Getting the dog to stop pulling is one thing, but we must also get the owner to stop pulling. One very easy way to do this is to not always impose your preferred routes on the dog. Whenever possible, allow the dog to pick the route of the walk; this will not only help increase their confidence by showing them that they can make decisions and have influence over certain activities , but it will also allow them to follow their instincts. Dogs follow their noses, and variety on walks is wonderful – it’s good for dogs to encounter new environments, smells, and experiences, so if your dog shows interest in going in a slightly different direction to normal, indulge him/her and see where it takes you.
Another way to indicate your desire in moving in a particular direction apart from just pulling your dog there is to teach him/her a “contact sound”, use clear body language, and praise your dog when he/she follows your lead.
Let’s clarify what is meant by “contact” here; contact in this post is not referring to physical contact or even eye contact, it is referring to attention. When you have contact with your dog, you have their attention and the lines of communication with your dog are open. The ability to get contact with your dog is vital to preventing unwanted or problem behaviour, but is also an invaluable tool for ensuring their safety, and it requires two things; a trigger, and timing.
The trigger is a sound, a so-called “contact sound”, which you should train your dog to recognise and respond to (see an example of how you could do this in the video at the end of this post). The sound should be a neutral sound or word, but ideally not the dog’s name, e.g. a click of the tongue, or “yep”. The response to this sound needs to be attention – the dog does not need to stop or sit or give eye contact in response to the contact sound, they simply need to pay you some attention, for example, by looking in your direction.
Once you have this attention be quick and be clear with your instructions and body language. For example, when you notice that you are approaching another dog, which could result in unwanted behaviour from your dog, make the contact sound, once your dog looks your way say “come” in a happy and relaxed tone, and clearly turn your body in the direction you want to go, perhaps even moving your arm to indicate a change of direction. And remember to reward your dog for responding to your cues! By getting your dog to give you attention enables you to change direction when needed in order to create distance between your dog and a possible problem scenario. If your dog is a little bit reluctant to move in the new direction you could try scattering a Hansel & Gretel type trail of dog treats behind you – this would be a positive way of getting your dog to follow you but would also encourage sniffing, lowering the dog’s heart rate, and since sniffing is also a calming signal it may encourage other dogs nearby to also calm down a little too…win, win, win.
Distance plays a major role in any desensitization, rehabilitation, or behaviour modification training in dogs. As mentioned earlier in this post, dogs learn by accumulated experiences, so the more they react a certain way to a stimulus the more they reinforce that behaviour and that reaction for the future; some reactions can become somewhat of a reflex, where the reaction occurs without much thought or reason.
Distance will allow your dog to learn a new reaction to a stimulus. The distance from the stimulus has to be far enough so that your dog feels comfortable to observe without reacting – how far this is exactly will depend on the dog and the situation, and it may take you a few tries to figure out the right distance, but once you find it that’s your starting point. Then, in future, whenever you notice that the particular situation or stimulus which causes your dog to react on walks may occur, immediately attempt to create sufficient distance: contact sound, change direction, praise and treat. Allow your dog to observe the situation, and if he/she is calm and does not exhibit the problem behaviour, praise and treat and then continue on your way.
Over time you should be able to decrease the distance needed, and your dog should learn that he/she doesn’t need to stress about it, he can remain calm, observe from the sidelines, and perhaps there might even be some treats in store for him/her.