"You had me at Hello"...
Our dogs rarely pass up an opportunity to enthusiastically let us know how glad they are to see us when we've been away from them. A greeting like that can't help but make you feel special and is one of the greatest things about sharing life with a dog. And if you take a little time to return the favor, it can do wonders for improving your dog's level of engagement and focus on you.
There are two ways I use to accomplish this simple relationship building tip.
The first way is simple. Acknowledge your dog's presence. At random times throughout the day, speak to your dog in a low, calm, soothing voice and/or make "soft eye contact". It can be when you enter a room where they are or when they walk into a room where you are. Or if you just look over at them and think "you are just so adorable". TELL them they're adorable, call them a goofy nickname, say "hello", sing them a silly song...anything that catches their attention and provides a positive connection between the two of you. They won't understand the majority of what you're saying, but they will find the positive tone of your voice and calm body language very rewarding.
The second way supports the training mantra "reward the behavior you want to see repeated". Catch your dog doing something right. It's basically taking acknowledgement one step further by providing a reward for good behavior that you haven't specifically asked from them. The reward can be food, a gentle pat, a belly rub - really anything given by you that your dog values.
Here are some of the ways that I go about acknowledging and catching the good stuff:
- Anytime I walk into a room where one of my dogs is hanging out, I will calmly say "Hey there Jack-man...you're such a good boy" or just "Hi Snicks!" Most of the time, I don't want them to get up, so I use a nickname, keep my voice quiet and low and avoid using any "Cue" words that indicate I want action from them. And I often will follow up with a gentle pat on the side of the face or a scratch behind an ear.
- When I'm working in the kitchen and they are laying quietly out of my way, I will randomly walk over and calmly slip them a small treat with quiet praise. If they get up and follow me back into the kitchen, I tell them "uh-uh" and ignore them until they go lay back down. After several minutes, I follow back up with another quick treat to reward the "good position". Very rarely do they get up a second time to follow and get ignored.
- If I hear commotion outside and they remain calm and quiet, at a minimum I'll praise them with "Good Quiet" and usually follow up with a treat.
- While I'm eating at the coffee table, if I accidentally drop some food and don't get a dog lunging under the table trying to grab it, I'll say "Thank you" and usually follow up with a food reward of some kind. However, I do not call them over to get that reward at the coffee table, but will take it over or toss it to them. You always want to reinforce good position by only providing rewards in that position. (In this case, AWAY from the coffee table and your food)
- When Snickers was younger, it was a challenge for her to let the cat walk through the living room without charging at him to play. So I would watch for him to enter the room and then try to catch Snickers still laying down by marking "yes" and immediately following up with praise and a treat before she had a chance to get up. Timing is important - I needed to communicate to her with the mark that being still and letting the cat pass was the desired behavior. I'm sure I got it wrong some of the time, but despite my shortcomings, she still figured it out and no longer really notices poor JInxx's meanderings anywhere in the house!
- A word of caution. In addition to not using "cue words" that have been taught to drive action, do not overuse your dog's "recall" name either. You want their name to automatically grab their attention for a follow up instruction. "Jackson, Come". You want the random acknowledgments to more subtly connect with them and have them associate your presence with feeling secure and relaxed. I tend to use nicknames and make up little songs or chants. "Hey there Snickerdoodle-poodle-bug" or "You, are, the prettiest girl-dog in the whole, wide world". Anyone else would look at you like you are crazy, but most dogs will adore you for it!
These are just a few examples of how you can "Have them at Hello". Your dog notices when they get noticed and unless they are unusually shy, your attention, even for a few seconds, is very rewarding to them. And having rewarding "good stuff" associated with YOU is the fastest way to increase engagement, improve communication and develop a great relationship with your dog.