Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
In this article, we'll look at:
- Why dogs run to strangers
- Why you should try to stop this behavior
- Four ways to get your dog to stop running up to people:
- Use special gear
- Train the attention game
- Train more polite greetings
- Try a trip to the city
Why Dogs Run to Strangers (A Matter of Reinforcement)
Do you own an attention-seeker dog who loves people, and you're wondering how to stop your dog from running up to people? Rest assured, you are not alone. Countless dog owners find themselves in the same situation wondering what to do. First, let's take a look at the exact dynamics that trigger this behavior.
When a dog's behavior is established and repeats, you can bet as much as you want that there's some form of reinforcement at play. The science behind learning theory explains that behaviors that are reinforced strengthen over time and repeat.
In the case of running up to people, there is likely some form of reinforcement at play. Your dog may just love the attention he receives in the form of pats, or he's just a curious soul who is intrigued by the novelty of new people and their smell.
The behavior of a dog running up to people can also be annoying at times, especially when the person at the receiving end isn't very fond of dogs or even scared of them! You must also consider that an overly friendly dog may lead to unpleasant consequences. Your dog may stain a person's expensive suit with his dirty paws, or your dog may accidentally scratching a child.
In order to reduce the behavior, you will, therefore, have to resort to some new rules for your dog and the people he meets. You may have to make changes to your dog's walking gear if he's very powerful. Last, but not least, you may have to implement some behavior modification protocols so that your dog can learn a replacement behavior (to substitute for running up to people).
Three Reasons to Stop Dogs From Running up to People
If you own a puppy or young dog, you may have heard about the importance of socialization. Yet, socialization needs to take place in a controlled setting! Pulling to greet every person on the street is not a good practice. So to recap, the following are three reasons why you want to discourage and stop your dog from running up to people:
It Becomes Rooted
As mentioned in the introduction above, the behavior of running up to people is reinforced by the attention the dog receives when pulling to rush up to the person. The attention received, therefore, keeps the behavior alive.
The dog will pull more and more, and as the behavior becomes rooted, it will soon become a bad habit.
It May Generate Excessive Excitement
On top of the behavior of running up to people being reinforced, consider the associated emotions such as conditioned excitement. The dog learns to automatically become excited the moment he sees a person. This is similar to when a dog gets excited when you grab the food bowl or leash.
Excessively excited behavior may result in a lack of impulse control. This leads to dogs who will pull more and more and engage in rowdy behavior. Soon, on top of pulling to greet people, the dog may start whining, barking, and pulling with more force, making it more and more difficult to keep him under control. On top of that, consider that too much excitement can backfire and transform into aggressive behaviors (yes, this really can happen!), driven by frustration and lack of control.
It May Lead to Unpleasant Encounters
As mentioned, not everybody loves dogs, and those who like dogs do not necessarily like to be greeted enthusiastically by a dog they do not know. Your dog's rowdy greeting may scare people who are not sure about your dog's intent. Even if you scream, "he's friendly!" there are folks who are frightened by dogs.
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Children can get scratches, expensive clothing can become stained, and the elderly may fall as they lose their balance because your dog enthusiastically pushes them. These are just a few possible scenarios of things that may go wrong. So here are some tips for dogs who rush up to people to greet them.
Tip 1: Special Gear for Powerful Pullers
Most likely, you do not want your dog to run up to people, but your dog is such a powerful dog that there are times you cannot contain him despite your best effort of holding tightly to the leash. Being dragged by a large dog who wants to meet everyone he encounters can be quite problematic and can result in you getting hurt too.
If you are walking your dog on a regular buckle collar or perhaps a choke collar, you may want to switch to some better walking gear. The buckle collar may work poorly in preventing your dog from pulling, and the choke collar can potentially cause your dog to choke, gag, and even damage his trachea longterm.
Instead, try a "no-pull harness," also known as a "front attachment harness" where the leash attaches to a ring strategically positioned in the middle of the dog's chest. People who have problems walking large, powerful dogs are often happy to notice more control once they try a harness.
What's so special about this type of harness? The front-attachment harness provides owners with more steering power when compared to a collar considering that it controls the dog's shoulders and chest area.
Dan Merson, the creator of the "Walk Your Dog with Love" harness, has a neat explanation that takes a peek at physics. He claims that dog owners are put at a disadvantage when walking their dogs because dogs are more horizontal than vertical and their horizontal shape results in the advantage of having a more stable center of gravity. We humans, being vertical beings with an unstable center of gravity, lose our balance when our powerful dogs pull more easily.
While a no-pull harness can help reduce pulling, it's important to note that it's just one part of the resolution of the problem. It won't magically stop your dog from running up to people. In order to set your dog for success, you will also have to implement some training
Tip 2: Train the Attention Game
If your dog wants to meet every person he encounters on walks, you may want to divert his attention from the person to you. This may sound easier said than done, especially in dogs who have rehearsed the pulling towards people behavior for quite some time. However, if you take baby steps and practice for several outings, you will start seeing results pretty soon. Here is a step-by-step guide on how you can train the attention game.
To train this game, make sure you arm yourself with tasty treats. You may have to incrementally increase the value of the treats the greater the level of distractions. For example, at home, you may use plain kibble if your dog likes it. Then, when you practice in the yard, you can use regular treats. Finally, when you progress to walks with people around you, you may have to switch to liver treats or roasted chicken.
- In a quiet room, make a smacking noise with your mouth and bring a treat at eye level. The moment your dog looks up to you, say "yes!" and give the treat.
