Problem behaviours: poor recall

Problem behaviours: poor recall

Fact: it’s not just rescue dogs who can be off into the distance off-leash, but a rescue is perhaps more likely than most to lack this particular dog skill. The sad fact is though that a rescue dog may have the best recall in the world but if he’s a dog whose name or recall signal has changed, you’re likely to have a dog who has either not been given the right recall cue or who never had one in the first place.

And let’s be honest: 80% of our dogs come in via the pound. That’s a lot of strays. It leaves us with a conundrum as well – did the dog have poor recall in the first place and that’s why it’s in the pound? Is there some owner out there still shouting for their dog to come back?

If you’ve picked up a rescue, you could have a dog who had terrible recall in the first place, who’d never been taught, whose original name has been forgotten… there can be any number of reasons why your new rescue would be best to stay on a leash.

But if you’ve got your own dog and you’ve had them since they were a pup, you could have a potential pound dog just biding his time. There are many, many dogs I meet off-leash whose recall is shocking. Their owners are lucky they don’t go missing or they aren’t hit by a car.

Of all the dogs I have had, all of them are potential pound dogs in certain situations. Or proper pound dogs for three of them, picked up as strays. Tobby used to like to toddle off on his own – no surprise how he ended up at the shelter. Ralf liked to go for a wander and desert his guard dog post – and no surprise there either. Amigo is a pound dog whose hunting ways have left him with bullets and a habit of selective deafness where rabbits are involved. Tilly will happily chase cyclists down the road and ignore me if there’s a cow pat to be scoffed. Molly once disappeared into the bushes and wasn’t seen for hours. Heston has either perfect recall or zero recall and once went missing for four hours, and Effel chases Heston wherever he goes.

I’m pretty sure most households are fairly similar. Poor recall is endemic. If you ask me, it’s one of the most frequent problem behaviours.

Three of my current four here have lovely leash manners. Two of them are real homebodies who’d never leave the gates. Two of them are reactive around strangers. Two of them have house-soiling issues – one because he’s on cortisone and the other because she’s a monkey for forgetting. One of them jumps up from time to time. None of them chew anything they shouldn’t anymore. None of them dig (any more!) None of them escape (any more!) None of them bite or fight. But all four of them have poor recall in certain situations. That means it’s the number one issue in the Woof Like To Meet house.

Poor recall is also obvious in several viral videos on Youtube. You’ll remember Fenton, of course.

There is potential for every single dog to have a Fenton moment.

If we remember that recall is largely dependent on situation, you’ll understand that good recall depends on controlling the situation. Sometimes, recall is called “situational recall” for that very reason.

Why do dogs have poor recall? There are a number of reasons. But the main reason number 1 is that it is part-and-parcel of being a dog. What do dogs get out of coming back? A biscuit, some praise maybe. What do they get out of running away? A game of chase. Ten minutes of snouting out some amazing and wonderful smell, wrapped in the delight of a behaviour that is quintessential, hard-wired DOG. Couple that with the chase instinct and you’ve got a tough problem indeed. David Ryan’s very excellent blog post and book will help you if you have a hard-wired chaser. It’s a behaviour that needs more than this post can give you. But it’s not untreatable with dedication and commitment.

If you have a dog, however, who is just a bit haphazard rather rhan a dog who is completely obsessed, then this post is made for you

First you need to know how bad that recall is.

Think you’ve got a dog with poor recall? How poor? Completely zero? Want to put it to the test?

Wait until your dogs are in the house and they’re kind of otherwise occupied, like mine are now. I want you to get up, sneak off and go to a place where treats come from. Mine get home-made peanut butter for pills from the fridge, and occasional bits of meat and treats as I’m preparing Kongs and rewards. The fridge is a treat dispenser extraordinaire in my house. The shelf where I keep the Kongs is also a good bet. And the room where I keep the food.

I want you to sneak off to the spot where you dispense most of your really high-value treats from or the dog’s food and I want you to call your dog. Call them excitedly, like you’ve got something amazing for them. And give them some really amazing contraband from the fridge.

What happened?

Did your dog come? If not, it’s probably not a place with a strong enough appeal or your dog has very poor recall habits. Your dog may also have hearing issues. How long did it take your dogs to come? You can see from this that it took Effel 5 seconds, Heston longer (8 seconds and a second call – he needed the T word to break his usual ‘out of the kitchen’ habits) and Tilly even longer (12 seconds).

I apologise for the blurry low-light video. And you’ll see there’s only three dogs here too. This fridge test was actually a really good test to see how Amigo’s hearing is right now. Not working at all from five metres. He was asleep in the living room.

Now they’re a bit slow on the uptake. I don’t feed them often from the fridge and I’ve never, ever called them to it before. It’s not food time and my dogs (except Tilly) don’t come in the kitchen unless it’s food time. In fact, I’ve trained them to stay out of the kitchen unless I invite them in. I love how they all stand around like, “Put the Treat in the Mouth, lady.”

Now give it five minutes and do it again. Call your dogs.

It took seven seconds to get all of them in the kitchen. Tilly first. The Tilly is smart when it comes to food. That dog will do anything for a biscuit. Effel’s quick because he’s a beauceron shepherd and if you can’t do this with a shepherd, you need to give up straight away. They don’t have ‘personal time’… they have ‘stand-by time’ when they’re awaiting instructions from you. In fact, if you have a shepherd, you’re probably not reading this post unless their recall is poor when out on a walk and they go all “must see off the moving thing”. You’ve probably got bigger problems in the house in not being followed around by your dogs constantly! Heston’s a more independent kind of guy, but even he’s in there super-quick the second time.

If your dog was confused in the first test and took a while to come to you, they won’t be by the second, I guarantee it.

But if after four or five attempts, you’ve still got a non-existent recall, time for the vet’s for a hearing check or a great positive gundog trainer I think!

The good news is that if you’ve got recall with this test, you’ve hope of getting recall in other places too.

There are three factors that make recall good here: you’re close to your dogs, your dogs are inside (and therefore prevented from leaving or being distracted) and you’re asking them a thing that is not difficult. My dogs are all just waiting for their walk or snoozing, so they’re alert and doing nothing else. No real distance. No real difficulty. No real distraction.

I can do other things to reinforce recall as well. Social facilitation (peer-pressure!) is strong with dogs, so if you’ve got a multi-dog household, it’s more likely they’ll all run off after a deer together and ignore you, but it’s also more likely that if you call and one comes running, the others will as well. You could encourage speed among your dogs for recall by having one treat for the dog who gets there first, but that feels a bit mean to me. Dogs are very good at fairness and their obedience drops if another dog is rewarded more than they are. But it could still hone their competitive edge. More research needed on that!

