Does your dog pull you towards other dogs? Do they just want to play with every dog they see? Or is your dog reactive or fearful? Regardless of the reasons your dog has trouble passing other dogs calmly, you have likely noticed that your dog’s reaction to another dog starts with staring.
Regardless of why your dog stares, staring can be a confrontational behavior in dogs. And if your dog can not break off from staring at another dog, they are likely not able to pay attention and listen to you while passing that dog.
This post is intended to help give you the tools you need to stop your dog from staring at other dogs, and subsequently to help them calmly walk by an unfamiliar dog.
Why You Should Discourage Your Dog from Staring
Staring is a rude behavior. That’s why as children we are taught not to stare at other people. If a stranger stares at you, it can be uncomfortable and can elicit some of your fight or flight responses. You either try to get out of the staring stranger’s gaze or you stare back and dare them to drop their eyes.
Dogs are no different. There are of course differences in the intensity and intent of staring, but staring associated with stiff body posture is part of the ladder of aggression in dogs. It typically occurs in dogs right before growling.
Your dog may pair staring with soft, friendly body language (i.e. they just want to play), but another dog can easily interpret this stare as unfriendly. Since other dogs may see staring as a challenge or aggressive behavior, staring should be avoided regardless of whether your dog is friendly or not.
Train Your Dog to Stop Staring on Command
Now that we have established that you shouldn’t allow your dog to stare at other dogs, it is time to discuss how to go about training your dog not to stare. The following are basic steps to help you start training your dog not to stare at other dogs. But remember, you may need to break these steps down into even smaller steps to help your dog succeed.
You may have recently seen an image on Facebook that looks like a nicer version of this:
This is a really helpful reminder that it will be easier for your dog to succeed if you break down their training into smaller steps.
Another training tip is that it is easier to train a dog what to do than it is to train a dog what not to do. So while your main goal may be to stop your dog from staring at other dogs, the easiest training goal is to teach your dog to instead look at and focus on you.
Start By Reinforcing Deferential Behavior
This starts inside the house by working on a skill known as deference. If you are just getting started in training your dog, I recommend reading our post on deference. In the deference blog post, I discuss tips for teaching your dog to pay attention to you. This is a great foundational skill for every dog to have. Once you are done reading that post, pick out some treats your dog loves and find a quiet space to get started training.
And if that post is helpful, sign up for my email list for caretakers of dogs with reactivity. You’ll get one email a week for 15 weeks with helpful tips designed to help you develop a good foundation for adventuring with a dog with reactivity.
If your dog already has good deferential skills and knows how to look to you for guidance and cues, then the next step in stopping your dog from staring is working on training your dog to leave distractions.
Training Your Dog to Look Away from Distractions
YouTube has a LOT of dog training videos. These videos span the spectrum from positive reinforcement to balanced training. There are also a wide variety of training skills and methods demonstrated in these videos.
Personally, I advocate for training methods that do not include the use of aversives (positive punishment). Research has shown that confrontational approaches to behavior problems can be associated with a higher risk of aggression.
This is consistent with the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists position statement.
The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) advocates for teaching animals through the reinforcement of desired behaviors and the removal of reinforcement for undesired behaviors. The ACVB also encourages modification of the environment, and, if needed, the use of psychoactive medication and other products to create a learning environment where training methods based on respect of the animal’s welfare can be most effective.
The ACVB stands against training methods that cause short or long lasting pain, discomfort or fear. Aversive training methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to animal welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and causing direct injury.https://www.dacvb.org/page/PositionStatement
You can read more about why most veterinarians do not recommend punishment-based training methods and what constitutes punishment in the articles below:
- Why Punishment Should be Avoided – This article is posted on VCAHospitals.com and was written by two veterinary behaviorists, Dr. Debra Horwitz and Dr. Gary Landsberg.
- “Positive” Dog Training Is Not Always What It Seems – This article was written by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and is posted on PsychologyToday.com
With all of that in mind, here are two YouTube videos from McCann Dog Training that utilize treats, praise, and distance to help your dog learn to look (and move) away from distractions.
This video shows you a 5 step plan to ignore distractions:
Step 1: Control the environment and distraction
In the video, the trainer starts in a quiet room without other distractions. He chooses a Tupperware with food inside of it to use as a distraction. But you can choose any item your dog is interested in and would normally try to approach as your distraction.
In step 1, you also need to choose a word that you want to use as the cue for your dog to look away from/leave a distraction. In this video, the trainer uses “leave it.” “Leave it” will be used to mean, look away from what you are looking at and check back in with me.
