Without a doubt, playing with other dogs and walking and sniffing are the most enjoyable activities for most dogs. However, rather than being used as extremely effective rewards in training, for many owners these activities become distractions that work against training.
Some dogs get excited at the mere sight of their leashes, others go ballistic — barking wildly and jumping up and down. Putting on the leash unintentionally reinforces the dog’s over-the-top behavior. Another example: Many dogs drag their owners down the sidewalk and every step unintentionally rewards the dog for pulling on leash. At the gate to the dog park, dogs often accelerate their hyperactive antics. Letting the dog off-leash unintentionally rewards the dog for acting like a loon. The dog has a great time in the park as the owner watches from a distance and, in no time at all, the dog learns that playing with other dogs is much more fun than most activities with the owner. Now the mere sight of other dogs becomes a huge distraction to training.
The converse can also be a problem. Calling the dog and putting him on leash effectively “punishes” the dog for coming when called. After a few trips to the park, the dog learns to avoid his owner at all costs and plays “catch me if you can.” Becoming frustrated or annoyed and screaming, “Come here, you bad dog!” does nothing to encourage a dog to come when called.
Any of this sound familiar?
Sadly, for far too many dogs and their owners, off-leash walks, visits to the dog park, and even walks on-leash lose their sense of joyful companionship.
Luckily, there’s a better way. If you integrate numerous short training interludes into your dog’s favorite activities, these activities may be used over and over as life rewards.
For example, wait for your dog to sit before attaching the leash. If you attach the leash while your dog is acting crazy, you only reinforce the craziness and make him act crazier the next time. Patience is required. However long it takes, wait for your dog to calm down and sit before you clip on the leash.
Similarly, wait for your dog to sit before opening the door to go outside. Once outside, wait for your dog to sit again before walking anywhere. If the dog pulls on leash, stand still. Every step you take with a tight leash will reinforce the dog to pull harder, so take the time to allow your dog to get a grip on his enthusiasm and calm down. Allowing a dog to pull on leash and hurry through the environment will quickly over-stimulate his brain and make him much more likely to become reactive to passersby or other dogs. Don’t rush things. Go one step at a time if necessary. Every single step will energize your dog and each time you stop will allow him to calm down. Don’t let a non-stop walk unintentionally reward your dog for being hyperactive and distracted.
Even after you’ve taught your dog to walk calmly on leash, make a point of stopping frequently, say every 25 yards or so, to allow your dog to take in and adjust to the environmental changes. Of course, every time you stop and wait for your dog to sit and look at you, you may reward your dog for being calm and attentive by saying, “Rover, Let’s Go!” and then resuming the walk. The more times you stop, the more opportunities there are to train your dog to be calm and attentive.
Once you get to the dog park, wait for your dog to sit before entering and then, of course, wait for your dog to sit before letting her off-leash. When she’s off-leash and having the time of her life, don’t just be an observer. Be an active participant in your dog’s playtime. Make sure that you’ve packed the dog’s dinner in a bait bag because today, it’s a picnic in the park. Let your dog run off a bit of steam and when you think you have a chance of success, call your dog. Take hold of your dog’s collar when she comes, offer half a dozen pieces of kibble, then tell her “Go Play” and walk away.
Well, that was the hard part. From now on it will become easier and easier to get your dog to come and sit. Continue calling your dog every couple of minutes or so until you run out of kibble. Every time you interrupt her play and ask her to come and sit, you may say “Go Play” and use the play session as a reward. On subsequent park visits, ask the dog to come and settle down for a while or walk by your side for a short distance.
Dog parks are absolutely the best places to train. Usually they are fenced and, of course, once you have successfully trained your dog to be attentive and responsive in a setting as distracting and exciting as a dog park, he’s pretty much going to listen to you and follow your instructions anywhere, including especially on walks.
Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian, canine behaviorist, and puppy-training pioneer. He is the founder of SIRIUS® Puppy Training and Scientific Director for www.dogstardaily.com.