Another thing that changed the difference between the first twelve-second recall and the second five-second recall is habit. The first time, that recall was slow because I don’t make a habit of calling the dogs into the kitchen. The second time it’s become a habit – albeit a two-time habit. I’m going to share a secret. I’m never ever going to call my dogs to the fridge to feed them again as I don’t want to encourage them to the kitchen. I don’t like them in there unless it’s meal-times. But I do use my mantlepiece as a toy/treat and Kong storage facility, so I guarantee I get quick recall if I stand there. Making a habit out of recall is vital to increase speed and reliability.

You should also think about your cue for your dogs to come. It’s worth teaching a new word completely from scratch if you’ve had a lot of recall fails. I use ‘doggies!’ and you want an excited, lively tone. What you want is that word to become associated with most wonderful, amazing, fabulous events. High-pitched, positive, giddy… it’s all good. How fast was your arse on the seat when your mum said “Dinner time?” compared to how slow your arse hits the seat when your teacher said “Spelling test!”. You want the ‘Dinner Time!’ response. No good if your “come!” makes your dog think a spelling test is on the way. If your dinner time has been seven days of sprouts and cabbage, you might be a bit reticent about coming to dinner.

Besides social facilitation and habit, you should also use high-value rewards at the beginning with your dogs. Be mindful that you’ll need to phase them out and have times where you don’t reward them for recall. After ten tries or so, have one or two where you call them and don’t reward them. Give them a fuss by all means, but no food. Variable rewards create a more reliable recall than a reward every time, I promise! You should start phasing them out quite quickly.

With these three things, I bet you can get a reliable, fairly instantaneous recall in the house in less than five tries over a day or so.

Next is the bit that people find hard to understand. Dogs don’t generalise well. When you cue a dog by standing in a regular spot and rewarding fairly regularly for them to come to you, it doesn’t mean they think they should do the same when you move to another spot. So you have to teach them. Time to move spot, improve the quality and reward rate of your rewards and try again. You absolutely need to use your dog’s food allowance for this as well, so stop feeding them from a bowl and make them work for it! See every biscuit in a bowl as a wasted learning opportunity. You’ll even want to space it out over a few hours because otherwise you will end up like the Pied Piper of dogs, with them following you everywhere, I promise you. That’s pretty annoying.

Once you’ve mastered that second spot inside, move again!

Remember… call your dogs (cue), get a behaviour, reward your dogs (and phase out the reward) so that eventually, you’re going from request to response without any need for a reward.

What you want is a 98-100% recall indoors in four or five different spots, over a range of distances and into places your dogs don’t usually go (or don’t like to go… the bathroom being one such place for my dogs!) with a variable reward schedule before you even move it outside. Over 100 trials, you can have a couple of mistakes. But if your mistakes are too regular, you need more work in the house first. You can (and should) also build in distractions in the home, like trying to do this when your dogs all have a bone or a chew. My test is doing it when the post lady’s van pulls up… not 100% there by any means, even in the house. Before you move outside, you need a rock solid recall in the house first. I’d also build in a sit-stay-release response, as you don’t want your dog running off the moment they have the reward. A sit-stay-release response is easy to teach here. Most owners should have a release cue. Mine is “Allez!”. I’d also build in a ‘look at me’ or ‘focus!’ response (Mine is “eyes!”) For me, my cue sequence goes: “Doggies! Sit. Eyes.” and then I give the treat. Then I say “Allez!”. No point giving a break cue and encouraging them to stick around for a reward.

Once your dog can come to their name (or a group name), sit on cue, stay on cue, release on cue and look at you the whole time, you’ve got a great in-house recall. You can even use your body language in there – what I call a ‘rolling recall’ – where you walk off and call your dogs to you. Patricia McConnell in The Other End of the Leash makes a compelling case for dogs interpreting our body’s forward motion. Calling your dogs (because they can’t see you so they need to hear you), turning your whole body to point away from the dogs and walking briskly in the opposite direction is the best signal that your dogs should stop the course they’re on and follow you. I can’t count the number of times this has worked. If I call them and run away from them, not only do I become a great game of ‘Chase!’ in myself, but it’s very clear to the dog that I’m going in the opposite direction. I can’t tell you what a life-saver this technique is when I see a deer appear out of nowhere, or another off-leash dog, and I don’t want my dogs to see it and give chase. Starting this in-house can help it become a really reliable device to get good recall at critical points. I’d also include a few collar-grabs in there, since outside many dogs end up getting their collar grabbed as a consequence of a recall (or having their leash put on!) and who’d come back if you’re going to have your collar grabbed? The ONLY consequence for recall should be positive. But as soon as my dogs come towards me, I can practise the collar touch and reward them for it too, so they are used to it – and they don’t end up being one of those dogs who dance just out of reach and abscond when you really need them not to.

I can’t stress one thing enough though. The ONLY consequence a dog should have for coming back to you is the most amazing love and fuss. Like you have been apart for months and months. But building in a collar grab practice can prevent a bite or any resentment that a dog might feel for coming to you rather than going off doing their own thing.

When you are absolutely sure that your dog’s recall in-house is rock solid, even with distractions and definitely without bribes, you are ready to level up!

You can move outside into a quiet, safe space. That might be your garden. But if you have a noisy garden or live in apartments, a quiet spot in a park can also work. I’d keep your dog on a long leash first and here’s where you really, really will need a sit-stay-focus-release cue. The leash here is acting as your walls, and only when you can get a reliable sit-stay-focus outside can you even think of moving up to testing with a longer leash and bigger distances. I use a 3m leash then a 10m, then a 20m. I’ll do a few positional requests, like ‘sit-focus-down-stand-sit-stand-down’ and build in the ‘stay’ before using my new (and proofed!) command, ‘doggies!’ or whatever it is I’m using as my cue word. Then when it’s good at 20m, I’ll take the dog off-leash to try it. And at this point, I am going to have some of the best, most wonderful, most stinky rewards. I want that first time off-leash to be THE BEST-EVER MOST WONDERFUL recall. I’ll do it when the place is completely and totally distraction-free. No cats. No squirrels. No squawky magpies. No passing traffic. No noisy neighbours. I’ll then increase the distance too.

After, I’m going to build in some distractions, too, just as I did in the house. From chews to toys to a game of Sprinkles, and I’m going to try recall there as well. And only when I have 98%-100% recall in the garden on and off-leash, with and without rewards am I going to take it beyond this safe, walled outside space.

My emergency garden recall, by the way, is to run away, off up the garden as fast as I can, shouting “Whooo! tea time!” and heading to the food cupboard. This worked perfectly with a guardy terrier who’d stolen my shoe and run off down the garden hoping for a good game of chase. I even got the shoe back. ‘Tea time!’ is my twice-a-day failsafe excitement word that always, but always gets 100% attention. It only works if you have a food cupboard to hand though.

The technique of turning away to encourage recall is a great one to inspire your dog to follow you. You can find more details and more tips in this article on the Whole Dog Journal website.

Once you’ve got good in-house and in-garden recall… time to level up.

