Taking the Pull out of Walks

Robyn Arouty Photography

It’s one of the most natural things in the world for us human beings, walking side by side.  Unfortunately it’s not at all natural for our dogs.  Rarely do they walk that way on their own.  When they do, it’s usually only momentarily.  That’s what makes teaching loose leash walking so troublesome for so many folks.

Add to that, when our dogs pull we often follow.  Dogs learn very early on that putting tension on the leash is just what they need to do to get where they are going.  We don’t set any limits and as a result we actually reward our dogs for pulling.

What we really want to do is reward our dogs for walking next to us.  I like to start off-leash (yes off-leash) in a safe enclosed area, like a fenced in back yard.  Start by walking around the yard casually at your own pace; don’t say anything to the dog.  As soon as your dog sidles up beside you simply say “yes” in a cheerful voice and offer him a special bit of food (cheese or boiled chicken is always nice).  Then, continue walking on silently.  When he comes up alongside you again, say “yes” again and deliver another treat.  Before long, you’ll notice that your dog is walking with you with that expectant doggie grin of his.  Keep saying “yes” and treating him until you can’t get rid of him.

All that’s left now is putting the leash on, right?  Well, that’s almost right.  Your dog will notice that things are different out in the wide world, and if he has a history of pulling he’s likely to fall right back into old habits.  Here’s what you need to remember.  If your dog pulls, stop.  No one makes any forward progress when the leash is taught.  Gently call your dog “this way” and begin walking the opposite direction with him.  Because you’ve changed direction you’ll find that for a moment he’s right beside you where you want him.  Say that magic word, “yes” and give him his special treat.  Now you’re playing the same training game you were playing in the fenced in yard.  The only difference is, you’re out front and the leash is on.

Let’s break this down, because your training really does need to be specific to work quickly.  Dog pulls: stop.  Change directions.  Dog beside you: “yes” and treat.  You may “yes” and treat multiple times so long as the dog is walking nicely beside you.  For the time being, all of your walks should be this kind of training walk.

Now for the ultimate reward.  What your dog really wants to do is sniff and explore.  So after a nice spell of walking by your side, smile at your dog and say “yes, go sniff.”  Then gleefully let him guide you around a bit for some doggie nose work.  It’s okay to let him pull for a short while in this context.  We call it a life reward.  The dog actually gets what he wants by giving you the behavior you want (walking nicely).  It’s  powerful reinforcement, with a proven track record.  It also happens to be the most natural thing in the world for your dog.

Houston Dog Trainer Michael Baugh, CPDT-KSA, CDBC specializes in behavior related to fearful and aggressive dogs.


Real Dog Training is Cool

photo courtesy: Robyn Arouty Photography

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Real Dog Training is cool.  Don’t get me wrong, some TV trainers are okay.  Victoria Stillwell was a real reward-based trainer before she got her own show, and that convertible of hers is pretty darn cool.  Rollerblading with bunch of dogs might be cool to some, but it’s not really my thing.  Pffsst!  Yeah, that’s not cool.

This is.  Today I made friends with a Shih Tzu who really didn’t like me at first (I’m pretty sure he wanted to bite me).  A few hours later I helped a woman potty train her beagle puppy.  That’s real dog training.  It’s not broken up into short segments between commercial breaks and problems aren’t resolved in an hour or less.  There are no short cuts with behavior; it takes time.  Real trainers do a lot of coaching, a whole lot of demonstrating and even more cheerleading.  We take care of our human and dog clients by making the process as clear and simple as possible.  We show people the magic of dogs without messing it all up with a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo of our own.  Hello!  Cool.  Whispering?  That just makes it harder for people to hear you.

