Are we having fun yet?

These days there are so many awesome things that we can do with our dogs. In most cities you will find off-leash dog areas, dog beaches, social dog walks, fenced dog parks, and a host of other activities. There are also numerous events that aren’t specifically organised for dogs, but where dogs and other on-leash pets are welcome too. This could include local markets, pet stores, community events, etc.

It can be so much fun getting out and socialising with other dog people, checking out the breeds that people own, introducing your dog to other people and puppy friends. We love our dogs so much, so why wouldn’t we want to show them off?

Check what’s going on at the other end of the leash – is your dog having fun too?

million paws walk townsville 2014
Wilbur at the Townsville Million Paws Walk 2014 – checking out the sights

Often event organisers and dog owners are well-meaning when they take their dog out and about, but for many dogs these social experiences can be overwhelming for them, especially if they are really only used to quiet walks around the neighbourhood.

Signs that your dog may be unhappy or too stressed in a certain situation could include inactivity and hanging close to you all the time, hyperactivity or hyper vigilance, pulling at other dogs and people beyond the point of being able to be redirected, barking or growling at other people or dogs, or showing stress signs such as trembling, yawning, licking his lips a lot, keeping his ears tucked back, and sniffing or pacing a lot. These are just some examples. Go to any heavily populated dog area and you will see plenty of dogs who would prefer a good game at home or a walk in a quieter area.

If you dog is showing signs of stress, what should you do? Remove your dog from the situation as soon as possible, and work on a plan to make that sort of outing something enjoyable. Depending on your dog you may just need to work on some basic manners training, or perhaps get help to develop a plan to change the way your dog views these things altogether. Or maybe these social outings aren’t actually important to you and your dog. There is a widely held belief that all dogs should be social butterflies and love any dog we set them up to play with. This just isn’t the case. Your dog may prefer to play with just a select few canine friends, or maybe none at all. So long as you help teach him not to feel afraid, and help him to pass on by without stress, there is no reason why you have to visit social dog locations.

Part of our responsibility as dog owners is to help our dogs be well socialised, confident, and happy members of society. They should be able to go out and about by our side without feeling afraid of day-to-day activities, sights, and sounds. Beyond that, if we want to get involved with our dogs at community events, it is important that we look out for our dogs and help them to enjoy the experience too! We are doing it for the dogs after all!

Who’s walk is it anyway?

I grew up with a Jack Russell Terrier who pulled like a demon. From start to finish, whether we walked, ran, or cycled, Mickey would be out in front pulling for all he was worth. It was frustrating, and somewhat embarrassing as Mickey choked his way (sometimes loudly) down the street, but his small size meant it became something we all put up with.

My current puppy, Wilbur, is very different. He walks like a champion beside me on his little front-attach harness, and I couldn’t be happier…until he hears something, or sees something, or smells something. Wilbur stops dead in his tracks to investigate. His ears are pricked forwards, tail relaxed, and his little nose is twitching as he sniffs the air. He is a well-socialised young puppy discovering that the world has yet more to offer. In it’s own way this is frustrating too!

Us humans, myself included, go out for a walk with a view to cover ‘x’ amount of time or distance. We’ll go for a 30 minute walk, or perhaps we want to cover our favourite 5km loop. We don’t want to stop.

Our dogs live through their senses. We take them out of their well-known house or yard, and out into the world of new sights, smells, and sounds – but we don’t want them to stop. How do we explain that to them? How does that even make sense to our dogs? “Hey dog, i want you to keep walking and not stop to sniff or pee or look. It’s called exercise, it’s fun!” ….riiiight!!

walking dog

Wilbur isn’t being stubborn, he’s not trying to dictate what we do or be alpha, and he’s not being lazy. He’s being curious, inquisitive, he’s being a puppy. That goes for your dog too. Dogs don’t act for no reason, look at the whole situation and try to think what could have your dogs attention. Could you spare a moment to let him sniff? Does he actually need to go to the toilet? Can he hear something that you can’t?

So what can you do, when like me you’re standing there while you’re dog is being a dog? Reactively I want to tug on the lead and pull Wilbur along, but that’s not what a leash is for. I don’t want to tug, jerk, or pull when Wilbur is just trying to discover something new. I want walking to be a comfortable experience for Wilbur, and that isn’t what i’ll achieve by jerking on the leash. Instead i give him a moment, then encourage him forward with my voice. I reward behaviour i want to see more, like trotting along beside me. I walk proactively, sticking to the road or centre of the path where i know the scents aren’t so interesting, and i try to stay one step ahead of him – if i see a dog or person up ahead, i’ll step off the path with Wilbur and ask him to sit. This puts him in a position where i can reward him, rather than waiting until he is fixated on whatever is approaching.

Being a good leader for your dog is about being patient, setting them up for success, and rewarding good behaviours. You can’t achieve this by making your dog uncomfortable. And at the end of the day, I’m taking the dog for a walk. I wouldn’t be out there if it weren’t for him, so i do want to indulge his senses and offer him an enriching experience. Over time I can teach Wilbur that he can indulge in those fun doggy things while still in motion, or that he can take that opportunity when i release him to do so, but now while he’s a pup we will keep discovering the neighbourhood together. He’s learning more about the world, and I’m learning more about being a kind and patient dog owner and trainer!


It’s All Tricks

Ask someone to teach their dog to “Heel” and we’re talking serious obedience training. Stern voice, repetition, and sometimes even frustration when we can’t get it right. Ask someone to teach their dog to “Shake Hands” and the mood lightens. It’s hard to be serious when you’re teaching your dog a trick.

Guess what? It’s ALL tricks!

You read that right! Even an obedience “Heel” is a trick as far as your dog is concerned. Whether the behaviour is important to you or just for fun, your pet is relying on you to give him clear information to help him succeed. He is using that information to figure out what behaviours will lead to fun things happening for him, and when he figures that out he will try it more often! That’s how learning works.

So why do we like to get our panties in a twist over our basic “obedience” behaviours?

We don’t have to, and indeed we are likely to see better results if we lighten up. By relaxing, being clear, and having fun, we are likely to be more thoughtful when training our pets. A training failure is a puzzle to solve, not a serious offence, and we can work towards a training goal in partnership with our dog rather than trying to drill a behaviour into his muscle memory.

In the training classes I instruct or assist with, I like to give owners a trick to teach their dog. The dogs always learn the trick faster than any of the “serious” stuff. Why? I think it is because the owners have no preconceived idea as to how to teach a trick, while they probably have taught sit, drop, or stay a certain way in the past. Without the baggage people are free to try teaching without force, and they see the results quickly. If the owner is having a great time, their dog is usually loving training too.

shake hands dog

The important “tricks” vary from owner to owner as well. When Wilbur joined the Treat. Play. Love. family one of the first things i taught him was “Shake Hands”. Why? Because i had never owned a dog who could shake hands, and i’d always wanted one! That mattered to me. For someone else sitting at doors or retrieving may be more important, or perhaps that awesome down-stay. It’s not a matter of whether a behaviour is a “trick” or “obedience”, what really matters is if it is important to you, and that you and your dog enjoy the learning process together.

Train smart, not tough!