When Pulling is NOT Naughty

Terrier mix, Daisy Mae learning to brave the mean streets of ChicagoHave you ever come home from a long work day, exhausted and stressed? Adding to your frustration, after being a star pupil every week in dog training class, your dog pulls on leash.

Training a dog to walk politely on a leash takes time, patience and tons of focus for both human and dog. For some dogs, pulling on leash is simply a means to get to their favorite park, beach or buddy’s house as fast as possible. But, for many dogs, especially in crowded, noisy, urban environments; straining and tugging on lead should be handled with much more compassion and understanding than a basic obedience approach allows. Let us take a look at a few types of dogs and how we can alter the “stop every time the pup pulls” technique to help your dog improve faster and make your walks much more relaxing.

Fearful pooches If your dog clings to the sidewalk and looks left to right with eyes as big as saucers whenever a fire engine, garbage truck, skateboard, airplane or other scary monster goes by; your dog is not pulling to annoy you. He or she is afraid, and is trying desperately to get away from the perceived threat. The best way to help a pup who thinks the outside world is out to get him or her is loosen YOUR perfect-heel expectations.

Loose leash walking does indeed relax the dog’s body, helping with overall confidence. But, it also requires your dog to concentrate, an impossible skill when completely terrified. If your dog is relaxed enough to waltz next to you for two blocks, consider that a benchmark and generously reward your sweet sidekick for that time. At the end of the two blocks, and BEFORE your dog starts to yank forward in terror, give a cue that tells him or her work is done for now like “free” or “mush”. We HIGHLY recommend a harness to keep everyone safe while you work on leash skills. If everything goes smashingly well for a couple weeks, try for three blocks, then four. However, if your dog is completely panicked or struggles with a small distance, you need to shorten your walks so your pooch can boost his or her courage in more manageable doses.

Young puppies To a wee little puppy, EVERYTHING is new. And, everything can be scary. You are new, the screen door is new, the leash is new and feels weird attached to that strappy harness you shoved over your puppy’s head after he or she ran away the third time. We do a HUGE disservice to young puppies when we do not acknowledge how unnerving the flood of sounds, sights and smells can be; ESPECIALLY in the city. So, rather than tugging on that tiny neck because your cousin told you that you have to train your dog now or he or she will never learn to respect you, reward for your puppy for not bolting with wild abandon every time you hear a siren, see a scooter or say hello to a REALLY tall person racing to catch the bus; even if the leash is not absolutely perfect. We bet once you do that, the leash loosens up. And, you better be ready to give a reward worthy of your pup’s gold medal Olympic performance.

Aggressive dogs  Polite leash walking is imperative when aggression is involved. But, the leash is not always going to be perfectly loose when you encounter whatever trigger normally causes an outburst during the beginning stages of training: dog, runner, child, men in hats, the list goes on. Space is your best friend, give your dog lots of it. And, rather than getting super focused on the best leash walk of your reactive dog’s life, set your gaze on the trigger further away than you think the dog sees and reward for calm behavior. Your dog may be a little ahead of you and very well might not be looking in your eyes. But, he or she is not getting better at barking, lunging, growling and snarling. Once your dog is not looking over his or her shoulder at the bicyclist or staring down the man in a wheelchair and you have trigger-free stretch in front of you; loose leash training becomes the priority again. One big caveat, if you are going to focus on “yes” for the absence of bad behavior, do not give your “let’s go” cue. If you give the “let’s go” cue THEN reward for calm, you will be rewarding your dog for ignoring the first cue.

We have to remember that our dogs take in so much stimulus during every step of a walk. Alter your approach with leash walking and focus first on the best behavior your dog is capable of given all that is surrounding him or her. Leash training will be easier to tackle when your dog is not in an unbelievably heightened state of mind.

Memorial Day Fun with Fido

Rescue dog Karly sitting pretty outsideMemorial Day weekend is the official kickoff to summer. And, midwesterners relish the occasion to celebrate longer days, SUN and lots of outside time with our pups. Some dogs enjoy being a part of big, backyard barbecues and loud family gatherings at local parks. But, not all canines enjoy the shenanigans and festivities. Here are a few tips to make sure everyone stays safe, has a ball and does not end up spending their holiday weekend apologizing and stressed out.

Life of the party pup If your dog is one of those pooches who happily pounces on every person on a walk and wiggles when anyone pets him or her; chances are, he or she will enjoy partying with you at a friend’s gathering. But, to prevent food flying off peoples’ plates or your exuberant hound toppling over your best friend, get in plenty of SUPER fun exercise before the event. Leash walks in the city require a lot of restraint, focus and limit freedom. So, it is MUCH better to play a hearty game of fetch, tug or hide ‘n’ seek to release some crazy energy, even in the house. Skip the “wait” with hide ‘n seek and toss treats for “find” so your dog gets lots and lots of movement out of his or her system.

