Even if you’re looking forward to visiting relatives this holiday season, you might not be happy about visiting their dog. How can you make your entry through a relative’s front door more joyful and less jump-filled?
There are 78 million pet dogs in the country, according to the American Pet Products Association, so your chances of encountering one are high.
Stanley Coren, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, dog trainer and author, offers tips to guests and hosts on managing the average family pet. (Aggressive dogs should be sequestered elsewhere before guests arrive.)
Most pets have received some training, but not much, Coren says. But the basic command is the most useful. “If the dog is jumping, the simplest thing is to say, ‘Sit.’ That usually calms things down.”
Coren offers this to guests:
Move more slowly. Imagine the dog’s point of view, seeing people pouring through the door and flipping off coats. Quick movements can excite or be interpreted as a threat.
Be aware of where the dog is. If you back up and tread on a dog’s tail, it’s not a good start.
Keep small children close to you and calm. Squealing just ratchets up the dog’s excitement. You don’t want toddlers running, because the dog will chase them.
If a dog is frantic, fold your hands in front of you and stand still. It’s a trick we use when we’re bite-proofing kids. We call it Be a Tree: Fold your branches and stare at your roots. No eye contact. You’re not moving. You’re no longer a threat.
Have treats in your pocket. When you encounter the dog, tell it to sit, and follow it up with a little treat. That makes the dog happy to see you. A goldfish cracker, or a thumbnail-size piece of regular cracker, will do if you don’t have dog treats. If the dog has allergies, the host will say so.
Children should ask before they approach a dog. It’s polite, and it’s safer.
Don’t reach your open hand toward a dog’s head. That can be seen as a threat. Close your fingers into a fist and let him sniff your hand. Touch the dog’s chest, then slide your hand up over its head.
If you’re the host, Coren advises:
Let visitors know that you have a dog.
Keep treats near the door. When guests come, I hand the people a treat and tell them: His name is Ranger, tell him to sit and give him a treat.
That greeting is nicer than shaking his paw. With repetition, it teaches your pets not to go ballistic at the doorbell.
If you’re worried, don’t let dogs near the door. Put them elsewhere. After I’ve greeted everyone and the dogs have heard the voices, the dogs can come in and greet. Or, bring the people to meet them.
A dog is like a human 2-year-old, Coren says. “The controls you put on toddlers work with dogs. You wouldn’t let a toddler barrel through the door at the nearest visitor. Most people are not dog experts, but they’ve encountered enough toddlers to know what works.”
What to do during holiday dinners?
Opinions differ, even among experts. Coren lets his two dogs stay present.
He puts them in a down-stay, and rewards them with a tiny treat. “They know if they hold that, they’ll get a little bit of something at the end of the meal, but they don’t get anything during.
“Also, I feed the dogs before people eat, so they’re not frantic,” he said.
If you’re quite worried, he said, “keep the dogs in a different zone.” Coren sometimes removes his two to the gated-off kitchen or his office. “The dogs are familiar with both places, and if I really want them out of traffic, I put them there.”