Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH
In my previous article I promised you that I would talk a little bit about dog training. Well-trained dogs make walking (and life!) more fun and less stressful for everyone. Keep in mind that if you are having specific training issues, the best thing to do is to call a dog trainer. As a veterinarian, I deal with certain facets of behavior, but my daily experience mostly comes from years of dog ownership. Trainers practice training every day, in the same way that I practice medicine and surgery every day, so they are the experts and should be your go-to for specifics.
When I was in veterinary school and my dog was a puppy, I learned the importance of “wait.” We were walking through a neighborhood near my house, when a dog started barking from inside its fence. My dog ran over to the fence wanting to play, having not quite learned proper dog communication. The dog quickly jumped over its wall and bit her in the face. It was a superficial bite which did more to scare her than hurt her. The kicker? The dog was owned by two of my veterinary large-animal professors. While we were not necessarily in the wrong, I was still pretty embarrassed. Skyla and I both realized that her exuberance to visit with other dogs was going to need some restraint.
We started working on “wait” and have never looked back. Whenever we saw another person or a dog, I would ask her to sit. Once she sat and looked at me, I would give her a little treat. We started doing this on leash, and once she got it, we started doing it off leash. It was very important that we started on leash, because off-leash situations hold a lot more excitement for dogs and a lot less control for owners. Now, when we are walking and she sees another person or dog she will automatically stop in her tracks. Since she is a dog, she often sees or hears other parties before I do, so my first indicator that we will be joined by someone else is her stopping and looking. I cannot tell you how valuable this behavior has been. I will say that there are the odd occasions where she runs before she sits and waits, but these make up a very small percentage of the time. This does not mean that I don’t still have to be somewhat vigilant, but takes a lot of stress out of walking. Thankfully, she taught this to my younger dog. Instead of a runaway dog train, I now (usually) have two completely still dogs when strangers appear.
Let me go back to basics and make sure I iterate how important having a consistent “sit” is. Sit is often the basis of all other things the dogs learn. It is very easy to teach dogs to sit. If you ask them and present a treat above their head and slowly move it backwards they will automatically look up and back, which will put them into a sitting position. If you have a tricky dog that thinks they should back up instead, simply practice this in an area where they cannot go backwards.
I like to practice this enough with puppies or new dogs so that it becomes automatic. When I give my dogs the command to sit they will typically do it before they think about it. This is very helpful in situations when they are thinking about something else and I want them to listen to me. Practice enough that it becomes automatic.
This is arguably the most important and most difficult command to master. It makes a world of difference when your dog is about to chase a deer into the woods or chase a child on their bike. It is important to remember that we still should not put dogs in situations where their only options are to come or get hurt. It is next to impossible for a dog to stop immediately and come to you when a squirrel runs in front of them. If “come” is your only barrier from stopping them from running into a busy street, you are putting them in danger.
A helpful part of learning “come” is for your dog to know its name. If you are in the middle of a crowd and someone yells your name, you automatically stop and turn. It is something that applies only to your dog and will get their attention.
You should start teaching “come” inside your house with no distractions. Wait for your dog to be at the other side of the room and then call them. When your dog is learning to come I advocate giving a treat every one to three times that they come. I am still of the opinion that my dogs should listen without treats (eventually), but when they are learning something we have to give them an incentive to listen. If your dog is not food motivated, find a toy or something else that can be a reward. Ideally, over time your praise will serve the same purpose as a treat, but in the beginning, we must be realistic that food grabs their attention more than a “good dog.”
Once your dog has mastered this inside, take them to a low-distraction area outside. This may be a fenced-in yard, an open field without much going on, or even an empty parking lot. It is important to know that every time you tell your dog to come and they do not, it is reinforcing the idea that what you say is not important. Each time this happens it undoes your work, It is imperative to ask your dog to come when you have their attention and they have no reason not to obey. Think of training as walking up a set of stairs. You cannot expect your dog to leap to the top step without first going up the others. Make sure that each step is mastered before you expect more. If your dog is still very distractible, putting them on a very long lead in the beginning is a good idea. Then, if they do not listen when you first call, you can reel them in with their lead and give them a treat once they obey.
Continue changing their situation as they become more consistent, to add in small distractions. Every time you bump up the difficulty of the situation in which they must come to you, make sure that you have treats available for a reward. When something gets harder to do, we want to make sure that we continue rewarding them.
The basis of all training is consistency. Work on the basics and work on them often. Do not ask more than twice without being able to make your dog obey. Avoid yelling or negativity; a scared dog isn’t happy or helpful. Instead, give your dog every reason to do what you ask and then reward them.