You know how it goes. Out of the garden, no-distraction environment, on-leash. Sit-focus-down-focus-stand-stay repetitions out there in the big, old world. Fantastic treats, high-ratio of reward. Then a longer leash. Then one that’s longer still. Then build in distractions. If it gets too hard, take it back to the last known rock solid place and make the distractions or distance less difficult. If I can’t get good recall on a 20m leash in an open field, I’ll try with a 5m leash. If that’s too hard, I’m going to maybe take it back inside the gates, or wait until I’m on a walk and I can see my dog is paying attention, giving me lots of eye contact. I’m going to borrow my friend’s secure garden and try it there. Or a tennis-court. Basically, if it too hard to get reliable recall out in the world, I’ll try to manage the environment better so it’s less distracting. If I’m really going to struggle at this point, David Ryan’s “Stop!” programme that I mentioned before is a real life-saver.

When… and only when… I have reliable recall on a 20 or 50 metre leash, I’ll take the leash off. I’m going to do it in a really distraction-free area on a day when I have been practising on-leash recall and I’ve got an excellent response rate without rewards. I’ll bring out my best rewards and that dog is going to think he has won the lottery when he comes back to me. I’m not going to try more than one or two times that first day and I’m going to up the level of challenge so slowly that my dog is never going to have a Fenton moment. If he does… I’m not going to stress it. A Fenton is not coming back until he’s done what needs doing, believe me. My aim is to avoid Fenton Moment Potential.

In fact, if I am ever in Fenton Moment Potential situations, I am going to keep the leash on. Period. You know yourself what distractions are too much for your dog. You know better than anything what causes recall fail. You’re reading this post after all, and you know better than anyone if it’s rabbits or hare, boar or buffalo. I suggest you make a list of Fenton Situations for your dog and you never, ever let your dog off-leash in those situations if you want them to come back. For my dogs, that list is this:

Heston: swallows, crows (less than 20m), pheasant, squawking jays, magpies, hare (but not rabbit over 50m away) deer (within 2 hours and 20 metres of walking zone) other dogs, puddles, rivers, streams, lakes, boar, starey cows, people, walkers, cyclists, joggers, hunters, hunt dogs. Heston has great situational recall in very familiar empty spaces with no wildlife. He is reliable with cows, horses and rabbits.

Tilly: cowpats, other dogs, cyclists, joggers, hikers, rubbish bags, food waste, pheasant, stinky manure

Amigo: is deaf now. No recall at all, bless him. Used to be rabbits or boar and cow pats.

Effel: everything but Heston running or other dogs leaving the pack, which he likes to herd up and move on. Also has a roving eye for orienting towards moving objects when he’s over-stimulated.

You can, of course, build in recall-proofing with leashes and then without, gradually decreasing the distance between you and a cause of poor recall. I did this with cows, horses and rabbits for Heston and we’re working on him not racing off to dive in the water. But generally speaking, if your dog is unreliable around certain stimuli, keep the leash on and go right back to recall basics around that situation.

Remember that even the mildest aversion can be a massive deterrent. A bit of rain and my dogs think they’re made of sugar…

The day Effel’s rock solid recall fails is indeed the day that it is heaving it down. Remember, recall fails happen to everyone, and if you are in any doubt the recall will fail (I had no doubt at all that my dogs would not venture into the rain!) don’t expect your dog to follow you.

Recall, then, is only as good as your environment. Managing the environment for a dog with poor recall is absolutely vital. The predatory motor pattern sequence that comes part and parcel of your dog’s genes means that unless you have a dog with a genetically-inhibited sequence (so livestock guarding breeds) you are likely to have a living, breathing dog. If you have a hound or a terrier, you will no doubt have moments where the Call of the Wild will take over. That’s what leashes are for. Even if you have a rather jolly labrador, you might want to stick a leash on as well.

And… if you’re having problems walking your dog on leash, try this post from last week!

Next week… jumping up.

Problem behaviours: pulling and jerking on the leash

Problem behaviours: pulling and jerking on the leash

Confession time. Before I knew how to stop it, I had a dog who pulled like a demon. Once, he was part of a group of four dogs I was walking that pulled me on my arse through a field of cows to see a dog at the other side. He pulled so much that it made my hands and shoulders sore. It made me really cross with him too, and I’d finish walks furious if I had to walk him on the leash the whole walk. For this reason, I’d let him off leash more than I should and I even contemplated choke chains. I didn’t get as far as thinking of prong collars, but what I wanted from my dog wasn’t what I was getting.

Sadly, it was all my fault too. Before I knew better, I’d clipped an extending “flexi” leash on him. I used one with my cocker spaniel and it suited us fine. But that flexi-leash taught my young pup about constant pressure and snapping to an end. It taught him he could go where he liked and to feel the constant pressure until it jerked to a stop. This is how he thought dogs walked on the leash.

Not only that, I did another bad thing. I let him off leash at 20 weeks of age for the first time. For a few weeks, it was great. He could walk without pulling and his recall was great. Until he saw a deer. And then a rabbit. His 100% recall was shot and he had to go back on the leash. But he’d got smells by then. Making a lunge to a smell, dragging me from one side to another, wrapping me up in that nasty nylon flexi-leash… so I moved to a 1 metre flat leash, which is the standard leash length. He couldn’t move anywhere and spent the whole time trying desperately to get to a scent. The leash became a punishment in itself. Not only that, but trying to walk past various dogs behind 100m of open fencing meant he too got barrier aggression. Two great reasons to pull and lunge: barrier aggression and over-excitement around scents.

And I did that horrible thing. I expected him to grow out of it. I thought that, by the time he got through his teens, he’d stop.

The dogs I’d had before either walked nicely on leash or had great recall. Molly wasn’t so great on the leash, but she had good recall (on the whole!) and she was never aggressive with other dogs. Tilly and Saffy walked nicely on the leash and good recall (unless there was a cowpat or a cyclist!) But Heston was neither 16kg of easy-to-control dog nor was he a homebody wanting to stay with the pack. No. He was an independent spirit who wanted to chase jays and crows, sparrows and starlings, deer and boar, cyclists and joggers.

While I didn’t get it right with leash walking, I did with a lot of other stuff. We negotiated destructive boredom and he had lots of other ways to burn off energy at home. Heelwork, agility and obedience training were good for him.

But a walk was a living nightmare, with me constantly on edge.

I think that’s the same for a lot of people.

I suspect that walks are the biggest point of conflict between dogs and owners. We love going for a walk with our dogs, otherwise we really wouldn’t take them. And lots of people don’t walk their dog. For 23 hours of the day, you have a great dog who you love very much, and for 1 hour a day, you have a dog that you’d surrender to a shelter. For 23 hours a day, you’re all treats and rewards. For 1 hour a day, you’re at your very worst.

Let’s face it, more people let their dog off the leash than should. I can’t tell you how many accounts of poor dog/dog greetings on a walk I read in one day. For those of us who walk our dogs on a leash, being approached by an unruly off-leash dog with zero recall is our worst nightmare. The Dog Lady posted yesterday about an off-leash incident that cued a lot of comments from owners whose dogs on leashes were attacked by dogs off-leash.