The truth is there isn’t much new in dog training.  Whoa, blasphemy.  What about clicker training (not terribly new) and all the new research coming out about dogs?  Okay, we are getting better every day at refining and applying behavioral science with dogs, but the basics remain the same.  I helped the Shi Tzu warm up to me with good old fashioned classical conditioning.  As for the beagle bathroom breaks, enter Dr. Skinner.  This stuff is old-school, well practiced, and thoroughly researched.  Real trainers teach it with vigor and style, yes.  But we don’t have to dress it up to make it cool.  It just is cool.

So why are so many trainers trying so hard to be the next latest and greatest thing?  I recently read about a new age celebrity trainer in Hollywood.  Her web site was chakra rocking and chi wheeling.  Her uber cool movie star clients apparently loved her.  But I had to wonder, with all this spirit, where the substance was.  She was beautiful; and she sold the enigmatic charm of dogs oh so well.  But could she really teach and train?  Scan the internet (okay maybe you shouldn’t) and look at all the trademarked methods for dog training.  They’re making things up and busting other stuff left and right.  Instant results and guarantees are in vogue, while the “how to” is a bit vague.  Sure the “Baugh Method” would boost my ego.  But seriously, it’s just silly (the abbreviation is awkward, too).    What’s wrong with the Pavlov method, or the Skinner Method, even the Breland and Bailey method?  Maybe it just doesn’t sound cool.  I don’t know.

I guess it’s all just a matter of perception.  If you’re a behavior geek who knows the difference between ABA and ABBA (and perhaps appreciates both) it boils down to this.  You’re still a geek.  On the other hand, if you are attractive and skate well you get your own “way.”  Maybe you can tap into our human need for mysticism and talk about flow and energy.  That’s the stuff.  Then, you’ll have that certain something that all the popular kids in high school had.  No one could define it, but it didn’t matter.  They were cool.

I keep thinking of Alex.  He was a 7 month old lab mix and a hard-core play biter.  I use the term loosely.  He wasn’t playing, he was demanding attention.  Chomp – Ouch!  It hurt something fierce.  The night I met him I laid out a training plan and left bleeding.  I hoped against my angst that his family would follow through and follow up.  If they didn’t, Alex was on fast track to disaster.  There was no glamor that night, no cameras and no quick fixes.  I was tired from a long day and I smelled bad.  I called a trainer friend while I tried to hold back my own doubts.  “I just stuck to the basics.” I said, “It has to work right?” He’s a cool guy.  He assured me it would.

Alex’s family applied The Skinner just as I’d shown them.  They were precise and tireless.  They charted Alex’s time-outs (negative punishment) and watch them decline steeply.  They taught Alex some amazing good manners (positive reinforcement) with skill and masterful timing. The punctures and scratches and bruises faded as their success grew.  They called almost daily with reports.  We kept things on course, and when it was time we celebrated.  I beamed with pride and told them they were my heroes, because they are.

Sometimes clients (or potential clients) ask me if I’m like “The Dog Whisperer.”  They want to know about becoming their dog’s Alpha and earning his respect.  Some ask if I use this method or that, if I can break this or that.  I guess it’s the litmus test of coolness.  I do my thing, just a regular reward trainer trying to keep it real.  Sure, it gets tough sometimes.  There are a lot of other trainers who are much slicker.  I get it.  Then I think of Alex and his family, happy and hanging out watching TV.  They’re just regular folks and he’s just a normal relaxed dog.  They worked the process and the process worked for them.

Okay, yeah.  That’s way cool.

Getting Jumped

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

We teach our dogs to jump on us. I hope that comes as no surprise. Watch how we interact with dogs, especially puppies. They run to new people with boundless excitement and jump up to greet them. We love it, right? Puppies are small and adorable. We bend down to pet them, chat them up with a little baby talk and sometimes even pick them up so they can kiss our faces. Puppies learn from almost day-one that the best way to get the ultimate human interactive experience is to, you guessed it, jump on them.