And, take some frozen Kongs or favorite toys (not if your dog likes to guard) so your pooch can busy him or herself while you enjoy time with other guests. Always keep your dog close, especially outside. Attaching your dog to a tree, 30-feet away from you, while you chat and laugh would be very upsetting for almost all dogs. And, why bother bringing your canine goofball if he or she will be ostracized during the entire event?

New rescue dog or fearful dog There is a lot of unpredictability at holiday functions so this is not the time to introduce a fretful dog to friends nor show off your new rescue dog. Lots of people coming at an anxious mutt can REALLY reinforce fears. And, a dog who is just getting to know and trust you may not have fully shown all of his or her true colors. Testing a dog’s temperament around children and loud noises can wreak havoc on everyone’s holiday.

And, speaking of tying to a tree. Good gravy, never ever do it. But, especially with a new pup or fearful dog. It just takes a second for a toddler to approach and hug your dog without your knowledge; putting a restrained, scared pup in a VERY bad position. If he or she can not flee, a bite is a real possibility. And, NO ONE wants to lose their dog or be responsible for another person’s injury.

Consider weather and dangerous foods Make sure to pack a bag just for your dog with a favorite blanket to relax on (only if no other dogs will be attending or if your dog is very polite about sharing his or her “stuff”), lots and lots of water and a water bowl. We REALLY love the Kool Collar for warmer days. But, that does not mean your dog should be outside for hours on a 90-degree day. If the forecast is scheduled to be super hot, plan to take your pup somewhere to cool off every 15 minutes or so. Remember, our dogs are ALWAYS wearing a fur coat and can VERY quickly overheat.

Humans indulge during holidays but, this is not the time to feed your pup every table scrap. You will both pay for the dietary indiscretions for days to come. And, at worst, if someone sneaks your pooch something from the dangerous food list, you could end up in the emergency room. Take your own treats and an extra meal if you plan to stay for awhile so you can avoid poop soup. Ewwww!

Other dogs So, your cousin is in town and wants to bring their pup to the party, too? SO fun, right? Just because they are both dogs does not mean they will instantly love each other. Ask yourself and your friend or family member these questions. Does your dog LOVE other dogs? Has your dog ever bitten or growled at another dog? Has your pup even been around any other dogs, ever or recently? If the answers were no, yes OR no; work out a system where one dog joins the party this time and the other dog is invited to the next soiree’. A dog fight or scuffle is sure fire way to kill the party mood.

If it seems like all puppies are social butterflies, be sure all resources (food, beds, toys, etc.) are locked away. And, do slow introductions in a large circle in a neutral space for a few minutes, watching their body language, before even considering removing the leashes (in an enclosed area only, please).

We hope these pointers will help your dog succeed this holiday weekend. If we are all honest about what our pups enjoy and can handle behaviorally; the summer will kick off to a MUCH happier start for all!

The Art of Recovery

FullSizeRenderFor many urban dog guardians struggling with serious behavioral issues, there is a moment. An EVENTUAL pause. No matter how capricious the reaction. The pup stops trembling, fleeing, freezing, lunging, barking, growling or any other lamentable behavior that provokes judgmental looks from other pedestrians; or worse, harm and acute affliction to both sides of leash and any other human or animal unlucky enough to pass during a negative reaction.

And, we often complain about how distracted our dogs get; but, our attention is easily led astray too. We worry that our neighbors dislike us because our dog is always pulling and yapping at their children. Or gasp, think that because our pup is laying on the ground; refusing to move, that the stranger heading to work might think we did something horribly cruel to our four-legged baby to cause him or her to flatten like a pancake onto the sidewalk.

When we are working to help our dogs learn better responses to triggers that cause an adverse response; we torment ourselves that we have wasted our time when we hit a progress impasse, or, get stuck in a moment where we know our pup is not ready to handle the challenge that real life tosses their way. And, boy, do we take it personally. Here’s a few tips to help when you and your pup are in a standoff:

  • Stop talking so much. We humans love to chatter chatter and often do not realize our mouths are constantly moving. If you are frustrated and your dog is constantly ignoring you, chances are you are ranting.
  • Give feedback when your pup stops doing whatever it is that is causing you to be annoyed at your otherwise perfect creature. Do not treat. Verbal praise is sufficient. A dog who ceases to jump, bark, snarl, chase squirrels or yank you down the street is WAY better than a dog who continues those undesirable acts.
  • Go home or get out of the situation for a few minutes. Hitting the reset button can give both of you a moment to regain your focus and restore your emotions. If you and your dog are in an unbelievably heightened state of mind continuing to stay in your current disturbing spot is not going to do either of you any good.
  • Keep a log of your dog’s behavior. It often helps to track how frequent and how long the dreaded behaviors occur to remind you that your dog is doing much better today than a week or two ago. When we put a lot of effort into training our dogs, one doggie outburst can send us into a spiral. But, if your dog’s barking and lunging is now lasting five seconds vs. ten seconds, you are making progress. Humans tend to latch on to the ONE bad behavior and miss the multitude of tiny successes, especially in very distracting environments.

