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Q. I have a three year old Pomeranian/Bichon. She is overall a great dog, but I have a really hard time with her on walks. When she sees another dog she goes crazy and barks and whines. It's really loud and embarrassing. She is fine at the dog parks and doesn't act out, but when she can't go say hi, she freaks! She does this in the car too and it is really distracting. Help! What can I do?!
A. It probably isn’t all that comforting to know, but there are many, many owners who share your frustration and embarrassment every single time they take their dog for a walk. You’d be surprised how many people walk their dogs at unusual hours – even drive to empty lots or out-of-the-way locations - to avoid meeting up with other dogs. Or give up entirely. The good news is that there are a few things you can do right away to start your doggy’s rehabilitation on leash.
And yes, I said rehabilitation.
You’re helping her learn a different way to respond to the stimulus of seeing another dog while she’s leashed. Like any kind of rehab, it’s a process and it takes commitment and time, but you’ll build a stronger relationship with your dog AND you won’t have to seek out forsaken locations just to exercise your dog.
So, let’s assume your Bichoneranian is frustrated because she can’t get to another dog to “say hi” (versus she wants to get to the other dog to attack it). Your little gal wants to be social and she throws a fit when she can’t be. Both the car and the leash are barriers, and barrier frustration is not uncommon. When a dog expresses frustration on leash, we call it “leash reactivity.”
First, make sure you’re practicing good leadership on your walks. This means that your dog is not walking out in front of you. It also means that YOU, not your dog, decide when and where you’re going to stop and do fun doggy things, like sniff around or send peemail. If your dog makes a move toward something or tries to stop, just keep up a brisk pace and continue walking, mentally picking out a spot up ahead to stop. Also, make sure you’re not turning every person or dog sighting into a social opportunity. We want your dog to learn that YOU decide when you’re going to stop and chat, not her. It’s not a given.
(Ideally you’re practicing good leadership across the board, not just on walks. It’s a topic worth its own column…).
Second, you’ll want to teach your dog the “Look” command to encourage her to focus on you:
1. Leash your dog and walk around in a low distraction area, like inside your house.
2. Every time your dog makes eye contact with you, say “Yes!” (or click - read below about clicker training)* and toss a soft, pea-sized treat near her on the floor and let her eat it.
3. Start walking again and watch for eye contact. Repeat the “Yes!” (or click) and treat toss.
4. Do this about 20 times, or until you think your dog is making the association that while on leash, making eye contact with you is rewarding!
5. Once she’s making the association, do the same exercise, adding the word “Look!” in an upbeat voice when she makes eye contact.
6. Repeat the reward marker (yes or click) and treat.
7. Do this about 20 times.
8. Then, let her get distracted for a moment. Make sure she’s not looking at you.
9. Say “Look!”
10. If she turns to you and makes eye contact, say “Yes!” (or click) and reward her with the treat.
11. Now start working in more distracting areas, like the backyard.
12. Repeat steps 5-7.
13. When your dog is compliant 90 percent of the time in one setting, move to another more distracting setting, like the front yard.
It will take at least a week in short training intervals (10 minutes 2-3 times a day) for you and your dog to get it. Then, arm yourself with treats and take it on the road. Take super awesome treats with you, like tiny pieces of hot dog or thin strings of string cheese. Let doggy know you’ve got them, but don’t give her any. Just start walking.
When you see another dog approach (ideally before your dog sees it), say “Look!” and keep her distracted with the treat until the other dog is out of sight. Then reward her. The key to the success of this command is consistency. Ultimately, you want your dog’s response when she sees another dog to be “Ooh, cheese!”
In the interim, while your dog is learning “Look!” check out the ASPCA’s website where they have a great article about teaching your dog the “U-turn.” In fact, the whole section on leash reactivity is worth reading.
*Clicker training is a fast, fun and easy way to train your dog. Pick up a clicker at any pet store and search YouTube for a variety of videos on how to do it. It’s especially effective if your dog has learned to tune out the sound of your voice when she’s focused on something else.
Need some help with your dog? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will feature one question on the first Wednesday of each month. Questions not featured will be answered privately by a trainer within 3 weeks.