — Greeting Skills: From Friendly Tornadoes to Warm Hellos. Can you share a little more on what you'll cover and who is a good fit for the class?

Nancy Tucker: Friendly Tornadoes — the idea that I had for that is probably going to age me here, but it's from watching Bugs Bunny when I was a kid, and the Tasmanian Devil, how he used to spin around. I don't know if you know the Tasmanian Devil …

Melissa Breau: I do.

Nancy Tucker: I know half the listeners are like, "The what?" The Tasmanian Devil used to spin around, and that's how I picture a friendly tornado, as just this tiny little micro-storm, and that's how I see a lot of these dogs. You see them coming. They're kicking up the dirt, and they're just so happy, and you see them coming. As a trainer, you know. Even if the dog is not jumping up, you know when you're standing in front of that dog, you know just a split second before they jump, they're going to jump, you can see it in their face, and that's how I envision a friendly tornado.

Like I mentioned earlier, we will be covering how to keep the dog engaged with you, especially when you're on leash, because that is when a lot of these issues happen. Especially when you're on leash with your dog, we want them to be able to know the difference: "Now I'm on leash with you, now I'm literally tied to you, and we're going to be spending a lot of time together." The dog is going to be focused on you when you're together with him on leash.

One of the things that I notice is that when we're working on this type of issue, people are able to get the behavior that they want from their dog when they are looking at their dog, and the minute they turn their head, then the dog just goes off into another direction. It's like, "Oh, she's not looking at me anymore. Now I'm free to do whatever it was that I was doing." That is one of the major issues that we're going to work on heavily, and I think that is where people are going to see the biggest difference in their progress is the ability to look away from their dog and still maintain that engagement from their dog. And again, it doesn't mean that your dog is going to be staring at you and completely focused on you and oblivious to what is going on around him. But it will absolutely help in preventing him from disengaging from you when you're no longer looking at him.

So if you're walking with your dog and you meet up with somebody and you want to have a chat, that your dog is only behaving if you're looking at him, and when you look at the person they'll either jump on the person or they'll pull away towards another dog — we'll be focusing on that because I think that's the area where people need the most help.

And then the dog who is a good fit for the class, of course, is the dog who is not showing avoidance behaviors. They're not afraid of the dogs or the people. They're not showing aggression, they're not lunging and snapping and snarling, obviously, and they don't have a bite history. A bite history gives us a lot of information about how they feel about other dogs or people being close to them.

Melissa Breau: Anything else that folks considering the class should know or consider if they're debating signing up?

Nancy Tucker: They're probably going to need to recruit some helpers. Not in the beginning. The beginning is going to be a lot of foundations, and I know that that sounds a little boring sometimes, especially to people who have some training experience: "I know the foundations. I don't need to redo this." But I think you'll be surprised at some of the things that we work on.

I enjoy working with trainers a lot because there are a few things that are considered to be foundations or basic skills that sometimes when we revisit them together, they think, You know, I haven't really paid attention to this in about three or five years, and I kind of forgot that this is important, so let me go back and do this. And it makes all the difference in the result that they get.

And that they will need a helper later on, somebody that will play the role of a person being greeted. And then, later on, they'll need to have access to a place where there are dogs and people. They will not be greeting these people and other dogs, though. This is where we'll be practicing … I don't want to say "practicing ignoring what's around them." I don't want your dogs to ignore what's around you. We just want to teach them how to behave in the presence of all these other stimuli. Summer's coming, so it should be easy enough to go to a park or somewhere where there will be dogs and people.

Melissa Breau: Quickly, before we go, I also just wanted to mention that you've got a webinar on the calendar on separation anxiety scheduled for May 30. Do you want to share a little on what you'll cover there?

Nancy Tucker: The webinar coming up on separation anxiety is called The Crash Course on Separation Anxiety. In an hour, I'm going to talk about the steps necessary to treat separation anxiety. It's basically my six-week course crammed into one hour, so obviously you won't be going into huge amount of detail, but you'll get an outline of what needs to happen, what needs to be done, what are the steps. And we will be taking them from Step One through to the end in that one-hour time space.

The reason that I'm doing that is because when I do offer a class on separation anxiety, obviously we're talking about a class that runs from a certain date to a certain date, and when we're dealing with an issue like separation anxiety, there's a lot of planning, pre-planning, involved to really set the stage to be able to begin working on that issue, and that can be really difficult to coordinate. Everybody has to be coordinated at the same time to be ready to work on this journey those six weeks, and that can be really, really tough.

So what I'm hoping to be able to share with people in that one hour is, "This is what you're going to need to do, and if you want to work on it, now you'll know what it involves. You'll be able to do some preparation work, and you'll know what to expect, and you'll be able to get ready for it, so that when you are ready, you'll know what to do."

Melissa Breau: A final question here before I let you go, the one I've been asking everyone lately: What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Nancy Tucker: Funnily enough, what I did learn has to do with the class that I'll be teaching in June with the friendly tornados. It's a trick that I learned quite a while ago from Emma Parsons, and I had forgotten about it. I had completely forgotten about it. Again, when we go back to the foundations, sometimes it's like, "Oh yeah, I hadn't thought about that for years." And I completely forgot about it. It was down in the bottom of my toolbox somewhere.

I saw Emma Parsons again at ClickerExpo in March in D.C., and coincidentally I saw her speak on this exact topic. That's when I remembered that I had learned this from her so long ago and I had forgotten to use it with my own dog, and I had been forgetting to teach it.

This particular skill is something that we'll be learning in June, and it's simple enough, simple but not easy, if that makes sense. It's not a complex thing to do, but it is kind of tricky to coordinate. We think it's easy until we try it ourselves, so it's going to take some practice, but it will mean night and day difference between the type of result that you'll get when you're trying to keep your dog engaged with you.

The thing that I was telling you about, where when you turn away from your dog and your dog disengages with you, this particular thing that we'll be doing together is what will make all the difference with that. So that's one of those things that is not new to me, but I've dusted it off, found it again, dusted it off, and went, "Oh my god, I'd forgotten about this gem."

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Nancy!

Nancy Tucker: Oh, my pleasure.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Loretta Mueller to talk about improving your timing in agility.

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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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