But I know why so many people walk their dogs off-leash.

On-leash, their dog is a nightmare. Off-leash, their dog’s recall may be poor, but many dogs kind of pootle about near the owner. I let Tilly, Effel, Molly, Saffy, Ralf or Amigo off leash and I know that I could walk and they’d be somewhere near me. Sure, they all have their moments where they go all Benton (remember that viral video of the dog chasing deer, much to the frustration of their owner?!) but off-leash, they’re a happy dog and I’m an owner who isn’t having my arm pulled off.

This has consequences of course. More lost dogs is one. Dogs run over is another. Dogs being self-employed on a walk is a serious side-effect. I can’t tell you the number of times Heston disappeared whilst on an off-leash walk. I can’t tell you how many times Tilly has disappeared after some distant cow-pat. But the risk of them doing so was always less than the daily pain in the arse of walking dogs on a leash

Most off-leashers seek out quiet spots away from other dogs. But you can’t predict when someone else will appear. By far most common side-effect of walking off-leash with a dog with poor recall is that if your dog sees another dog or human, they are going to approach it. I think most of these incidents end without bloodshed. The psychological trauma of repeated incidents for both dogs is enormous though. And for vets who deal with dog bites, what percentage of those happen between unfamiliar dogs where they were out on a walk with one or more of the dogs off-leash?

So why do so many people let their dogs off, knowing that their dog is a bit of an arse with others and that their dog has zero recall when confronted with other dogs?

And why do so many good people turn to choke chains, prong collars or gentle leaders to help them out in what is, quite frankly, often a daily battle? If you ask me, the daily walk is the last bastion of punishment training, the one point in a dog’s life where we feel like punishment might work even if we feel uncomfortable punishing a dog at all.

The answer to these questions is simple: walking your dog is often harder than it should be. For many of us, we feel strongly enough that we should walk our dogs but we focus too much on control rather than communication. We haven’t got good enough communication with our dog to have a fool-proof recall or a jerk-free leashed walk, so we try and control the dog instead.

Think about it, though.

You and your dog have different goals on a walk. You want to see some nice landscape, hike across the moors, take a gentle amble to the paper shop, feel good about making your dog happy, enjoy a little time with your canine friends … your dog wants to cram as much into that brief walk as they possibly can. It’s their dog time. The rest of the day, they have to refrain from doggie behaviour. No nuisance barking. No investigative chewing. No hole digging. Is it any wonder our dogs are so excited? They are FREE! But that freedom is short-lived, and they know it. Most medium-sized adult dogs are capable of a good three or four hour walk every single day. And unless you are a jobless walking health freak, there’s no way your dog is doing that.

For this reason, it becomes a really high energy moment for many dogs. I bet you any wager you care to offer that a dog who walks eleven hours a day will not be quite as excited about the prospect of a walk as your dog who gets an hour a day.

A dog’s motivation is to smell and investigate everything they can. Your motivation is… to do enough of a walk so you feel like you’ve done your bit and get home for a drink. Especially if it’s cold, windy, wet, hot, early or late.

We have other conflicting goals. We want our dogs to enjoy the walk. We don’t want automatons walking perfectly to heel, unless we are doing dog obedience or schutzhund, or unless we work in the military. We don’t want to frogmarch our dogs down the road whilst they watch us without any interest whatsoever in the world around them. By the way, if you do want this, don’t get a setter. Or a spaniel. Or a terrier. Get a shepherd. But don’t get a super-smart shepherd like a Malinois or an Australian shepherd. Get a low-maintenance German shepherd or a rottweiler. They’re more likely to see their walk as impromptu bodyguarding. They might bark at cars and grumble at passers-by if you’ve not taught them right, but they like to walk with you. It’s their body guarding job. Getting a good heel walk out of a shepherd isn’t hard. Loose-leash with a socialised shepherd is easy. Getting one out of a hound can take the most patience you’ve ever had.

Our personal goals are incompatible. Most of us want a happy medium between dogs who use what leash they have to go and smell stuff, but dogs who don’t lunge and jerk the leash. We don’t want frogmarching, but we don’t want the dog to walk us. It can be really hard for a dog to work out that some sniffing is okay but pull-sniffing is not.

Clicker training can certainly work. Watch Dr Sophia Yin or Emily Larlham teaching young dogs to walk to heel with a treat bag and a clicker, and you’ll no doubt think it’s a miracle. Their methods are perfect for young dogs who haven’t yet learned about all the other rewarding stuff they might find on a walk if only they lead you and not the other way around.

But clicker training to get a good on-leash walk with an adult dog can be really frustrating and doesn’t always work, even with minimal distraction.

I couldn’t see why clicker training wasn’t working for my puller. My clicker-trained dog who can perform a perfect peekaboo and can jump over my back, spin and twist through my legs like a slalom skier can walk to heel perfectly like an arena show dog…

And then he catches a smell and yanks me to the other side of the road.

No amount of ham, chicken skin, turkey, beef or duck is going to bring him back to me when he has caught a smell.

The fact is that once you have a dog who has learned that there are many, many more fun things on a walk than you can ever provide, you’re going to have a battle bringing it back to non-yanky, non-pully walking. How can a piece of chicken skin compete with the smell of dead badger?

For Heston, it just didn’t.

Funnily enough, it was a video about prong collars that got me thinking. The trainer kept explaining how the prong collar was a communication tool. I disagree. It’s a control tool. Sure, it communicates, but it does so with the appalling ability to shout so loud it’s like a Sergeant Major screaming in your face. It says, “you are under my control” to the dog. The dog gets to say nothing in return. That’s not communication.

A leash is a method of communicating with our dogs. It should tell them the speed we’re walking at, and the direction. Most humans are fairly predictable. We walk rather than running, and we go forward, the way our feet are facing. Sounds dumb, I know. But this isn’t always clear communication to a dog.

Not only that, dogs don’t walk like us. Most don’t walk at all. Walking’s what you do as a dog when you’re completely worn out and someone is coaxing you, or if you’re in trouble. Dogs trot. Watch your dog’s natural gait and they trot. Sometimes they run. Sometimes they gallop. But dogs don’t walk, not often. Effel lopes along. Tilly scurries. Amigo trots. Heston rushes.

And we humans tend to walk or run at a steady pace. Go run a marathon and you’ll see all the pace setters. Run a 6-minute mile? Run with the 6-minute pacer. What we don’t do is run and stop, run and stop, run and stop, run and smell stuff, run and investigate. But that’s what dogs do on a walk. If they’re setting a pace, they trot. So walking for a dog is a thing you have to teach, a pace thing.

So there are two fundamental issues with leashes. Firstly, our dogs don’t understand what we’re communicating mainly because a leash is silent and you only know it’s “talking” when you’re at the end of it. Secondly, how a dog walks and how a person walks are two very different things. What we need to teach is not how to realise they’ve got to the end of the line, whether that’s a metre or forty metres, but how to walk.