Start at a distance from the distraction and slowly move towards it until your dog looks at the distraction. When your dog looks at the distraction, use the command “leave it.”
Step 2: Use Food to Lure Your Dog After “Leave It”
After you tell your dog “leave it,” put the food/treat to your dog’s nose and lure him away from the distraction. Don’t pull on your dog’s leash at this point. Your dog should be happily following the food. Give your dog the treat as you turn away from the distraction.
If the dog pulls towards the distraction and doesn’t follow the treat, just wait. Place the treat in front of your dog’s nose until he can turn towards that treat. When your dog turns a little away from the distraction, give them the treat you used as a lure. Then increase the distance for your next attempt to make it easier for your dog.
Step 3: Increase the Challenge
Increase the challenge by getting closer to the distraction. Be consistent in your training as you increase the challenge.
Step 4: Time for a Test
It’s time to say “leave it” without the food lure. If your dog successfully leaves it, get excited and reward your dog with a treat and praise.
Only ask twice. If your dog doesn’t respond appropriately, go back to step 3. Two failed tests means that your dog does not understand the cue well enough. To increase success start far away from the distraction again to increase your dog’s chances of success.
Step 5: Take Your Training Skills Outside
After you have repeated steps 1-4 with several different distractions, take your training outside. You may need to start back at step 1 when you change to a new environment.
Once you feel good about the steps above, check out the video below that specifically discusses using the “leave it” command to help your dog stop staring and walk away from other dogs.
In these videos, you will hear the trainer discuss the importance of distance in helping your dog successfully look away from distractions. Distance is so important in helping your dog focus on you and not the other dog who is approaching.
Each dog is different, so learn your dog and try to work on looking away from other dogs at the distance where your dog can see the other dog but is still able to easily focus on you when asked. And remember, the best time to ask your dog to look away from another dog is right after your dog sees the other dog. This is when you have the most distance and the distraction is least strong.
If you want to learn more about the importance of distance in training a reactive dog, check out our post on Social Distancing: A Key Part of Staying Active with Your Reactive Dog.
Good Etiquette for Passing Other Dogs on a Walk or Hike
Now that your dog has mastered the ability to look away from other dogs, it is time to keep practicing with good doggy etiquette on every walk or hike.
When you see an approaching dog, ask your dog to return to a heel position and engage with you by looking away from the approaching dog. You can create as much space as you need to calmly pass the oncoming dog/person. Reward your dog for calm behavior either during or after they calmly walk past the other dog. The better your dog gets at this, the longer you can delay the reward.
Imagine, if every dog knew how to look away from approaching dogs or people and focus on their handler instead. How much more peaceful it would be to walk our dogs. It would be so much easier for your dog to be successful at calmly passing other dogs, if those dogs you were walking past also weren’t staring, barking, or pulling towards your dog.
This is how people are trained to pass each other. Unless it is someone you know, you calmly walk past each other without staring. Maybe you make brief eye contact to smile or acknowledge the other person. But you don’t stare or try to approach closely.
And for those of you who like to let your dog socialize on walks, that’s great. But you should always ask permission before allowing your dog to approach another dog. And your dog should be able to sit and look at you (defer to you) before you give him or her permission to approach another dog.
An overstimulated dog who isn’t calm enough to listen before greeting another dog can easily start conflict by approaching a dog who doesn’t want another hyper dog in their space. Please respect that some dogs and their people are just out for a walk/jike and do not want another dog to intrude upon that.
So even if your dog doesn’t need to fully ignore all other dogs, having a good “leave it” command and good deferential skills when approaching other dogs can help your dog greet other dogs calmly. By not staring hard as your dog approaches another dog, you can help reduce the risk of conflict between dogs, especially during an on-leash greeting.
Overall, while it may take a lot of time and practice, dogs are very capable of learning how to stop staring and calmly pass other dogs. It may take breaking down the behavior into many small steps, starting indoors and slowly working up to big distractions outdoors. But with enough distance and successful repetition, any dog can learn to stop staring at other dogs on walks. And once the staring stops, so will other problem behaviors like barking or pulling towards other dogs.
Liked this blog post? Check out our other posts about helping dogs with reactivity successfully participate in outdoor adventures.
Happy Hiking Everyone!
Kate, Glia, & Sasha
P.S. If you are interested in reading more about dog hiking etiquette, one of my favorite dog hiking trail etiquette articles was written by Jen Sotolongo at LounHaulTrekkers.com. Check out “The 10 Commandments of Hiking WIth Dogs”
P.P.S. If you adventure with a dog with reactivity, I would love to have you as part of my email list for caretakers of dogs with reactivity. Click the button below to head over the sign-up form.