- Practice the same exercise, but now in motion. Walk around the room with your dog on the leash. Make the smacking sound with your mouth, bring the treat at eye level and say yes, giving your dog the treat the moment your dog looks up to you.
- Now, practice this exercise outdoors in an area where there are not too many distractions.
- Gradually, work your way up to more distracting environments with people at a distance from where your dog doesn't react. If your dog loses focus on you, consider that he might not be ready for that certain level of distraction or he may be tired if you have practiced too long. Take a few steps back and resume from there or end the training on a positive note and resume the training another day.
- Enlist the help of some volunteers. Ask them to walk past your dog and totally ignore him while you work on playing the attention game. Again, be careful to gauge his reaction to you and the person. If he can't seem to focus, work from a farther distance, and build up some progress gradually from there.
Tip 3: Train More Polite Greetings for Closer Encounters
Now that your dog has learned to pay attention to you when you walk past people on walks, you may be wondering what you should do if you happen to actually stop to talk to somebody who loves dogs? In such a case, you can train your dog more polite greetings.
For instance, train your dog to target people's hands. In other words, have the person lower the hand and let your dog's nose touch the hand. This is a good alternate behavior to rowdy behaviors that are typical in dogs who run up to people to greet them. Here is a brief guide on how to train this:
- Have a helper come into your home and sit on the couch. Don't let your dog meet this person yet.
- Tell your helper to handle a smelly treat just to get some smell on the hand. Let him keep the treat in the other hand.
- Let your dog out and tell your helper to ignore any rowdy behaviors and wait for the dog to calm down.
- When the dog is calm, tell your helper to present the opened smelly hand. When the dog sniffs then hand, making contact with his nose, let the helper say "yes" and deliver the treat from the other hand. If you do not want your helper to deliver the treat directly, you can always be the one saying "yes!" and handing your dog a treat.
- Put the behavior on cue. Once your dog learns that he must nose touch the presented open hand, you can put it on cue. In other words, you are giving the action a name, so your dog learns to do it on cue. Simply say "target" a second prior your dog touches the hand with his nose.
- Practice now with the person standing and lowering the hand for your dog to target.
- Finally, gradually progress to targeting people's hands on walks so that the targeting behavior can replace the previous out-of-control behaviors.
Alternatively, your dog can be trained to perform other calm behaviors such as sitting or lying down. For young puppies with little impulse control, you can keep them occupied while you chat with your acquaintances by tossing treats to the ground for a fun treasure hunt or giving your dog a stuffed Kong to interact with.
Tip 4: A Trip to the City
Finally, a last tip for reducing the saliency of people. Have you ever noticed how generally well-behaved dogs in the city are? This is because they see people on a daily basis and lots of them too! It might help if every now and then you can schedule a trip to the city or other crowded places to keep your dog up-to-date on his training.
After seeing many people, all the enthusiasm fades away in excited greeters as the presence of people is no longer as salient as it previously was. Your dog's senses will eventually tire after seeing many people; this allows him to practice and rehearse calm behaviors.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: How can I keep my dog from approaching people while off-leash?
Answer: Freedom from the leash should be granted only once the dog has learned to master some level of impulse control. Your dog may frighten people, he or she may jump and make a person's expensive suit dirty, he may knock down an old lady or children, so best to play it safe and keep your dog on leash. If your dog is off leash and not trained, he will keep on approaching people because this is highly reinforcing. Once your dog is calmer, and has attained good impulse control to the point of responding to voice commands such as heeling next to you or coming to you when called despite people being around, then only then, you can walk with the dog off leash in safe areas, but only if the law permits it,of course.
© 2017 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 25, 2020:
Lisa, being off leash is a privilege and should be allowed to dogs who are under perfect voice control and can be stopped from approaching people. Until you can attain that, they should all be leashed not rush to other people and other dogs which puts them in danger. https://pethelpful.com/pet-ownership/Dangers-of-Ke...
A Smith on May 25, 2020:
Really helpful, my dog is two now and has improved lots with these tips - I do a mix of on and off lead during walks in case she suddenly bolts and jumps all over someone on a walk as this is less stressful but i am hoping she is calming and growing out of the full on reactive excitement of people, she now doesnt do this too much for people coming to the front door so there is hope!
Lisa on May 13, 2020:
I have a pack of 5. We love to go off leash but lately they have begun to run to people and other dogs more than ever. How can I train them to stop this?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 28, 2019:
Andy, what age is your puppy? Puppies often haven't attained much impulse control to be able to totally ignore people, especially if they don't see them on a routine basis. If your puppy has finished his vaccinations, and your vet give you the OK, a trips to farmer's markets or cities may help reduce the saliency of people. You can also enlist volunteers to help you out. Many pups get much better as the mature actually-but you need to work on the behavior in order to see result. What have you tried so far?
Andy on March 18, 2019:
This does not work especially for a puppy. At this rate the behavior will only get worse as she gets older. And they say chihuahuas are anti social against other dogs and people. Thats why I ended up getting this breed so that it wouldnt seek the attention of every living thing that comes in its path. I hope this works better for others than it did for me.
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on December 09, 2017:
I'd like to know how I can stop dogs from approaching me. Thanks for writing this. I may have to send this to every friend I know who has a dog.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 03, 2017:
Heidi, Thorne, interesting, that your dog reserves his running up behavior only to specific people. It makes sense though if he's anticipating all the attention. Have a great labor day weekend too!
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 01, 2017:
For our boy, his run-up behavior depends on who's there. Usually, he ignores a lot. But guys are especially interesting, largely because they give him more excited attention than women do. Thanks for sharing the insight and tips, as always! Have a great Labor Day Weekend!