Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Walking Your Adolescent

The challenge of walking an adolescent dog is struggle that most owners face at some point.

Understanding the challenge of walking adolescents is the first step to setting up your "Train Smarter" walk with your dog.  To understand the behaviors we often see in adolescent dogs, we have to understand a bit about how their brain is working (or not working!) at this stage.  The puppy brain is designed to stay close to their family (canine or human) processing and enjoying the world around them from the safety their family provides.  The adult dog brain is designed to think for themselves based on their basic need to survive and thrive which includes finding food, water, shelter, etc.  The adolescent brain is basically a time of transition where the brain is forming new connections as the teen learns to explore their environment more intensely to begin to seek out the skills they need to survive and thrive.  While this is how nature designed the canine brain, we ask our dogs to live in a "people world" where survival depends on how they cope in the world we put them in.  That will be a future blog, but for now I want to focus on how the brain changes impact our adolescent dogs.  Here are common struggles that adolescents go through:
  • The environment is majorly exciting to all the dog's senses which almost immediately sends the adolescent into a higher emotional state simply by entering a new environment.
  • Due to hormonal changes and the natural desire to find a mate, other dogs often become a huge distraction.  This is even true for altered dogs without hormones getting in the way as the brain is still driving this motivation.
  • With the rewiring of the brain, the dog often seems to have forgotten basic training skills that they previously new well.  This often makes it seem like they are suddenly stubborn or defiant but really they are simply experiencing a stage of forgetfulness that is pretty close to what we've come to call brain fog in humans.
  • With all the changes the dog goes through periods of higher fears and lower ability to control or self regulate their impulses.  This means they are prone to repeating the puppy behaviors of jumping, pulling, being vocal, and other habits we've been working on for months.
When you add those all together they lead to increased challenges any time we take our dogs out for an adventure.  This often discourages us as owners to the point that we start to hate our time out with our dogs because it seems like its one struggle after another.  Then the dog picks up on this they begin to hate going out on adventures too.  This is where "Train Smarter, Not Harder" comes into play because our dogs still need exercise and exposure to things that will be in their world.

When we walk with a puppy, we often follow the theory of spending 5 minutes per months old so a 3 month puppy gets 15 min walks and a 4 month old puppy gets 20 min walks.  This leads to slowly making walks longer and longer which is perfect for the puppy stage.  But if we continue this practice into adolescence we often build their stamina to a point that we humans have a hard time keeping up with.  Adolescents actually excel when we take shorter walks that focus on more on keeping their emotions and arousal level down to a more manageable state.

If you're not sure how to keep your dog under threshold check out these blogposts:

The art of going nowhere on our walks is lesson I had to learn and it has changed how I take my adolescents on their walk.  Be sure to check out my blog on Getting Started with Sniff-a-bouts.

The number one reason our dogs need to go out and about is to explore the environment and sometimes moving around makes that too challenging.  When we set out on the mindset of we need to walk a certain distance or be gone a certain amount of time or accomplish x,y,z on this walk, we set ourselves and our dogs of for failure.  The main goal of our walk should be to create a pleasant experience for both us and our dog.  The trick is how do we do that?  The simple answer is to design a walk that will help our dog explore while also helping them to stay calm and under threshold.  This is where I developed the sniff-a-bout!  

Learning to take a slower paced sniff-a-bout is a challenge to us humans because we more focused on accomplishing tasks...we go for the walk because it needs to be done without thinking about what the main purpose of the walk is which should be environmental processing for our dogs.  The video above is a great example of giving the dog time to explore the environment at their pace and a good example of how I teach myself and my dogs to do a sniff-a-bout walk.  

When you are first starting sniff-a-bouts with your adolescent dog and you've set everything up for success, add a blanket or small chair to your gear list and head out to your location.  Since we typically condition our dogs to go from one place to another on our walk, we have to then teach them to stay in one area a bit longer.  This is where the blanket comes in.  If you sit down and do something boring to your dog, they will wander nearby and begin sniffing around.  You can toss treats out and about if they are used to snuffle feeding in the grass or you can use the treats to reward when they chose to check in with you.  Eventually our dogs usually will come back to us to engage in whatever activity we want to do next.  At this point I like to have a brief training session or play a short game before ending the walk.

Now you may be thinking if we don't go anywhere, how is my dog getting exercise?  From experience I can tell you that a dog who thoroughly explores the environment for 20 minutes is typically more content to go home and nap then the dog who walked for 30 minutes non-stop.  One of the other perks that you gain from the sniff-a-bout is that you and your dog enjoy some time together without practicing the bad behaviors that they've been doing on a walk.  

The point of a sniff-a-bout is to meander here and there with no end destination in mind. You walk at the dog's pace and the direction they want. When Azul goes too fast, pulling on the leash, I stop walking until he can check in and put slack in the leash. Having high value treats to teach the release of leash pressure helps. For Azul, I used treats when he was younger but then I conditioned him to use the smell he previously pulled to as his reward for releasing the leash pressure. Near the end of this video, you can see his reaction to seeing a dog quite far away causing him to pull on the leash. At this point he is beginning to be too excited so I need to move away from the distractions until his excitement can come down to a more manageable level. It's also important that we choose our tools carefully on walks to keep us all safe. This is why Azul wears a harness with a dual clip leash! Most of the time I'm holding the leash with pressure on the back clip. But the front clip prevents Azul from pulling me off my feet if he hits the end of his leash suddenly. We have to be aware of trigger stacking on our sniff-a-bouts. In the video, Azul was still fairly excited from seeing a little dog in the road when another dog charged the fence a few feet away. You can see how the dual clip setup helps me to maintain control and calmly give Azul a chance to refocus in my direction. A very light pressure on the back clip is used to help lead him back to me when he's a bit too close to the fence. The issue with trigger stacking is that if we have too many unexpected distractions in the environment we are walking in, our dog will have more extreme reactions to each trigger as their self-regulation ability decreases with their emotional reactions increasing. The whole goal of the sniff-a-bout is to stay calm and avoid triggers so we have to slowly build up to more distracting environments. Leash manners do not happen overnight! It takes time and patience with a ton of practice for both person and dog. By taking more sniff-a-bouts and less focused walks with our adolescents we prevent them from practicing the behaviors we don't want such as pulling, barking or lunging at a time in their life when their brain is changing so rapidly that they simply can't control themselves. That doesn't mean you shouldn't work on training heel and loose leash walking with your adolescent. That means you need to keep those training sessions short and in environments where you know you have a greater chance for success. Make your exercise walks be about the dog and your training sessions about training without mixing the two together for an exercise walk. Check out this post by Crazy2Calm Canine Coach, Elliot Brooks to learn about improving your heel training for working dogs and anyone who wants to take their dog with them into pet friendly public places.

For more help with training your adolescent dog, check out our Crazy Canine Adolescents Classroom.

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