Tips for Training Your Dog for More Pleasant Walks
By Dr. Emily Hoppmann
Obesity in dogs is at an all-time high and is causing serious, even fatal, health consequences. Therefore, it is more important than ever to be sure that dogs stay at his or her ideal body weight through a proper diet and exercise plan. We all know that there are some dogs that do not do well on a leash and so it often is a battle to take them for their much needed walks or you end up feeling like it is your dog taking you for a walk instead of the other way around. We want to help offer some tips for training dogs not to lunge, growl, and pull on their leash. Don’t worry if this is a problem that you face; you are not alone so we want to help make going for walks more enjoyable for everyone! Acting up on a leash is a common behavior problem and it can be caused by a variety of problems such as aggression, fear, unruliness, play-soliciting behavior, or inadequate training. If you feel like you need professional help, there are a number of trainers we recommend but we will try to give you some training tips to help you and your dog have less stressful walks!
The purpose of these training tips are to provide you with tools to help give you more control over your dogs on walks and to replace unwanted behavior (such as lunging, barking, or aggressive or fearful behaviors) with good and relaxed behaviors. It is absolutely necessary to be able to teach your dog in an environment where they are not distracted because training is more difficult due to your pet being less manageable and more distracted when they are focused on other things or are in a more high-strung state. It is also important for you to be as relaxed as possible and approach training as a fun thing – like playing a game with your pet. The most difficult behavior to deal with is aggression because you are responsible for your safety, as well as the safety of other people and animals. It is imperative that leashes and halters are secure and that there is no opportunity for physical contact with other dogs or people. If aggression is one of your main concerns and you do not feel like you are able to deal with it safely it is best to bring in professional help from a trainer instead of risking your safety or the safety of others. You may also want to have a special sign that you can attach to a halter or vest that states that this is an aggressive dog in training to warn other people and decrease the chance they will startle or upset your dog during the training process.
Before any advanced training can begin, it is important that your dog can dependably come, sit, stay, and heel on a leash. Often times this preparation may take some one-on-one training with a professional instead of attending basic group training classes. This is due to the fact dogs that are reactive on a leash usually do not do well in a group training situation due to having so many distractions present they are unable to focus and learn basic commands. As with all stages of training, punishment should never be used when teaching basic commands – only positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means rewarding good behavior with lots of praise, a special toy, etc. You may find that your pet is very food motivated, but you want to be sure that you are using all types of rewards to avoid your pet becoming overweight through too many treats. If you do use treats, there are several low calories options (such as baby carrots, green beans, plain cheerios) or you can simply use your dog’s normal kibble and just subtract the amount you used for training from the normal amount you feed. This is especially important to keep in mind if you are trying to train your dog to walk better on a leash because obesity is an issue and you are starting a new exercise routine. You do not want to make the obesity worse through using too many treats when the whole goal is to have your dog lose weight through a better diet and increased exercise. If initially you find that the only thing that motivates your dog is food, I find it helpful to always use a particular positive phrase when giving the treat in order to allow your dog to associate the treat and the phrase (such as “Good Dog”) so you can eventually get away from using the treat and just use the phrase.
Another big thing that dogs need to know is that you, their owner, is in charge and in control. Pets are a lot like young children and will try to push the boundaries to see what they can get away with and so you need to be sure to stand your ground so your pets understand the two-legged members of the family outrank the four-legged members. Just like with kids, unless your pet knows that you are the boss, it is hard to expect your pet to listen to your cues or follow your commands. I have found that one of the easiest ways to accomplished this is by reinforcing the social structure using a “nothing-in-life-is-free” program. To do this, simply give your dog a command to sit before getting anything he wants or needs (such as before meals, before going outside to play or use the bathroom, and before going for walks/rides, etc.). Another training tool is the use of time-out because to dogs any attention from you is attention (even if you are fussing at them for doing something wrong), and most dogs main goal in life is to gain your attention. By simply ignoring your pet when it demands attention or acts inappropriately, he will learn that the behavior he is doing results in his best friend walking away or turning around. For example, if your dog constantly jumps up on you and you have been yelling “down” but the behavior continues, try to turn around and walk away before your dog has a chance to jump up on you. Another good training tool is to have a set place (such as a certain rug) in your house that you teach your dog to sit and stay until given a command that releases them from that position (such as “okay”) while you go about your normal activities within the home. This is also a helpful command to work on if you have dogs that tend to rush the door if the doorbell rings or company comes over so that you can train your dog to sit and stay while people enter the home and not have to worry about your pet jumping up on guests or darting out of the door. During all training, commands should be given in an upbeat and relaxed tone of voice. Dogs are very smart and will pick up on any tension, worry, or doubt in your voice and be less likely to take you seriously as the “pack leader”.
