Scents & Loose Leash Walking...What do they have in common?
One of the most common things I hear as a dog trainer is how can I stop my dog from pulling me all over the place on our walks. Sometimes people don't like my answer!
In a world where tools have become the way to control and correct our dogs when they do a behavior we don't like, often people what an easy answer to this question. But an easy answer simply does not exist. A dog's natural pace is much faster then the slow pace of us humans. Dogs also find a quick pace moving back and forth to more enjoyable and self reinforcing then if they are asked to walk in a straight line at a snails pace. So here are the bullet points of my answer:
Depending on the age and breed of your dog, needs vary from dog to dog. But all dogs have basic needs beyond that of food, water, and shelter. We tend to forget to take those needs into account before we set out on a walk because we get so focused on the thought that my dog needs exercise, my dog needs to potty, my dog needs to see the world, etc. But if we explore those thoughts a bit more, we often realize that instead of exercise, they need mental stimulation or instead of seeing the world, they need to smell the world.
- Meet your dog's needs of sniffing, running, chasing, playing first!
- Add value for walking next to you or near you!
- Choose your walking rules wisely!
Meeting your dog's needs
When it comes to exercise vs mental stimulation, there isn't an exact recipe for how much of each a dog needs. There is kind of a rule of thumb with puppies, that is 5 minutes of exercise per month old. However as dogs grow past 1 yr old, that really doesn't apply any more. Adolescent dogs between the ages of 1-2 seem to have unending energy and would go all day if let them, but that's not necessarily healthy for them and can easily turn them into super athletes. Check out this blog post from May to help you determine if your dog needs more or less exercise: MAYbe My Dog Needs More Exercise. Mental stimulation is just as important, if not more important, than physical exercise. Adolescent dogs need more mental stimulation in the form of simple training, games, and teamwork skills. Check out my February blogposts on enrichment and reinforcement to learn more about mental stimulation for your dog.
We often talk about Puppy Socialization as buzz words in the dog training world, but it's important to understand that socialization doesn't end when a puppy grows up and it's not just about meeting new people or other dogs. Socialization is really about processing new or noval experiences. We, as people, think in terms of seeing things or watching things. However our dogs process the world around them with their nose, sniffing things in the environment. The dog's nose is their strongest organ and capable of detecting things that we can only begin to understand. Yet we often don't embrace that and help them to learn to understand what they are smelling. If I can only get one message to my clients struggling with adolescent dogs, that's to embrace the sniff-a-bout walk and learn to do it well.
A sniff-a-bout, often called a free walk, is all about allowing a dog to go at their pace in an environment. Unless you have lots of access to fenced areas in your community, you often need to use a longline of 15+ feet to do a sniff-a-bout correctly. When using a longline you need to have your line attached to a back clip on a harness for safety and not on the front harness clip or a flat collar. I have resources for learning how to do this type of walk in my Crazy Adolescents Classroom if your dealing with a teenager. I can also teach you how to do sniff-a-bouts successfully in private sessions.
How Sniffing the Environment affects Leash Walking Skills
The key to doing a sniff-a-bout is that your dog learns to take their time, savoring the moment and hunting for those smells that are buried under the surface.
Often in our attempts to exercise our dog enough, we teach them to do some quick sniffing as they go-go-go. They then develop a habit of going faster to smell more things or may learn to bounce back and forth from side to side racing from one tree to the next or pulling to reach that person/dog on the trail. Somewhere along our mission to provide exercise for our dogs, we accidently teach our dogs to pull to what they want the most. Then we allow them to practice this behavior as adolescents as we make our walks longer and longer in an attempt to help our dogs be calm at home. This is often when I get called in to help.
There is a learning process for both people and dog when we make the change away from walks focused on exercise towards walks focused on sniffing. To make it easier for people, especially owners of adolescents, I suggest that they spend some time learning how to work together as a team using a longline. The first step generally involves the person sitting in a chair or on a blanket and allowing the dog to walk circles around them. This helps the dog to realize that the goal is not to rush forward. Once the dog begins to see that we are not going anywhere they will typically start smelling the ground and things in the environment that they can reach. And eventually they look back to us wondering what we are doing just sitting here. That's when you capture their desire to engage with you and either throw a treat party or produce their favorite toy! I like to toss some treats out into the environment to see if they go back to sniffing after they've found the treats or turn back to you for more. Once they get the hang of this you can work on calling them back to you when they get near the end of the line so they are instantly racing to the end of the line. Then slowly with time and practice you can add in moving through the environment together without racing and pulling on the leash.
Once you can navigate longline walks together as a team, you can slowly add leash walks where you are actually covering some distance together as a team. This will help you fine tune your leash skills allowing for sniffing in appropriate places and loose leash walking between sniffing places. Then you can also expand this slower paced, environmental processing to other aspects of life with your dog.
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