How to teach a polite mouth
We all know that dog that just about takes our fingers off every time we offer her a treat. We can feel those sharp teeth and we can see the barely contained excitement at the prospect of something yummy. Instead of enduring this time after time, you can teach your dog to accept treats from you in a calm, controlled, polite manner.
Start with a pouch full of stinky, yummy treats, and a hungry dog.
Step One: Put your dog in a 'sit'. Position your hand above her head with a treat between your fingers or in your palm. Be careful not to drop it! Slowly drop it down close to your dog's mouth. If your dog attempts to reach, jump, snap, or move in any way to grab the food out of your hand, immediately remove your hand up and over the dog's head.
The idea here is to wait until your dog's mouth is closed and her body position is relaxed and not in motion (up or forward) before delivering the treat.
As you repeat Step One above, the rapid movement of your hand will instruct your dog that the only way to get the treat is through calm patience. As your dog becomes proficient with this, you can thing bring your hand to your dog's mouth from different positions and on different angles. If you find your dog is just too aroused to do Step One well, use lower-value treats, along the lines of her every day kibble, for example.
Step Two: Add the training of a soft mouth to this exercise. Place the treat in your closed hand and offer it to your dog, letting her sniff, smell, and nose at it. When the dog begins to mouth, nudge, and push at your hand, say "OW!" and freeze your hand in position with the treat still held inside your closed fist. When your dog moves back from your hand or licks it gently, say "Good. Take it." and open your hand, palm facing up.
Repeat the above until your dog stops mouthing, biting, and pushing at your hand. Repeat every day over 14 days to practice and proof. This exercise is wonderful for training your dog to have polite manners when food is around and potentially accessible. Consistency is key here: do not allow your dog to have treat unless they are taken politely and with control. This will ensure good behavior around children, adults, the elderly, and anyone who just might be around with some food in hand.
Dogs greeting new guests at the door is a common household complaint. The truth is, your dog's excitement isn't a case of disobedience, he just doesn't know how to properly do it. The advice I'm going to give here is appropriate for dogs who are happy and over-stimulated at the door. My next blog post on the subject will touch on unhappy, fearful dogs at the door who are poorly conditioned to unfamiliar humans.
A happy, overstimulated dog is hugely social with everyone he encounters. The moment the doorbell rings or someone knocks at the door, this dog is racing over, barking away, and bouncing about. Often times, in the midst of this, a frantic owner is trying to get ahold of the dog by the collar and hold him back from the door and the arriving guest. The new arrival then makes a huge commotion over the dog, with high-pitched voices, petting, and overall exuberance. No amount of scolding, yelling, or physical withholding can contain this dog who is soon labelled 'hyperactive'.
In this scenario, the behavior from both the owner and the visitor in fact reinforces the dog's behavior, in terms of owner restraint and attention from the new visitor. What's important to understand here is that in this over-excited, aroused state, the dog's limbic system (or emotional, "hind" brain) is active. When the limbic system is at work, the cortex, (or analytical brain) is unable to take over. It is a biological mechanism that your dog is unable to control.
What we as dog owners must do, then, is to set up scenarios in which the dog can rehearse instead the behaviors that you do want. Place your dog on leash, and a rug or dog-bed approximately six feet from the door. Place treats on the outside of the door, and arm yourself with a pouch full of them as well. They should be highly valuable to your pooch. Enlist the help of an adult your dog knows well and likes.
Step One: As the guest enters (with a treat in hand), stand back on the rug or bed with your dog firmly on leash. This is to ensure your dog cannot jump up. Stay calm, even if your dog isn't. Have the guest approach one step at a time until she can deliver the treat to your dog (but ONLY if your dog is still in a sitting position). Once this happens successfully, praise your dog and retreat into the rest of the house.
Remember, practice makes perfect. As you do this exercise again and again, it will become boring to your dog, and his excitement will wane and then disappear as he learns exactly how he is expected to behave when this particular visitor comes to the door. This is precisely what we want. Once Step One is firmly rehearsed with your dog, repeat and practice with different guests at different times, and let your dog amaze you at what he is capable of!
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.