Remember, dogs are very “in the moment” beings. Recognizing and commending your pup for making better choices, even if they are not perfect, will help his or her behavior continue to improve and prevent you from getting an ulcer in the process.

The Dog You Were Meant to Have

Yellow lab, "Gus" smiling on a walkThere is nothing in this world that gives me more peace and inherent joy than a few free hours; wandering through a park with a warm breeze kissing my cheeks, and a floppy-eared dog looking up at me. Finn gave me this glorious gift; an appreciation for the sweet, twittering conversations of birds fluttering from limb to limb. I glance down to see Lil’ Big Head’s glistening amber-hazelnut eyes before his nose tugs him to investigate the myriad of smells left behind from squirrels, school children and other dogs on one blade of grass, over there. Gavin must get to that particular stalk. And, my attention is drawn to the understated beauty of nature waking up from winter; stark, ashen tree limbs punctuated by cashmere puffs lazily rolling across the crystal blue sky.

As a trainer, I am passionate about helping people who love their dogs understand and change behavior that causes stress, frustration; and sometimes, danger, in more serious cases. Together, we tackle tangible tasks that improve the quality of life for everyone involved. And, I always treasure the moment when it clicks for the human end of the leash; and the prideful beam across their face when he or she is able to get their dog to listen in a situation that they had previously felt lost, helpless, and out of control.

But, for today; let us watch, listen and observe our dogs, without the need to change anything. If we are open, there might be a very valuable lesson that our dogs can teach us when we stop putting pressure on our pups to be better, better, better.

Slow down. An all too familiar scene in my house is Gavin stretched out on the tawny daybed mattress in my sun room; occasionally drifting out of sleep to watch me stumble off my yoga mat from a feeble attempt at a headstand or to pause and not race to slay the heinous dragon, the vacuum cleaner. The latter, a job Gavin took very seriously when he first came home. Sometimes, Lil’ Big Head just looks at me with his eternal-puppy-face and copper-bedroom-eyes. I am sucker, I can not resist Gavin’s pouty mouth. And, I stop what I am doing to lay down; for just a minute, to snuggle with him.

Then, an hour later, my left arm is heavy and asleep because Gavin’s block head has been resting on my bicep, as a I stroked his soft, tuxedo belly and indulged in a good book. I always resume my day with a clearer head, restored attitude and deeper compassion when I just stop and hang out with my dog; rather than racing around to complete chores that will inevitably need to be repeated tomorrow.

Let them be. When we focus on training our dogs; especially in distracting environments, we are constantly doing, talking and flailing about. Our dogs are already on sensory overload with the sights, smells and sounds that we are constantly competing with as we utter over and over, “leave it, leave it, leave it”. So, adding to the noise can be particularly overwhelming to our pups. And, exhausting for us.

In a safe space, and never, ever off-leash, unless your pup has a perfect recall or you are in a fenced-in area; watch your dog. Does sniffing every blade of grass on the parkway make his or her tail wag with such enthusiasm that their butt joins in the wiggle party? Does a quick glance, even a few feet away, of person walking past make him or her smile so bright that you are reminded those big, bright white teeth could bite and hurt you, but they do not. And, you are grateful. Does walking faster, a little bit ahead of you; but, safely and not on a tight leash, make your pup prance so gleefully that you feel a giant smile growing across your face? Breaks are good; and incredibly valuable for training, and to your relationship.

One of Gavin’s greatest joys is to sit on my lap at the park with both of his Chuck-It balls in his mouth and just watch the world go by us. While I have learned to appreciate the walk, walk, walk; those moments in the park where I am doing absolutely nothing rejuvenate me. And, when I need to help Lil’ Big Head through a moment of worry, my patience is right there, on the surface, because I have stopped for bit to rest.

We all want our dogs to be well-behaved. And, working to teach them what to do is extremely important for their safety and to ensure we all enjoy an amazing quality of life together. But, sometimes, if we listen to them, we might find a new greatest joy in life. One that can only be learned from a cuddly, lazy dog; in my case.