Imagine a parallel universe where dogs are as compelled to respond to their person as humans are to instantly answer our cell phones — anytime, anywhere. A decidedly essential skill for dog walkers is the ability to overcome canine distraction. This can be a tall order. For instance, hailing a dog away from a fascinating pee-mail would be like having me notice your eye color while Johnny Depp walked through the room.
Two vital skills needed for successful and safe walks are the capacity to engage dogs while walking and getting a reliable recall. Whether you walk dogs on or off leash, whether you walk dogs singly or multiple dogs together, you’ll want to master the rules of engagement.
Off on the right paw . It’s important to engage dogs before the walk as well as during. For example, ask dogs to sit and focus when you enter their home and again before exiting. This sets the tone for your outing. If you are transporting a dog to a trail or off-leash park, you’ll set the mood with a polite sit before loading, after unloading from your vehicle, and again before heading on to the trail.
On the walk . If a dog is engaged during the walk, he’s not completely absorbed in his own world where things can get risky. Talk to the dog. Have him check in. In the meantime, you’re practicing situational awareness to see potential distractions early. With dogs engaged, you can redirect if necessary and reinforce proper behavior. If you’re connecting with the dog, you’ll be proactive instead of reactive. When you’re proactive, would-be problems are more easily averted. Preventing a situation is always less complicated than dealing with its aftermath.
Circle up . Engage dogs by circling them up. This means having dogs gather close, sit, focus on you, and wait for treats. Whether walking on or off-leash, single or multiple dogs, you’ll want the ability to circle them up. It turns distracting situations and potential problems into a positive, safe experience.
When to circle up:
- Other dogs passing by at a distance
- People passing by (especially joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, etc.)
- Before loading into your vehicle
- After unloading from your vehicle
- Before crossing the street
- Highly distracting situations (think squirrels)
Teaching circle up. It’s easiest to teach behaviors to individual dogs as opposed to group learning. If you walk multiple dogs, have each one reliable on the behavior before attempting a whole-group circle up.
To teach circle up, start with little or no distraction. With the dog on leash, call him to you. Then cue him to sit and treat him for doing so. Next, practice off leash. Even if you don’t walk dogs off lead, you’ll want the ability to circle up in the event of a dropped or broken leash.
For a group circle up, call all dogs to you and cue a sit. As each dog sits, say his name and treat him. Speaking each dog’s name teaches the dogs to wait their turn for treats.
Bonus: Passersby will marvel at your dogs’ polite behavior under distraction. You are a model for your business. Be sure to carry your business cards!
Reliable recalls . It’s been said that dogs come when called and cats come when they’re interested. In reality, dogs also need to be interested. We want to build a rapport with our charges that has them interested and knowing that compliance is worthwhile.
A reliable recall allows us to:
- Call dogs away from danger
- Call dogs out of an escalating situation
- Call dogs away from distractions
- Rules of recall
Be ridiculously happy. Even if you’re feeling scared and frustrated, use a happy, high-pitched voice.
Resist the urge to chase. Running toward a dog will incite him to run away, either from fear or because it’s fun. Do the counterintuitive thing and run away from the dog while calling him.
Teaching recall. Enthusiastically call the dog’s name. Be very animated by slapping your knees or clapping your hands.
When you have the dog’s attention, move away from him and say, “Come.”
Upon the dog’s arrival, lavish on praise and treats.
To teach successful recalls, begin with little or no distraction. If a dog can’t come when it’s easy, he can’t do it when it’s difficult. Don’t begin training recall on the trail or at the park where dogs are susceptible to fun induced deafness. Start easy and work up to increasingly difficult situations.
Practice makes perfect . If you only call dogs to come or circle up when you’re ready to leave the trail or park, they’ll quickly learn that these cues mean the fun is over. To avoid this consequence, practice the cues randomly throughout the walk. Praise, treat, and let the dogs return to whatever fun they were having
With training, understanding, and fun, dogs will be happy to comply with the rules of engagement—anytime, anywhere.
Pat Blocker, CPDT-KA, is the author of Taking the Lead without Jerking the Leash: The Art of Mindful Dog Training, Pat has been training for over 20 years. She owns Peaceful Paws Dog Training, through which she specializes in canine behavior issues and also offers group training classes. She is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and an evaluator for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen and S.T.A.R. Puppy programs. A dedicated educator, Pat delights in teaching dog guardians through public talks and as a featured writer in local dog magazines and newsletters, and in helping to shape the next generation of dog professionals as a training mentor and Dog Walking Academy instructor.