Happy to Heel!
Do you go for walks with your dog happily trotting by your side? Or do you feel like you are being dragged behind a heat-seeking missile with absolutely no steering (or brake for that matter), just waiting for disaster to strike?!
Ever wonder how some dog owners make walking their dog look like pure pleasure?
Ever wondered how an 11-year old girl can easily lead her pony without being dragged in every direction? (Especially when full-grown adults are being dragged off-course by dogs half their size?!)
Want to know their secret?
The answer is simple; they were taught to behave this way.
Someone put the necessary time, effort and knowledge into teaching that pony (or dog) – at a young age and before bad behaviour set in – what is (and isn’t) acceptable behaviour. We all know that a child would not be able to hold onto something as powerful as a horse, especially if the horse was young, wild and untrained.
So why don’t we think in the same terms with our dogs?
Imagine if you were to alter your mindset when it comes to your dog. What if you put a wolf in the place of your dog; wouldn’t you show greater respect for that creature and treat it differently? Now, what if that wolf wasn’t properly trained with care and kindness? Imagine the mayhem, fear and even injury that could result! Wouldn’t you feel responsible if you were to get this wrong?
So why do we look at our dogs so differently? If left untrained, wouldn’t they be as likely to cause mayhem, fear or injury as the wolf? Of course! So let’s start working on that new mindset below.
Teaching Your Dog
Puppies and dogs learn in the exact same way, by experience. Those behaviours that feel pleasurable will most likely happen again. Using positive praise and rewards will work, but only if you give these at the right time. For instance, your dog starts pulling on the lead and you start speaking to him, telling him to behave, go easy, slow down and so on. But when he is walking nicely beside you, he gets very little positive interaction from you. So which behaviour do you think he is more likely to repeat?
I always teach my clients to get their pup or dog happily walking beside them at home without the use of a lead. Why? Because this helps your dog quickly learn that they can be part of the team and get your positive interaction without being coerced or dragged into place. The idea is to make it fun – almost like a game of “follow the leader” – to help your dog learn to walk beside you. With lots of short 5-minute “games,” you will begin to easily ingrain this “good” habit or behaviour as a natural way of your dog walking with you, without consciously thinking about it.
Practise walking in different directions, stopping and starting, while encouraging your dog to stay with you at your side. Keeping it short and fun means you will both want to repeat this as often as you have time throughout the day. Once your dog understands he needs to be consistently at your side, you can increase and decrease your pace and do more complicated manoeuvres. Once your dog can keep up, it’s time for the next step!
You will now add the lead to the equation; because it is no longer the tool to “make” your dog walk nicely at your side. You have already practised (and achieved) that part! The lead is used to keep your “wolf” alongside you if it sees other distractions and to keep it safe from making mistakes until it learns the “way of the world.” A lot of social spaces demand that dogs be on leads; you and your dog can do this easily and happily now, because you have taught your dog that being by your side is a really nice place to be!
Once out in the world, remember you must keep letting your dog know you are still playing the game with the same encouragement of praise and some rewards. If your dog gets distracted by something, just stop and stand quietly, then change direction and call your dog to you, praising it when he comes.
Don’t set yourself or your dog up to fail.
Start with a 5-minute walk and – if all goes well – increase the walk time in increments (instead of going from 5-minutes to an hour walk in one single leap). How about doing two 10-minute walks instead of a 20-minute walk? This keeps things fun and fresh (for both of you!) and it’s probably easier for you to find the time in your day instead of taking a 20- or 30-minute block out of your busy schedule!
So, as you’ve seen, there really is no “secret” to having a well-mannered dog, it just takes some well-invested time, patience and knowledge at the beginning to be able to enjoy your walks with your dog for the rest of your time together.