Throughout training, you must be sure to maintain physical control of your pet and this is best accomplished by using a short (4 to 6 foot) training leash. Using a short training leash allows you to have one hand in the loop at the end of the leash and still have your other hand within a few feet of the collar/halter if you need to grab hold for additional control. Retractable leashes are my least favorite leashes in general (whether you are training or not) because they are unreliable and hard to control. I do not recommend retractable leashes or any devices that cause discomfort to your pet (such as pinch collars, shock collars, and choke collars). You want to avoid anything that may cause discomfort on walks (and in general) because the goal is for your dog to develop positive associations with people or other dogs they react towards and avoid unpleasant associations while on the leash. It is never appropriate to hit your dog with a leash or to pull up on the leash to apply excessive pressure to the neck (essentially choking your pet) and I would not recommend continuing training sessions if this is something that you see a particular trainer doing. If more control is needed than a short training leash provides, your dog should be trained to wear a head/nose halter (such as a Gentle Leader) so that when pressure is applied, it forces the dog’s entire body to turn towards you and prevents them from simply overpowering you and just pulling harder against a standard collar. You may also consider a basket muzzle if there is any chance an aggressive dog might inadvertently have contact with another person or dog. Basket muzzles are the type of muzzle that you see many greyhounds wearing and they allow the dog to open his mouth, bark, drink, etc. but prevent them from biting or chewing on anything.
When you start training, it is important to know at what point your dog starts to behave badly because you want to start your training in an environment that does not cause your dog to be reactive (to exhibit negative behavior). There are two threshold distances to be aware of – the non-reactive distance and the reactive distance. Training starts before the reactive distance, where the dog is not showing any bad behavior at all, and then takes place between the two distances. The non-reactive distance is the distance at which your dog barely recognizes and begins to focus toward whatever his trigger stimulus is (such as another dog, a person, a car or bike). This distance should be significantly farther than the distance at which you begin to lose control of your dog due to a trigger. The reactive distance is the distance at which the dog begins to exhibit the unwanted behaviors (such as barking, growling, lunging) that you are trying to get rid of through the training. This distance often varies depending on the stimulus. For example, a dog that is aggressive towards people might start to show the unwanted behavior to a person that is 100 feet away, but may start the unwanted behavior at half the distance if the stimulus is a more powerful trigger for your dog (such as a person in a hat or sunglasses, etc.). The same can be true if it is the presence of another dog that sets off the unwanted behavior – your dog may start to react to a larger dog or a group of dogs at a farther distance than it does to a smaller dog or a single dog.
You do not always have to do your training in the area you are most likely to be in with your dog, such as your neighborhood. If fact, it can be beneficial to work in a wide variety of environments (especially if your neighborhood is congested, has a lot of people out walking by themselves or with their dogs, etc.). Finding a quiet place to begin training may be very helpful so there are less distractions and then continuing to train in a variety of areas where there are different triggers can be a good way to continue to challenge your dog during the training progress. If you want to go on walking trails or to the park during training you will want to go to a place in an open area near the start of the trail or near the entrance to the park at the non-reactive distance, then use your commands to have your dog to sit or stay for a treat whenever it sees a trigger stimulus and gradually move closer to the trail as your pet stops reacting to the stimulus at the initial distance. The goal is to keep being able to shorten the distance between your dog and the trigger while avoiding the unwanted behavior.
In order to keep being able to shorten the distance, you want to start by walking your dogs in relatively quiet spots where trigger stimuli appear intermittently so your pet does not get overwhelmed. Crowded areas or areas that contain a large amount of the stimulus your dog is reacting to (people, dogs, cars, etc.) should be avoided at first. Adjusting what time you go for a walk can be helpful so that you can pick a time when there is a low number of people, dogs, or traffic. You should be careful to keep your dogs beyond the reactive distance. When your dog starts to focus on a stimulus, you should immediately say your dog’s name in an upbeat tone while giving a treat at the same time, and then command your dog to sit (or stay or whatever command you have picked) for at least two seconds before giving another treat and saying your positive phrase (such as good dog). You should then continue slowly walking with your dog and when your dog focuses on the stimulus again, repeat the previous sequence of events.
It is important to know your dog’s limit so that you and your dog can turn around and walk away from the stimulus before the stimulus crosses into the reactive distance and your dog starts to exhibit bad behavior. Over time, your dog should gradually be allowed to get closer to the stimulus as he learns to follow your command and not react with the unwanted behavior. Some hints that your dog is getting close to its personal reactive distance are taking the treat more slowly (due to being too distracted by the stimulus) or taking the treat too roughly or quickly (in an almost panicked or aggressive manner), becoming slower to sit, whining, yawning, or maintaining a strong focus on the stimulus even while taking the treat and following your command.
