Monday, December 28, 2015

Walking Dogs in the City: Dog Habits

Training in the farmer's market.
I was asked the other day if I was a dog trainer.

I am not quite sure what the term means.  I live with dogs so I habituate them to life with me in such a way that they can exist as reasonably self-actualized, while I remain sane, and my wife doesn't leave me.  If that makes me a dog trainer, than that is what I am, though I do it for love, not money.

I am, also, a walker and I have opinions about the canine habits of behavior necessary to keep walking enjoyable for canine, walker, and society at large.

It is a small distance between being just as excited as the dogs to go outside for a stroll and dreading it.  Weather is one factor, a factor outside our control.  The habits our dogs learn to exhibit while on a walk, however, are a more constant source of joy or dread and they are well within human influence.

Loose leash walking: the key to it all.

I mostly walk in the morning, frequently after I have worked the night shift.  I am over-tired and easily annoyed. I am walking one to three terriers, dogs whose instincts don't generally align with walking quietly in the heel position.  Yet the morning walks are, more often than not, enjoyable.  How is this possible?  Responsive dogs with a good loose leash walk.

A good loose leash walk does not need to be Crufts-perfect.  I'm not interested in competing in an obedience trial where the expectation is that the dog will prance around looking at me glowingly.  I don't care if the people who watch us walk are impressed or not.  I want to be able to walk comfortably.

I like my terriers to have a good strong prey drive. In other circumstances we hunt rats, other rodents, and rabbits.  It would be a little too much to ask for these high-prey drive dogs to turn off when on a leash and ignore every impudent squirrel that does not know its life is in danger.  If I am in a mood where I just can't handle the dog being distracted, I can always avoid those walking paths with an abundance of squirrels.

I.  Decide whether you want the dog to treat your right or left side as a default but so long as their behavior is not disruptive and and they are not pulling on the leash, consider letting the dog decide their comfortable space in relationship to you.  

I was taught to always keep the dog on my left and I have no reason to change but Moses did not bring this command down from Mt. Sinai.  What matters most is the dog knows which side of you it is expected to hang out on.  Whether that is on your left or right is a matter of personal preference.

Having a default location frees your dog from confusion of knowing where she is expected to be.  Untangling your feet from a leash is annoying and potentially dangerous.  Until your walking habits are well established, keep the dog on one side and occasionally throw in an unexpected figure 8 or turn at an unexpected time or place to ingrain the habit.  Teaching them to stay on one side of you is just good communication and if they are practiced at handling the unexpected, they will be more likely to respond as you expect when something happens to surprise you both.

Letting the dog wander in front or behind does not have to be a problem as long as the dog tends tp your preferred side and knows the limits, ahead or behind, which she must not cross.

II. Use the leash to communicate how far away from you the dog is allowed to venture.  

When I taught Musket to heel nearly ten years ago, I taught him to stay at my side at all times when on lead.  He is a rock star at it and I have no problem putting him on an off-leash heel anywhere it is legal.  I have more trust in his heel than any dog I have every owned but why is the off-lead heel important?

A privilege, not a right.
 Beyond the three miles of road I live on between a state highway and a county highway, I don't go anywhere where a great off-lead heel is practical, necessary, or safe anyway.  I've seen off-lead dogs in the city but that is not only illegal but unnecessarily dangerous.

I don't need the younger terriers stay right beside me in order find a walk enjoyable.  I need them to not pull on the lead.  They can have some freedom to sniff, move, and take a position slightly ahead or behind without my appreciation of the day being impacted at all.

I teach the limits they are allowed to wander using the least restrictive method necessary.  It was difficult to find that threshold with Sparta.  She isn't bad.  She doesn't pull, but she was always at the exact farthest point that I would allow.  The problem could not have been more than two inches but keeping her two inches closer took longer than anything I've tried to teach her.

After numerous approaches using positive and negative re-enforcement without result I bought a Command Collar.