Apollo at 11 weeks (sitting politely)

It hardly seems fair that about 5 months into the process we decide to change the rules on them. But of course that’s exactly what we do. Adolescent puppies can be big and awkward. We may not have learned to trim their nails yet, so those are sharp enough to hurt us. Our puppy still runs with that boundless energy but he’s faster and stronger. Now that cute puppy just seems rude to us. But watch what people do even with older puppies. The dog jumps. We still pet. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Even if we don’t like the dog’s jumping we still seem compelled to reward it with petting.

Stop. If we’re going to change the rules on our adolescent dog let’s at least be clear about it. No more petting for jumping. Let’s decide from now on the dog now gets nothing at all if there’s an accidental jumping episode: no touching, no talking, no nothin’. And be careful. There’s a trap here. Even punishment counts at interaction. Yelling at your dog for jumping or grabbing his paws or kneeing his chest are all reactions to his jumping (the latter can cause serious injury). Your dog is jumping to seek attention and sure enough you’re giving it to him. Stop.

Read on because this is only one part of the plan. And it’s the hardest part. Cutting off reinforcement for bad behavior (above) is not the same as ignoring bad behavior. Please remember that. We’re actually paying very close attention to solving this problem. Admittedly, it is very hard to let a dog figure out on his own that jumping doesn’t work. As a trainer I have no problem putting on my jeans and an old t-shirt and letting a 6-month old Golden Retriever jump on my until she figures out I’m not responding to that behavior (it usually takes less than 5 minutes). But I also know you may not have the patience for it. Turning your back on the dog helps. Leaving the room helps. Patiently waiting with your arms folded and your gaze averted to the ceiling helps. You’ve heard all these solutions but they are only part of the plan.

We’ve taught our dogs how to greet us the wrong way. Certainly we can teach them the right way. I love few things more than the sight of an energetic dog running towards a person full speed and then sliding into a sit. I guarantee you every basic obedience class in town teaches this (it’s called a recall – but most of us call it “coming when called”). The preferred method of teaching recall with a sit involves treating the behavior. That’s because behavior followed by positive reinforcement gets stronger (remember how much petting made your dog jump more?). So, treat and praise to your heart’s content. You dog will get really good at coming when called and sitting.

We’ve left a bit of room for error here and I want to tidy that up. A lot of dogs will sit for us, get a treat or a pet and then jump on us. I guess jumping must feel really good. Or maybe they can’t contain themselves. No matter, there is the simple solution of behavior management here. Let your dog drag his leash around the house (I prefer a simple 6 foot leash). Make sure you only do this when you can supervise him. Definitely do it when guests are coming over. Now imagine that cute 6 month old Golden Retriever bolting up for you and sitting nicely. While you praise, pet or treat her, deftly step on that leash at the same time. If you hit the leash somewhere in the middle she won’t have much room to jump up on you even if she tries. The leash will stop her a few inches into that jump. It’s even easier to do with a visitor since you’ll have the leash in hand to start. Letting your guest greet the dog while you step on the leash gives your dog a chance to learn how to do it right. Of course dogs who are shuttled away to a crate or taken on a walk when guests come over do not suffer. But they also don’t learn how to greet properly either.

Okay, let’s review this stuff.
1. Stop reinforcing jumping: no petting, talking or even reacting in a punishing way. Turning your back or passively waiting for the jumping behavior to extinguish can work but it takes heroic patience. (See step 3).
2. Teach the right way for your dog to greet: always come when called and sit for pets, praise and treats (there are tons of reward-based trainers in town who teach this).
3. Finally, management: block jumping behavior by stepping on the leash. This helps prevent your dog from successfully practicing jumping on people.

I can already hear some keyboards clicking away with a response to this blog. Yes, I know you or you neighbor or your Uncle Ralph slapped a choke collar on and solved the jumping problem faster than lightning by whipping the dog into shape. Cool. I don’t teach that method for a number of reasons. But debating force-based training versus reward-based is not really what this blog is about.

That said, I invite you all to share your experiences. Better yet, post a picture of you and your dog. Few things in life are as nice as a picture of a person and a dog in happy times. They’re not with us that long. So, live it up.