Once your dog will consistently perform a relaxed sit or stay around 40 feet (you may need to adjust this distance based on what the initial non-reactive distance for your pet was) from the stimulus, the next step is to continue to walk straight ahead but across the street from the stimulus as the stimulus passes in the opposite direction. You should request your dog sit or stay for treats several times as he or she walks the dog in the direction of the stimulus, but from across the street. Once you are about 40 feet from the stimulus, you should place a large treat in front the dog’s nose, repeatedly say “heel” in an excited and upbeat tone, and briskly walk forward, keeping the dog focused on the treat with his nose pointing straight ahead.
Once you reach the point where your dog consistently ignores the stimulus across the street, you can proceed to the next step. The next step is while the stimulus approaches directly toward your dog from the front, your dog is commanded to sit or stay at a position about 20 feet to the side of the sidewalk. A treat is held in front of your dog’s nose until the stimulus passes, and then given the treat and given the command to stand or walk or heel (whatever command you are using to let the dog know it is okay to break from the sit or stay command). An alternative approach for a dog that might have difficulty maintaining a long stay would be to give a series of sit or stay cues for treats as the stimulus passes. Slowly and gradually, your dog moves closer to the sidewalk during subsequent passes.
Things to keep in mind are to always avoid scolding dogs or saying, “leave it,” “watch me,” or “look at me,” in a tense or agitated tones as a stimulus approaches. These types of responses will typically increase a dog’s arousal and reactivity. You should maintain safe control, stay beyond the reactive distance, be calm but firm, and try to keep the leash as loose as possible. If your dog exhibits a reactive behavior (lunging, barking, growling) during a walk, you should immediately turn and briskly walk or jog out of the situation. You should be firm and calm and not yell, scold, give a leash correction, or punish the dog. If your dog has a history of aggression or a strong fear response and someone asks to pet your dog during a walk, always decline. However, if you, the approaching person, and your dog are all relaxed, you can say, “I’m training this dog, so you can’t pet him, but would you mind tossing treats to him when I ask him to sit?” and allow the person to toss a treat to the dog. If anyone, including the dog, is not relaxed, you should decline the request, maintain a safe distance, and walk away with your dog. (This is where having a “aggressive dog in training sign can come in handy).
There are also things that you may not think of that will undermine your training when your dog is at home and the biggest thing is allowing your dog to be territorial of your house, yard, or you. Allowing your dog to aggressively lunge, bark, or growl while standing at windows, fence lines, or anywhere in the yard will undo the training done on walks. Since it is impossible to control the stimulus that may occur in the environment, your dog should not be given the opportunity to perform these behaviors. This can be accomplished by preventing or blocking access to window, doors, and fences. If this is not possible and the reactive behavior occurs, it should be interrupted as soon as possible. The behavior can be interrupted by using a loud noise that your pet is not used to hearing that is appropriate for your dog’s temperament (such as shaking a metal can filled with coins, blowing an emergency whistle, using an air horn) or by having the dog wear a citronella spray antibark collar. (Shock collars should always be avoided since that falls under punishment and can make the behavior worse.) Once your dog stops the unacceptable behavior, it can be redirected to another acceptable behavior (such as playing with a toy or playing fetch, etc.). You should always reward your dog with praise or a treat if your dog notices dogs, people, or other stimuli passing by the home and does not react. You almost want to go overboard and have a big celebration because this is a big step for your dog!
Drugs may be necessary for dogs with unstable temperaments or for dogs in situations in which it is difficult or impossible to stay beyond the reactive distance (such as dogs with extremely long reactive distances, dogs that live in condominiums or apartment complexes, dogs that must be walked in crowded urban areas). If medication is needed, I usually use a long-acting anti-anxiety medication that can be given daily (since we can’t predict when a stimulus might occur in certain environments it is best to use daily medications that lower anxiety and help the brain to build new pathways). These medications can take up to two months to become fully effective so there are times I will also use a short-acting anti-anxiety medication in the meantime when you know that your dog is going to be around a stimulus.
The duration of training required to resolve these types of problems depend on the pet’s temperament, the duration of the problem, the severity of the problem, and your expertise and time dedicated. Training may take several weeks to many months, but try not to get discouraged and be patient. Attempting to rush your dog through the treatment stages may actually delay progress and can be dangerous if aggression is involved. If at any point, you realize that you are in over your head or you feel like you are not making any progress or the problem is getting worse it is a good idea to consult a trainer for private lessons for you and your dog. Every situation is different and while this article is meant to give you some guidance when dealing with unwanted behaviors that are ruining your walks, it in no way replaces the need for a trainer in certain situations. The goal is to allow you and your dog to enjoy happy, stress-free walks and sometimes you need a little help from a friendly trainer to make that happen!