For that reason, we have two things to do. One is use our voices more and in the right way. The second is to teach dogs about speeds.

We may also have an issue with rewards and with more distracting environments for a dog.

How do you teach when the rewards you have are not as good as the rewards a dog gets for pulling you all over the path? How do you teach when the environment itself is so filled with interesting distractions that sticking a prong collar, halti, gentle leader, choke or slip leash on a dog isn’t ‘loud’ enough communication to combat the distractions?

The first thing to do is treat the walk itself as its own reward. The behaviour of going forward is rewarding in itself to a dog. On a walk, that’s what they want to do. Or zigzagging. But generally forward. Training a dog to walk loose-leash, you can use this to your advantage where chicken and ham may fail.

A walk is its own reward. For Heston, all he wants is to be on the walk. I’ve seen him spit out treats, even high value ones. He’ll take them, but he wants to walk. It’s the same with toys. He doesn’t want to play fetch or frisbee. For this reason, the best motivator is the walk itself. Moving forward is the reward. Exploring is the reward. Smelling stuff is the reward.

For this reason, one of the easiest motivators you can use with a dog on a walk is… the walk itself. It might be why your cheese is failing and your ham-scented biscuits don’t get a second look. You can see Emily from Kikopup using smell as a reward here:

Once I’ve understood that the behaviour itself is rewarding (like barking or chewing… you don’t need to teach a dog to do these on the whole!) the next thing I need to do is think about what I want from the walk. Do I want a frog-marcher, stepping alongside me, Malinois obedience style? It’s feasible if I do. You will need to do a lot of work on place-boards and turns, but you can do it. There are about forty mini-steps within an obedience walk. Any good trainer will tell you that it takes a long time to get the dog in the right position without a food lure, being able to turn on the spot keeping their front legs still and their back legs moving. Spins and twists are okay, but you need higher level stuff, like putting a placemat under your dog’s front feet and getting them to do a 360° on that. From here, you want to teach them to contact the side of your leg with the side of their body, as well as teaching the dog to circle on all kinds of different objects, including flat ones. You need to teach about eye contact too, as well as turns…. okay, so it’s feasible if you have fifty hours to train your dog to do it and lots of time to practise.

But most of us don’t want an obedience walk. Most of us just want a leisurely stroll where our dog can have a sniff from time to time without pulling us off our feet.

I don’t want to ‘control’ my dog, but I want my dog responsive to communication and I want them not to run on the leash or jerk towards a smell. When I’ve taught my dog to maintain communication during a walk through my voice signals, I won’t need leashes that control a dog: I can throw away the halti, the gentle leader, the head halter, the prong collar, the choke, the slip. I can also use longer leashes so that the dog can interact more with the environment and get the mental stimulation they crave from a walk rather than walking with me.

What I need to teach, then, is not the perfect heel or goose-step, but the perfect speed and some voice commands. If my dog is walking, they can smell as much as they like. If they’re doing the hoover-trot, where they’re simultaneously hoovering up smells and dragging you along, then this is not working. I need to take it back to a less stimulating environment where the dog is less aroused by the smells around them. I also need to teach them a cue word when I can see they’re going too fast and they’re going to get to the end of the leash. I think this is where a lot of the training videos fall short because a scrabbling, pulling dog is often trotting or running on the leash and they aren’t at all interested in food. This is where I’m going to use going forward as the reward in itself. But I still need to practise good leash behaviours like walking on the lead instead of trotting.

One of the problems I find with trying to use traditional clicker training, rewarding a dog for walking at your side and looking at you is that it only works if your rewards are more high-value than the environment, and you can spend literally months building up a ‘strong behaviour’ based on food without ever getting to the point where your food (or even play) will be more of a reward than the environment itself and your dog’s desire (and need) to interact with it. If a dog has to walk at your side and look at you (and thus interact with you rather than the environment) to get a reward, you aren’t going to win when your dog is full of energy and when the rewards for not walking at your side or looking at you are bigger than whatever treat you have to offer. Otherwise, I’ll be happy to show you Tilly’s ‘perfect’ heel walk when she knows I’ve got a pig’s ear in my pocket. But is she interacting with the environment? Not at all.

Also, there seems to be something inherently flawed about trying to teach a dog to interact in less crazy ways with the environment by rewarding them for interacting with you.

For this reason, I’m going to use the environment first as the reward, use treats/play if my dog will accept them and teach them verbal cues to tell them that they are going too slowly, too quickly or I’m going to change direction so that they can hear it coming before it does. For most leash-walking videos I see, whether prong or clicker, there’s no verbal communication at all between the dog and the walker. We’re using the leash as communication in both methods and that seems ridiculous. The dog only knows that they are out of leash when they feel the end of it which is why I think so many dogs walk at the end of the leash. If the only way to communicate that they’ve gone too far is the fact the leash jerks, then we’re failing in our desire to communicate with the dog, which is where a verbal cue is the missing link.

In the teaching world, getting your class to stop what they are doing is a similar situation. Imagine if you will a drama class in full engagement with their work, or an exam hall where you have two hundred candidates doing a paper. How do you get them to stop? You give them verbal cues. You don’t want your students constantly keeping an eye on you for some silent signal that they’re doing the right thing, or only knowing they’ve done the right thing when a buzzer goes and they get a biscuit. Dogs are capable of understanding our tone of voice, so we should use that. It seems silly to me to see gundog or working dog trainers using all kinds of aural cues like whistles and commands, and never see that in the dog walking world.

For this reason, I’m first going to teach my dog a cue to trot: “Quick, Quick, Quick”. Read Patricia McConnell’s thoughts about the effects of sound on speed and you’ll know where I’m coming from on this. Horse trainers and sled drivers use this all the time. Sounds and words equal a change in pace. Words and tone can encourage a change in pace. In fact, I’m going to teach my dog to trot on cue to “quick quick” and to walk on cue to “sloooooowww”. I’m going to teach them “stop”, too.

I promise you that people who run with their dogs have fewer problems with leash-pulling… having seen some of our great pullers at the refuge (Manix!) going for a trot with a volunteer, he doesn’t hardly need to be taught a trot because it’s his natural gait.

You don’t need to trot far, either. Ten paces following a “Quick Quick Quick!” will do. And before you go to a walk, teach your dog “Sloooooooowwww”. And use that tone. Anyone who’s had puppies knows that a “puppy, puppy, puppy!” call will bring them all to you. A “Quick Quick Quick” command is great if your dog is spending too long on a smell… and a “slooooooow” command is good if they’re trotting.

To teach these two commands, start in a safe, distraction-free zone. An empty car park if you need it. Your garden if you can. A car park is good because there’s no clear ‘forward’ direction or back, whereas a road or a path goes only in two directions, making it more predictable that you will go backwards or forwards. I’d recommend a shortish leash at this point so that they’re within your range of communication. One metre leashes are a little short and I think they can encourage pulling to get to smells, but even a three-metre leash would be too long for many dogs. Once a dog has mastered this with a two-metre leash, I move up to longer leashes and long lines when I know they’re responsive to commands further away from me.

