Dear Inquisitive Pet Parents,
Taking your own inquisitive canine out for leash walks is a popular activity across the country, especially now with the warmer weather and longer daylight hours. As someone who enjoys running in the great outdoors, I often witness many pet parents who I feel could use a little leash-manners makeover. And as a certified dog trainer, I get lots of requests for help on how to accomplish this.
So, for this installment of Dear Inquisitive Canine, Poncho and I thought we’d provide some handy, easy-to-replicate dog training tips for when you’re out and about.
Create Your Plan of Action
» Success on the Go: Begin by figuring out whether you’re going to try anything differently this time. What behaviors will you ask of your dog? Has he learned these behaviors? Is your dog already skilled in this area, or does she need more practice? Do you need more practice? If it’s the latter, you’ll want to do some dress rehearsals in less distracting areas. Your home, yard or a familiar place with few or no others around is ideal.
» Motivation is Key: The outdoors provides many pleasantries, but those pleasantries can double as distractions. Arming yourself with anything your dog would want to do backflips over can help inspire her to pay attention to you, not competing temptations. Try extra-high-value treats to practice and reward wanted behaviors, as well as a toy for a rousing game of tug — for dogs who like tug. (It’s best to know what your dog really likes, then use that knowledge to your advantage.)
» The Right Stuff: Quality tools are important for making any task easier. My personal favorite, and the most common recommendation to my dog training clients, is the style of harness in which the leash attaches to the front. For training sessions during which you want your dog to pull — a “real-life reward” — or for those who don’t pull, a back-clip harness works quite well. (There are actually some that come with both features!) For dogs who react more, you need to keep them closer to your side, so try a leash that’s 4 to 6 feet and made of material that’s easy to hold.
As for collars, this is my motto: Collars are similar to wallets — meant to carry your ID and match your outfit. Neither a collar nor a leash should be used as training tools, especially to “correct” unwanted behavior. They are simply management tools to help keep everyone safe.
Regarding specific behaviors you can use for reactive situations, I suggest you launch a surprise attack of fun and games before your dog reacts, redirect him to another activity and avoid the deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon of stopping, panicking and doing nothing.
» Should you come across other dogs wanting to say hello — on or off leash — do all you can to remain cool, calm and collected, even if you’re tensing up inside. Using a happy voice, praising your dog for being a good doggy and allowing her to communicate in her species-specific language can help defuse potential problems. If you’re carrying food treats, you can take a handful and throw them toward the other dog — in the opposite direction you want to go. This can help you get outta dodge, if necessary.
» An activity I love so much that I included it in my Out of the Box Dog Training Game, “Find it!” is a simple, fun exercise that can be done most anywhere. All you do is say “Find it!” in a happy voice, then toss a treat in the direction you want your dog to go. That’s it! The purpose is to redirect your dog’s focus to something rewarding, while at the same time being energy equivalent. Make sure you start the game as soon as your dog sees whatever prompts his reaction, but before he actually does. By completing the steps in this order, your dog will start to associate those triggers with feelings of fun — as opposed to stress.
» Feel like an upper-body workout instead? If your dog enjoys playing tug, then consider bringing along a favorite tug toy. Again, using the same timing, begin playing as soon as your dog sees whatever it is that sparks the fire, then stop when the trigger has passed by.
Tell ’Em What You Want!
» Eye contact is another useful behavior. If your dog is getting recognition for looking lovingly at you, then why would she bother to do anything else? Dogs are smart! They will go for the better payoff that utilizes the least amount of energy.
» “Heel” or “by my side” are verbal cues you can use to let dogs know you want them walking next to you. Make sure when you ask that you reward with petting, praise and/or goodies in the location you want your dog — at your side.
Paws and Reflect
Keep in mind that dogs weren’t born knowing how to walk on a leash, just as we weren’t born knowing how to use one. Similar to operating any tool, it takes practice to gain skills and become comfortable using a leash — no matter which end of it you’re on. So before you venture out, 1) decide on the steps you’re going to need for your walking adventures, 2) gather necessary supplies and 3) practice in areas that make it easy on you and your dog. This will ensure fun times for you both, while simultaneously avoiding stressful reactions that cause an increased heart rate. Besides, getting your cardio workout from walking and laughing is much more therapeutic.
Note to all dog-friendly offices out there: Friday, June 22 is National Take Your Dog to Work Day! For tips on making your inquisitive canine the next employee of the month, click here to check out this previous Dear Inquisitive Canine installment.