MAKE WALKING GREAT AGAIN!
How to deal with distracted dogs
With the arrival of spring, nothing beats an early morning stroll with your four-legged companion. Walking is not only good exercise and a great stress reliever, it’s also an excellent way to develop and maintain a bond with your dog.
But what if your dog pays more attention to the environment than he does to you? Is his nose continually on the ground searching for interesting scents? Is he constantly on high alert, looking for that dangerous squirrel or pesky rabbit to chase? Is he obsessed with finding pine cones to eat or sticks to chew? Does your dog pull towards people or dogs you pass?
What can you do to make walking (your dog) great again?
Consider the breed
Dogs were purposely bred to do the very things that can frustrate us. Scent hounds were bred to locate game using their nose which explains why beagles typically walk with their noses glued to the ground. Retrievers were bred to retrieve game for hunters, so you will often find them searching for something to pick up and carry on their walk. Terriers were bred to chase prey which is why they can’t resist lunging after a squirrel.
In other words, some breeds really can’t help it! But there are things you can do to make your walk more enjoyable.
Tips for walking distracted dogs
Start your walk with a tired dog. This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you start your walk with an out-of-control, excitable dog, it is difficult to regain control. Get the edge off before you leave the house by playing a quick game of catch, encouraging your dog run back and forth in your yard or even up and down the stairs in your home. A few minutes of obedience or tricks training before you leave the house can also start your dog off on the right paw.
There are several things you can do on your walk to retain or recapture your dog’s attention.
- Teach your dog to make eye contact when you call his name. Most dogs do this automatically; reinforce the behavior by practicing it and randomly rewarding your dog when he makes eye contact. (Behaviorists have confirmed that the way to maintain a behavior is by random reinforcement.)
- Next, encourage longer eye contact by teaching your dog the “watch me” cue. Search YouTube for “watch me cue for dogs” for tips on how to teach this skill. This will enable you to call your dog’s name and ask him to “watch me” as you quickly move past a distraction.
- Always carry some extra high-value treats or a favorite toy for unexpected situations. I have found that having a tennis ball handy can get my tennis-ball-crazy dog past just about any distraction.
- Consider using tools to better manage your dog on a walk. Loose leash walking skills can improve dramatically when using a martingale collar, a no-pull harness that attaches at the chest or a head halter. If your dog pulls, stop. Your dog will learn if there is pressure on his chest, neck or snout, the walk stops. When there is no pressure, the walk continues. Consistency is key here.
- The “leave it” cue is useful to redirect your dog before you “lose him” to a good smell or interesting distraction. Search on “leave it cues for dogs” and click on the Victoria Stillwell video for tips on how to teach this cue.
- Keep your dog’s attention by being unpredictable. If your dog is losing focus, start making U-turns and head in the opposite direction. Keep doing this until your dog begins to pay attention to where you’re going.
- Mix up your walk by doing controlled recalls on leash. During your walk, call your dog’s name to get his attention and then quickly back up several steps (to invoke the chase instinct) and call your dog to come. When your dog comes, reward him with a high value treat, turn back in the direction you were originally headed and continue your walk. (If your dog jumps on you when you call him to come, back up a few more steps and try again until he comes without jumping. This is my favorite attention-getting technique but also reinforces coming when called and not jumping.)
- Be sure to walk briskly; walking too slowly may be boring for your dog, resulting in excessive sniffing. The suggested walking pace is 2 steps per second.
Practice walking your dog in low distraction areas first. Once your dog responds to some of the techniques described above, work up to more challenging environments.
The key is to make walking great again is to be unpredictable yet interesting, exciting and fun. Happy training!