One of the biggest problems dog owners experience is out on the walk. The reason for this is due to the psychology of the pack needing a leader and more often than not, the dog thinks that he is it.
If the dog believes he is the leader then he believes he should be at the front of the pack and this is why you will see owners being pulled by their dogs.
Assessing the world through the dog’s eyes is paramount to helping him walk to heel. In order to change the dogs mind from pulling, we have to communicate in a gentle language he will understand.
The dog believing he is the leader believes it is his job to protect the pack and anything that approaches such as other dogs, joggers or cars could be perceived as a threat.
This creates all sorts of problems as the dog in a human ruled world will react to the threat in three ways: Flight, freeze and fight.
To help the dog stay calm in a world it does not understand, we have to switch roles and become the leader. When you achieve this, the dog will have no responsibilities and look to you to react at the potential dangers. To reverse roles and teach the dog to heel we have to go back to basics where the walk starts and identify and progress through the stages. As we complete a stage we can then move forward.
Firstly practice walking up and down the house with food reward encouraging your dog by your side rewarding him on a regular basis when he gets it right. As the dog understands where a good place to be is then you are ready to begin the first stage. The idea behind the stages is to start in a place where the dog feels comfortable with no distractions and build the foundations, as the dog improves you then slowly work up to a place with more distractions.
The first stage is calling the dog to you to put the lead on. In this scenario the dog may become over excited at the sight of the lead and jump up, run around, nudge or make noise. If the dog does react in an undesirable manner then put the lead down. Putting the lead on when the dog is in this state will only encourage pulling out on the walk. Repeat by picking the lead up again and putting down, until the dog becomes desensitised to the lead and reacts in a calm manner. When the dog is in a calm state you are ready to put the lead on and move to the next stage.
The second stage is putting the lead on and walking up and down the house once again encouraging your dog to the side you want him to be with food reward. If he gets it wrong we correct the mistake with a method called stop, start change direction. This method involves stopping when the dog drifts in front, encouraging him back to your chosen side, starting again when he is behind you, then changing direction. Repeating this method in the house lays the foundations for a good walk. Keep practicing and get it perfect in the house. If the dog does not listen to you in the house with no distractions, then he definitely will not listen to you outside with all the sights, smells and distractions.
After teaching the dog to heel in the house you are ready to move to the third stage. The third stage is a place with more smells where the dog still feels safe like a garden, keep practicing stop, start, change direction, lots of praise, lots of food reward. If you haven’t got a garden, then choose a place outside with little distractions. Stay positive and dedicate a big space of time. Do not be in a hurry as the dog will feel if you are stressed. As the dog listens to you here then you are ready to progress to the next stage.
The next stage is somewhere quiet with a few more distractions like a residential area, keep correcting if the dog pulls by stopping, starting and changing direction (SSCD).
When they get it right keep rewarding, avoid all other dogs by crossing the road or walking in another direction, showing the dog that you lead in all areas. Keep away from all other distractions by leading the dog in a different direction. If you head towards a distraction or threat, then do not be surprised if your dog reacts. This means he is not ready so help him feel safe by keeping good distance. The more you play a leader role and choose flight from potential threats the more the dog will feel safe in your company and begin to trust your decisions. As the dog heels in this area and successfully follows you away from distractions then you can move on further afield to a busier place. If the dog still has problems here then spend time in this area teaching the dog.
The next stage could be a busier residential street with more activity e.g. more cars, people and distractions. Walk up and down the street encouraging your dog by your side. If you or your dog feels anxious then go back to a stage where you both felt comfortable and progress again from there.
When the dog is heeling to your side at this point then pick a busier place like your local village or town. This will be a test as there are many distractions. Once this is completed you are ready for the final stage, which is the park. If your dog pulls as soon as it gets here then walk back and try again. Keep repeating to you can successfully walk through the park on lead.
Training the dog to heel is a test of wills, so no matter what keep it up and recognise your dog’s state. Staying calm, convincing and consistent and not rushing your dog will help him feel relaxed in a world he does not understand.
About the Author
Nigel Reed is a dog behaviourist from London. For further details about his work or to set up a consulation, visit www.dogtraininginlondon.co.uk