When it comes to city or suburban dog walking there is nothing natural about it from the dog’s perspective. There is not a single breed of dog that is bred to walk next to you, in a small constrained area (from the dog’s view) of a sidewalk, looking adoringly at you, and ignoring everything else in their environment. If you were to walk a dog off leash in a safe large field, most dogs would check in with you, and go bounding off exploring and then check in again and go sniffing and so on. But, leash walking is what is required in cities and suburbia, so as unnatural as it is we need to teach it to our dogs.
Recently at one of our new student orientations someone commented after the training demo: “Those things are all tricks! I just want my dog to walk on leash and sit.” I quickly answered back, but those are tricks too! Anything you ask your dog to do is a trick. If you think of polite leash walking as a trick it changes your whole outlook on training the skill. Most people find trick training fun, and leash walking should be fun too, for both you and your dog!
Most people fail at training leash walking by going too far, too fast without the right foundation of training. I would not ask a toddler who is just learning to walk to take a mile walk with me. I most likely wouldn’t even ask them to walk down my driveway. Yet, this is what we do to our puppies, and remember puppies are not very different developmentally from a young toddler. Instead of that mile walk with a toddler we would practice walking in a safe environment inside the house. I might choose a carpeted room so if the child falls it won’t be hurt. Or maybe I would make sure there is furniture around to grab onto in case they were to fall. We need to set our puppies and dogs up for success the same way as a toddler who is just learning walk.
The foundation trick for polite walking (and really all training) is paying attention. Frequently, we call this checking in. We know our dog is paying attention to us when they are looking at us. If they are looking at us they are not stalking birds, barking at the neighbor dog, or sniffing grass to learn about the squirrel party from last night. It is a huge trick for a dog to learn to turn off all of that genetic wiring to pay attention to us instead of those awesome things.
We need to make it worth their while to pay attention. We get to do this with rewards, usually food rewards. So start training in the most boring room in your house – usually it’s a bathroom – and start rewarding your dog for giving you eye contact. You can acknowledge (mark) the moment you get eye contact with a verbal reward marker or a clicker and then reward. In this case you should put the reward on the ground, so your dog is ready to give you eye contact again. Most likely your dog will be in front of you, because that is the easiest way for them to look you in the eye. That is fine for now, but soon we’ll need to teach them how to give attention at your side. You can’t go for a walk very easily if your dog is in front of you facing you, unless you have a dog like my Bueller who likes to walk backwards, but that’s a video for another day!
Once you have your dog riveted to you with attention in the bathroom, it’s time to move to different rooms in your house.
Practice the same thing. Slowly over time start putting those rewards next to you so your dog starts to learn being next to you is rewarding also. Once you can’t shake your dog’s attention when next to you in all the rooms in your house, it’s time to move outside. I suggest to go to your garage with the door up and start the game. This way it’s “outside” on one side but not completely outside. Oh, no – do you no longer exist to your dog now? No matter what you are doing you just don’t exist? Now it is time to look at your reward value! What might have been an awesome treat inside your “boring” house, is no longer so awesome when we could be treeing squirrels! So go back in the house and get something better – maybe cheese, roast beef, bacon, who knows. You’ll know it is a good paycheck once you can’t shake your dog’s attention again.
Now we take it to the backyard! Same drill as before, wait for your dog to pay attention and reward them next to you.
In the backyard, you’re going to need that high paycheck again. Your dog is used to being able to run around the yard chasing things and now you’re asking him to hang out with you on a leash and pay attention. You’d better not be boring and your rewards must be better then a squirrel! This whole process can take days and even weeks so don’t panic.
Wow, we have just done a lot of learning, but we haven’t walked anywhere. I hear you now: “but my dog needs exercise!” Yes, but all that learning is exercise, for both the body and the brain. I bet you’ll have a tired dog without putting mileage on them. This learning is laying the foundation to good walking. Your dog has not learned any “bad” walking habits that need to be “unlearned” as they get older and bigger (and harder to retrain). Also, your dog has not done any damage to their neck or throat while pulling on leash.
You have many, many years ahead of you for long walks in the neighborhood and about town. Now is the time to make a commitment to laying a great foundation. Take it slow, to do it right, in the long run you’ll appreciate those future awesome stress free walks.
Stay tuned for the next steps is leash walking – the first step!