Everyday Dog Training: Become the Leader; Reclaim the Walk

So you want to hike with your dog. First, you have to teach him to walk with you.  

I am a BIG fan of calmness and attention in every activity that your dog participates in. A state of calm curbs excitement and misbehavior when I hike with my dog (especially if my hike is off-leash). I've run into people on my walks with Jake that have said, "oh, your dog walks so good, I wish my dog would do that".  When I ask why they don't, more often than not, I get the usual responses: "oh, he's still and puppy" or "I can't help it, he just pulls me down the street".  I tell people that you can't get an attentive and calm dog overnight, or in one hiking or walking session. 

It Takes Practice

When you learn to play a musical instrument, you didn't just pick it up and all of sudden know how to play a concerto, right? You needed to PRACTICE. And you needed to practice CONSISTENTLY. I walk my dog Jake everyday. We hike somewhere in my neighborhood once a week. It's part of our training. I say OUR training because in practicing my patience to walk him actually teaches him patience as well. Believe me, patience begets patience. The more you practice your patience, the more your dog will become calm and attentive.

Do you feel you are running out of patience on your walk?

Make it a game (I still do these with my dog):

Figure 8's
Choose a driveway, stop at the boundary. When I stop, Jake MUST sit. I take a step forward into the driveway and start to do a figure-8. He must stay at my side. In Figure 8's, depending on how big you make the 8, your dog can't really get out in front of you because you will either be turning away from him, or turning into him. We do about 5 Figure 8's. At the end, I stop at the edge of the driveway and Jake must sit.  At this point, I reward him with a "Go SNIFF" or "Go Potty. After a couple minutes of sniffing, we continue with our walk, until the next time I want to do Figure 8's.

The Box Step
The Box Step is similar to Figure 8's. The difference is that you will always turn in the same direction, unless you turn around and walk the opposite direction. Because Jake is pretty good at heeling next to me, we do these at crosswalks. We go around the same intersection, maybe twice. We halt red lights and he must sit.

When I first started doing this exercise with him, we walked a small box around my driveway.  If he started to walk in front of me, I would turn around and walk the box in reverse.

Stop and Reverse
This is probably one of the best ways to train a dog to follow your lead and walk on a loose leash. Since you should be walking your dog everyday, take about 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of the walk and do this.  

Here is how it works.  As you walk in a straight line, as soon as your dog walks past you, make a complete 180 turn and walk the opposite direction. Do not pull your dog at this point. The leash will correct him. As he gets to the end of the leash, it will apply pressure to the neck and he will turn to look for you. Since you are walking the opposite direction at this point, he will turn to catch up with you. As soon as he walks past you again, turn and walk the opposite direction again. He will again, look for you as the leash applies pressure and when he sees your back, he will run and catch up with you.

What do these little exercises teach him?
  • He must always walk next to me
  • He must always watch me (because you never know what I'll do next!)
  • He learns patience to WALK, not run (or pull) 

NOTE: The purpose of the walk is to exercise your dog mentally and physically. But training also tires dogs out. A good training session will calm your dog down. You may not get far doing these games, but they will tire your dog out mentally.  At this point, if you can't walk with your dog without him walking you, you might not want to go far anyway because you won't have a lot of control. A proper heel or loose leash walk allows you to maintain control of your dog and teaches them patience. They must walk at YOUR pace, not the other way around.

Just a note about rewards
Food: you can use food.  And you can take treats on a walk to reward your dog.  However, you should consider 2 things:
  • You should reduce your dog's amount of regular food to account for the calorie intake of the treats
  • Food rewards generally increase excitement and adrenaline in dogs. If your goal is to maintain a calm dog during a walk, I would use another form of reward. 
Petting as a Reward: this will not excite your dog. If you are going to use petting as a reward, or a "good dog", make it exciting and worth the work - but also don't go overboard. Dogs react to inflections in our voices, which is why genuine praise works. The act of petting your dog also works, in conjunction with praise, but during the walk, petting during praise should be the only time you should pet your dog.

Free or Go Sniff:  I use this form of behavior as a reward because Jake is not allowed to sniff when we are on a walk. He is only allowed to sniff and go potty when I say he can, this way I can use this behavior as a reward.  

How did I shape this particular behavior as a reward?  It's easy. Initially when we walked, as he started to leave my side to go sniff, I would tell him no. I would make him sit next to me and stay engaged with me. I would walk a few steps again, then stop. He would then sit. Then I would say "Go Sniff". We would be a few yards down from the original place that he wanted to sniff in, but at least he got to sniff.  When his sniff-time was over, I would say "Come to Heel". At this point he would not be allowed to sniff and go potty until the next time I let him.

Let me know what you do with your dogs or your clients to help them maintain a proper walk.  I'd love to hear what ideas you might have!

Until next time... Our dogs CAN learn with Training through Love and Respect!