What I found annoying was not her location but the amount of pressure she would put on the leash so our training has focused on that variable. On our training walks I purposefully change up the length of the leash from two to six feet so she would learn to respond to the tension on the leash as opposed to seeking out the same relative location.  Whatever length the leash was at the moment I'd wait until immediately before she'd reach my annoyance threshold and I'd give a sharp tug on the leash along with the command "slow."

The tug had to be sharp enough to get her attention.  Stoic and Musket will respond to the smallest tug.  Initially Sparta required significantly more force to get her attention, but I am already able to tone that down.  Once we hit our stride in a walk the verbal command is sufficient to get her to lay off those couple of inches  By spring, I hope we can retire the command collar.

Stoic and Sparta on a loose leash walk.  Picking their own location without pulling.

III. Develop a strong "leave it" protects the dog, allows you to better enjoy the walk, and is just good manners.  

Good city walking etiquette requires a good strong "leave it" and I use it all the time.  It is basically a call to pay attention to me and our pace and ignore that thing distracting you.  It is the same command if Stoic is a little too interested in another dog, when Sparta wants to get attention from a child, or either one of them finds a doughnut on the ground.

The plain fact is we have more opportunity to take our dogs with us to more urban locations than any other time in history.  This is a privilege, not a right and a privilege can be revoked if we piss enough people off.  No one loves your dog as much as you do.  Few people want to understand when he shows anti-social behavior, whether that behavior be sticking his nose in someone's crotch or lunging at a child holding an ice cream cone.  When non-dog people worry about your dog's behavior in the park or are just annoyed by it, a case begins to be built to exclude dogs from the area.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease.  We don't want to give people a reason to squeak against dogs in public places.

There are plenty of tools to help you teach your dog to respond to your "leave it" command.  Gentle Leader is one such product, I have already mentioned the command collar.  I am sure there are others.
If necessary, pick a less stimulating environment to train before moving on to more demanding.
Entertaining marathoners and spectators while we walk.

IV. Commands to move faster, slower, to the right, to the left make walking easier and safer. 

Commands to move to my left ("Scoot!" to move away from me) or to my right ("With!" follow me in this direction) are valuable in areas where there are joggers and cyclists using the same paths or trails, or when multiple turns must be made in quick succession, when moving through a hospital on the way to a therapy dog visit.

Most of the time the dogs can read my body language to know where we are going next but when there is a crowd to navigate or the environment can become too chaotic for ordinary measures, verbal commands clear up the confusion.

When I need dogs to pick up the pace (Stoic) I use the command "walk" and I already mentioned teaching Sparta to "slow."  The idea is to remind the dog to keep a proper distance relationship with me.  It is a reminder to pay attention to what we are doing.

I start to teach this on our very first walks when the paths are empty and the world appears ours alone and I teach it through mere repetition.  When moving left I say "scoot" and when I shift to the right "with."  The dogs pick up on it and once they've picked it up it stays in the toolbox.  Once they reliably respond to the commands they only need to be sporadically reinforced to remain fresh.

V. Watch the dog and only expose the dog to disruptive sights and sounds slowly, purposefully, and strategically.

Sometimes you get surprised.  This last week I was caught off guard by the number of garbage truck drivers speeding through the streets like Mario Andreti and poor Stoic was balanced near freak out mode for the good five minutes it took me to move him to a side street.  Generally, however, we can make choices to expose dogs gradually to new stimuli.

At the end of a good walk.
Bicycles, joggers, other dogs, garbage trucks, construction sounds, and a hundred other things you may not have ever noticed can distress your dog.  Watch them.  Learn from them and then respond.  You are the sapien.  You are responsible for choosing the timing and direction of the walk.

Be smart, start small, take your time, and don't expect your dog to know what you know.  I think there is nothing more enjoyable than sitting at a patio or in a bar with my dog and I hope everyone can share that joy, but you have to work up to it.

Next Monday: Walking dogs in the City: Sapien Habits

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