Start this training after a walk, when your dog is not going to go mental at the sight of a leash, leave the leash on and try it then. If your dog is full of pent-up energy, you’re going to fail from the outset. And play before a walk can run the risk of amping the dog up — although I always find that my own dogs are much calmer after ten minutes of play to get that energy burst out of their system. You can use food rewards if you like to teach these two speeds. But you’re going to cue a run by saying “Quick, quick, quick”, then go at your dog’s trotting pace for a few metres. You can click and reward if you like, or give them a verbal praise. I promise you, it does not take long to teach a dog “quick, quick, quick.” You’re ‘teaching’ them to trot at their natural pace when you say. You can also build in, “Let’s go!” to show them how to turn and move in the opposite direction. The Kikopup videos show a great “Let’s go!” command.

Just remember… verbal cue AND THEN behaviour.

Then, before you stop running, say “sloooooowww” and bring the dog back to a walk. Click and reward if you like, or praise. When you slow, you’re going to walk at your own normal pace. It’s really important to reward the dog loads at this point, because this walk is hard for a dog. Before your dog gets to the end of the leash, say “stop!” and teach them to stand without moving. Teach the verbal cue “Let’s go!” to turn around and go in the opposite direction.

You’ve got to forget walking in a straight line or in one direction until your dog has learned this, frustrating as this can be. You’ve got to forget your nice little circuit, or the need to walk a kilometre or so. If you only make ten metres progress on a loose leash in an hour, that is progress enough.  You can see how frustrating this might be for a dog, which is why some off-leash walking or play would be good beforehand. No point trying to reeducate your dog on how to walk properly when you’re just back from an hour of reinforcing pull-and-jerk.

Once you’ve mastered this in your garden, a closed field or an empty car park, move up to more distracting spaces. If you give a verbal cue then turn every time your dog lunges forward, every time they trot and jerk the leash, you will soon get to a point where you can use “Quick Quick Quick” as the cue to speed up (if they need it!) and “Slow” or “Stop!” to stop them getting to the end of the line. If they get to the end, I say “Too bad!” and turn in another direction.

I generally use the two-metre leashes with dogs who are in a distracting environment, three-metre ones and five-metre ones for areas where we might come to distractions like other dogs or people, and a twenty or fifty-metre long line when I’ve got one single dog on a leash in a non-distracting environment – for example, when all my other dogs are okay off-leash, but Heston’s still a bit whooo-hooo! and might do a disappearing act if he catches a smell. If I’m walking in town, it’s a two metre leash, maximum. If I’m walking a number of dogs, it’s usually two metre and three metre leashes. I actually have a carabiner attached to a short leash for Heston so that I can clip on different leashes at different moments without fumbling about.

Here’s a really good video from a BAT trainer about long line hand positions that really helped with Heston:

This is a great explanation and demonstration from Grisha Stewart that made a big difference for Heston.

As she says, it’s about walking in balance and in tune with each other. Her slow stop method was what got me thinking about teaching speed of walk and giving a cue before the stop. It’s a team exercise, but I need to make sure my dog understands that.

Teaching that you only move forward on a loose leash is vital. Teaching them to speed up and slow down on cue means that your dog can more easily predict what speed you want them to go at.

The five things that have helped most then are:

  1. Having the right equipment: the right leash for the right time.
  2. Teaching verbal cues for speed that tell a dog they are going too fast or too slow without them needing to look at me, remembering that a leash is one way of communicating with a dog, but my voice is better.
  3. Actively teaching on-leash walking skills when I’m not actually walking my dog and when I have no walking agenda.
  4. Using the environment as the reward and use forward motion as the reward for good leash manners remembering to be absolutely consistent about never letting my dog to go forward on a tight leash.
  5. Using long lines and Grisha Stewart’s methods of holding and handling the line to reduce pressure

You can see in the video below how Heston’s made such great progress that straight out of the car, he can walk at a loose leash. The wind’s coming in from the south carrying the scent of the wild boar from the forest a hundred metres away, so he’s a bit more distracted than usual. I also use “gentle Heston” because he knows this from a puppy, but he knows slow as well. I try to give him lots of verbal feedback about how he’s doing and he needs more at the beginning of a walk because he’s more excited. It’s a bit jerky – you’d expect that with three dogs in one hand and a camera in the other! He’s got his three metre leash on here so that he’s got some range of movement, and he does cross the road to keep an eye on the forest, though he usually walks on my right. Tilly and Effel walk to heel with no pulling, and they have great recall, which is why they’re off-leash. Amigo is partially deaf, which is why he is on-leash, and Benji is a foster, which is why he has a slip-leash and is not off leash.

Turning Heston from a dog who jerks on the leash, or trots and lunges, to a dog who gives some eye-contact during the walk and never has a tight leash has taken some time. It’s a combination of Patricia McConnell’s ideas about vocal commands, Grisha Stewart’s BAT loose-leash methods, and Emily Larlham’s clicker-training methods that has made the biggest difference for him.

Next time: how to improve your dog’s recall

Problem behaviours: over-excitement before a walk

Problem behaviours: over-excitement before a walk

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be tackling fifteen very common problems that owners have with adolescent or adult dogs… behaviours that are so super simple to avoid through good puppy training but also cause problems for owners who have adopted adult shelter dogs or who missed a bit in the puppy department. These fifteen behaviours are ones that often lead a dog to be abandoned at the shelter too. The good news is that even if your dog had all fifteen of these behaviours, they’re things that can be addressed very well. I’ve yet to find a dog who does all fifteen, but it’s not uncommon to find a lot of them in combination. They’re also all problems that people ring about in the first few days of an adoption, as well as being ones that – sadly – end in owners returning dogs to the shelter at the end of their tether. What makes me sad is that if they’d called us, we could have helped them with the problem.

The fifteen most common problems that people call about or lead to returns are: house-soiling, chewing, barking, digging, escaping, jumping up (exuberant behaviour), humping/mounting, leash pulling, no recall, poor socialisation with other dogs, biting, fighting with other dogs, fearfulness, resource guarding and problems being left home alone.

In this post, I’ll be exploring one that is very close to home… one that had me exasperated yesterday. Over-excitement before a walk and poor impulse control on the leash. Yes, you’ve got it… crazy behaviour before a walk, and not much better on it.

I’ll be splitting these up into two posts as really they are two separate problems, so I’ll to start by looking at how to bring pre-walk excitement back under control.

Let’s be clear… ALL my dogs, (that’s three of my own and two in foster care) are excited before a walk. But Heston… ah, Heston. He lives for a walk.

Circling, barking… kind of the same behaviour we see in a lot of shelter dogs at walk time.

In the interests of clarity, by the way, this used to be Heston’s default pre-walk behaviour. He’d already had a walk that morning and I usually don’t allow this level of excitement. You can hear me encouraging it for the video. Normally I don’t flap a leash at him, stand by the gate and mention the dreaded W-word with a camera on him. That said, sometimes I am incredibly busy and it’s harder to be consistent. Also, to be completely honest, he can be much, much worse than this. Yesterday morning, he was so over-excited that I spent it doing remedial pre-walk exercises. And then, when I wanted to make a video to show you all… he’s all “What?! Me? Over-excited? Never!”

But he’s not alone. All four of the other dogs here right now can also be agitated before a walk if I let them. Amigo whimpers and runs about. Tilly also cries and runs about. Effel has this weird behaviour where he comes barging in, lifts his paw and then when you put the lead on him behaves like a greyhound in the slips. He’s also a giant knob in the car. Benji barks and won’t stand still. Try putting five leashes on that lot of 200kg of excited dogs and walking out of the gate or putting them in the car.

You’ll notice that I put “if I let them” in italics way back there.

That is because this excitement is caused by me either intentionally (particularly in this video) or unintentionally. Heston does not spend all day circling and barking of his own accord. It’s me (or in this case me taking him on a walk) that has caused this behaviour. Can you imagine this 24/7?!

But because I cause this, it’s also up to me to manage it. What I cause, I can control. You can see though why a lot of people simply stop exercising their dogs or doing fun stuff with them, which can worsen other behaviours.

No, whether I like it or not, I’m the only one of us in that partnership that can also bring this lunatic back to non-crazy behaviour. I can’t expect Heston to “grow out of this” (he’s almost five!) or to stop because I’m telling him off.

Calming a dog’s pre-walk energy is up to you.

It depends on you understanding the prompts and cues you give, and taking a bit of time to address the problem. The good news is that it is a problem that is easy to solve, if a little frustrating. Don’t get me wrong: that frustration will certainly be yours, not the dog’s.

I think one of the most frustrating things about managing this behaviour is that even human beings just want to get out of the gate and have a walk! The first thing to do is put the idea of “a walk” out of the way until you’ve got this behaviour under control. Sure, that might mean your dogs only get a 5-yard ‘walk’, but a couple of weeks addressing this behaviour and I promise you that you’ll have an end to pre-walk excitement – and a dog you can communicate with right from the very first moments of your walk.

So what do we need to do?

The first is to understand the unintentional cues we give our dogs. Cues are “signals, words or other stimuli” that “reliably result in the animal performing a particular behaviour”. There’s bags of science behind this: unconditioned stimuli, conditioned stimuli, secondary reinforcers, antecedents and all kinds of trainer talk. Blah Blah sciency words. Cues can be deliberate, like asking for a sit, or they can be unintentional, like going to the fridge and being followed by a pack of dogs. When I bend down with a dustpan and brush, Heston reliably play-bows. My actions cue him to play bow. Who reading this avoids saying “walk” or “bath” because of the signals it gives to the dog? We are very adept at noticing the things we say that turn our dogs into lunatics, but not always good at noticing what we are doing.

These cues… they’re not all deliberate. Nor are they all avoidable. I may not mean to give them or even know I’m doing it. It’s only when I thought about it that I realised every time I stand up and push the chair under, Heston makes for the door. Or I may be aware that I’m doing it and be unable to avoid doing it. Like I know my keys set him off, but how can I lock the door to go for a walk without using my keys?

If you want to see cues at work, go and pick up your dog’s leash and see what happens. Stand up. Notice what your dogs do? Move towards the door. Do they look interested? That’s an action prompting a response from your dog. In the shelter, walking past the dogs with a leash is a massive prompt of excited behaviours. In the home, picking up your keys or a leash can be a cue for excited behaviours.

So why do these cues make dogs circle, bark or whine before a walk?

Because a walk is a massively fun and rewarding thing. It is the highlight of many dogs’ days. You might get this when you come home too. Benji, one of my current fosters, does these because me coming home is like hitting the jackpot and he’s excited to see me. Effel is just as excited at food time. If I say “Does Tilly want a treat?” she’s going to whine and whimper and race about like a fool.

You can get these perfectly normal doggie behaviours at any point when a dog is excited.

But when it can be cute from time to time, it’s not cute when five dogs are doing it before you go for a walk. And once one starts barking, the likelihood is that the others will all follow suit. That’s something else about canine excitement: it’s contagious. Thus I’ve got five barky, over-excited, whining, circling dogs to get through a gate and along a narrow path, past four houses with other dogs, over a main road and around ‘dog pee’ central where all my neighbours’ dogs also pee on the corner. I really, really don’t want that excitement behaviour.

How then do I stop it?

The first way to stop it is to break your cue-chain. This is a chain of classically conditioned associations. W leads to X leads to Y leads to Z.

Dogs are super-expert at reading cues and putting them together. Heston’s go like this…

Am I awake?


Have I had breakfast?


Did we have a nap?


Is it light outside?


Is she standing up?


Is she putting socks on?


Is she putting shoes on?


Has she opened the shutters?


Has she brushed her teeth?


Has she picked up her keys?


Has she put on her hat?


Has she got her coat?


Has she got a leash?


Has she locked the door?


Then it’s WALK TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’ve talked in previous posts about trigger stacking, but the same is true of cues we give our dog. A combination, particularly in a formula, is very predictable, like the pins falling into place on a lock. Every single one of those cues contributes to the excitement the dog feels. But when they’ve learned W leads to Z, and all the other cues before lead to Z, they’re going to get excited when the first of those pins falls into place. And that excitement is just going to grow and grow.

The fact is that Heston realises there’s quite a long chain of events that lead up to a walk. There’s a lot of predictable cues that let him know a walk is on the way. Our main job is to disrupt the sequence, desensitise the dog to various cues that are absolutely necessary and make whatever leads to the excitement much less predictable, so that the dog is calmer and you can work with them.

Ever tried calming a dog like the Heston in the video? Not so easy, is it? Couple that with frustration, a barrier… bringing a dog back down from that into a learning zone can be really a challenge.

One of the main things that we need to do is stop this level of over-arousal ever happening in the first place, so that the dog is listening and responsive.

The first thing to do is identify every cue that excites our dog. I need to make a list of every single thing I regularly do before taking my dogs for a walk. That can include things like pushing a chair under (because I have one dog who likes to get up on the table) and locking the food away (because I have another dog who likes to break into the food room and have a picnic). I make a list of every single movement I make in the half-hour leading up to a walk, including the time I regularly walk the dog. What’s tipping Heston off? I’m going to list everything.

Then, I’m going to eradicate every single cue that has become an accidental part of the chain… the non-essentials. Is it essential I walk Heston first thing? No. Could I walk him before breakfast? Yes, if it’s light enough. Do I need to open the shutters? No. Must I put on my boots right before the walk? No. So I get rid of every inadvertent accidental cue. Do I need a hat? Could I keep it in my pocket? The shorter the time that excitement has to build up, the easier it is to manage.

Identify every single behaviour or object that gets a reaction. Put all the things on a table a couple of hours or so after a walk, and pick each one up in turn then move to the door. What does the dog do? Which ones cause the most excitement? Which ones are “hot” objects that really indicate a walk? I just did this… put my hat on and moved to the door… picked my keys up and moved towards the door… picked a leash up and moved towards the door. The hat caused a marginal response. The keys caused a lot of interest. The leash, well, that was a ‘jackpot’ cue… Heston’s scrabbling at the door to get out. Pushing my chair under also has the same effect.

Once I’ve identified the problem cues that I can’t eradicate, I need to choose a programme to tackle this. I need to break the connection between these things and the consequence being a walk, and I need to be less predictable.

For the rest of the cues, well, unless I want to leave my house naked and barefoot, without a leash, without my keys, I need to find out just how stimulating each one of those things is.

Part of lowering this level of over-arousal with a stack of cues is to change the sequence. For anyone whose dog gets excited when they put a harness on, the simplest thing to do is put the harness on when you are doing something else – like they’ve just eaten – and leave it on until you take them.

Your aim is to stop the harness meaning a walk.

Once the dog comes to realise there is no longer an association between a harness and a walk, the harness going on doesn’t trigger excitement. It’s the same with a leash. One of the best things to do is have a harness that you put on when it is nowhere near walk time, and clip a leash to it at the same time. Wrap the leash around the dog so it’s not dragging on the floor but is easy to unwrap, and then you’ve removed a very significant cue from the order. Taking the fun out of a leash is vital. Put it on 50 times a day. 100. Carry it around with you all day. That leash needs to mean nothing at all. That can be hard with a dog who knows what it is, but you will notice that your dog becomes less and less excited the more you handle the leash.

Another way you can do this is to switch the normal walking tools. If you use a flat collar and leash, switch to a harness and a new type of unexciting leash. If you use a harness, switch to a flat collar and leash for a little while and let your dog wear the harness round and about the house until the harness stops meaning “Walk!”

I’m also going to do that when I have absolutely zero other cues around. Nothing on my list of cues can be anything that vaguely raises an eyelid. If I go and start messing around with leashes when I am in my coat and hat, wearing my boots, got my keys in my hand, it’s going to be too much.

I’m going to do it when he’s had a walk already.

I’m going to leave his leash on in the house for five minutes or so, and then I’m going to take it off and carry it about a bit. I’m going to sit and watch TV with it in my hand.

Then the next day, I’m going to do it a bit more.

This way, the dog has zero expectations. Who goes on a walk when they’ve just got back from a walk? No dog on the planet. Never in the field of canine walking has a walk come immediately after a walk. It is a very safe time to teach a dog that a leash is meaningless. Leave it on, take it off after five minutes, play with it. Put it away. Next day, do it a bit more. Within a week, you should have a dog who is happy for you pick up and move the leash without assuming that a walk is going to follow. Stop hanging the leash in its habitual place, too. Keep it around and about you.

When your dog is no longer as aroused by you picking up the leash, you can also use post-walk time to get the dog used to you taking off and putting the leash back on again. When’s the best time to practise putting a leash on without excitement? When you’ve just taken it off. If you use a clicker, you can reward calmness. A lot of us ask our dog to sit before we remove a leash, so keep them in a sit and immediately clip it off, then clip it back on. Do it ten times or so in the first couple of minutes after a walk and you’ll have a very different reaction from the one you get trying to do that before a walk. I’d also vary it – try taking the leash off and putting it back on five minutes after a walk. Leave longer intervals between taking it off and putting it back on. If your dog gets excited, leave it til after the next walk and do the same, just with less of a duration.

If I take him for a walk before he’s eaten, he isn’t as excited. It’s unexpected and unpredictable. If I went out barefoot, that would be too. If I didn’t have my keys or lock the door, that would be too. All of these tiny, tiny prompts add up together, and if I miss one out, it decreases his excitement because it becomes an unexpected walk and he hasn’t worked himself into a frenzy.

For many excitement behaviours, doing things out of sync can reduce them, or mixing them up. The more of those behaviours that Heston understands make it more and more inevitable that a walk will happen. If I could do them all simultaneously in one second, it would catch him off-guard, but the fact is that some of those things are ones I have to do.

I don’t walk Heston in the dark. I don’t walk him barefoot. I don’t walk him without having locked the door, and I don’t walk him without a leash. Some of these things are going to have to happen in an order. But some don’t have to happen in that order, or only happen right before a walk. For instance, like the harness or leash, I need to take the fun out of my keys, and the door being locked whilst we’re both on the “walk” side of it. I need to disconnect my boots from a walk, and my coat. Yes, I’m going to have a few days where I’m just picking up stuff and putting it back down, right after a walk. I’m going to do it at random and schedule it so that it will seem random to the dog but that I am being systematic.

At the same time, I’m really, really working on some trainable calmness. Sit. Lie Down. Settle. Look at me.

But you want to know five biggest changes that turn a crazy-eyed loon into a mild-mannered dog, reversing the Tasmanian Devil effect…

  1. The first was making sure my dog has had some exercise before the walk (avoiding making pre-walk exercise the cue for a walk!) and I’m going to do things that are mentally taxing, not physically taxing. Thirty minutes of searching for breakfast in the garden will do that. Chewing is also a great activity to get dogs to calm. Working on a bone for half an hour before a walk is no bad thing.
  2. I’m also going to make sure that my multi-dog household are not feeding off each other’s excitement. Actually, that means really messing with my schedule for a couple of weeks until the dogs are all calm and sometimes only taking one dog.
  3. Eradicating cues is a big game changer. I put my shoes on when the dogs are eating breakfast, and leave my coat to grab on the other side of the door. I don’t push my chair under or put my hat on. I leave the leash wrapped around Heston’s collar from dawn until a couple of hours after the walk. I practise putting it on and taking it off before the walk. Heston’s two biggest excitement factors are the keys and the leash, so I make them meaningless.
  4. Shaking it up with the cues you can’t eliminate also helps. Instead of moving towards the gate, I move away as if I’m going into the garden. I don’t even go five yards before he’s looking at me like, “the walk’s this way, dumbass” and he’s so bemused, he’ll sit.
  5. The fifth tip is to increase your expectations about calmness and to stop wanting to go for a walk yourself. If Heston’s barking and circling, I go back in. Barking and circling mean “too bad!” and he knows that’s a great big end to the fun.

What works, then, is a high expectation of calmness and careful exploration of your cues. Manage both, and you’ll have a calm dog waiting for a walk without going mental.

For further information, if your dog jumps up, leaps or grabs the leash, you can also check out this post which will also help you bring those excitement levels back down so that you don’t have to put up with a lunatic on a leash. In the next post, I’ll show you a video of Heston’s best ‘leaving the house’ behaviour before explaining how to stop leash-lunges and poor on-leash behaviour. Guess what? He’s my poster boy for that too!