By Bill Mayeroff
One of the best things about being a dog owner studying to be a dog trainer is that I always have a dog around on which to practice what I learned in class and what I saw during my observations.
Chester took some classes through a local PetSmart a few years ago, but admittedly, I wasn’t great about keeping up his training once the classes ended. Studying at FetchFind and observing a bunch of great trainers in action gave me a second chance to work with my dog. It’s not that his behavior was terrible, but it’s always worth trying to improve a bit, right?
One of the first things I did with Chester was teach him “touch.” It’s a simple enough trick: get the dog to bop your outstretched hand with their nose. But what’s cool about it is that not only do dogs love it, but it can also be a great tool to help with recall, which is something Chester still needs work on.
When teaching recall (in lay terms, “recall” is when you call the dog to come to you, using a command like “come” or “here”), you have to teach your dog that whatever awaits them when they come to you is better than whatever they were doing. And that’s hard, especially when trying to call a dog in from outside. A dog wants to sniff things and chase squirrels and bark at airplanes overhead. So you, as the owner, need to be more enticing than all that to get your dog to come to you.
But a touch command changes things a bit. It turns coming to you into a game. So instead of trying to convince your dog to leave all sorts of fun things behind to come to you, you’re giving your dog a new game to play.
It’s a game Chester took to almost immediately. It took me almost no time to teach him “touch.” And unlike his recall command, I can get him to respond to “touch” pretty much every time, even from across my apartment.
That’s not to say “touch” is a replacement for teaching your dog recall, by the way. But it’s a nice tool to keep in your back pocket.
As easy as it was to teach Chester “touch,” loose-leash walking took a good bit more effort. Chester is a terrier. He wants to smell everything. He wants to chase all the little critters running around. Outside is his playground and as a result, his leash is often fairly taut.
So I had to start at the beginning. The first step? Get Chester to pay attention to me (rather than the surroundings) when we walk. To do that, I faced him and walked backwards. Chester would follow me and every few steps, he’d get a treat and some praise for keeping his eyes on me. Once he had that down, I started walking in the same direction as him, again treating him fairly frequently. That was coupled with coming to a complete stop when he would pull and not moving again until he made the decision to come closer to me and create some slack in his leash.
His touch command also helped with leash walking. To keep him from paying attention to his surroundings and stay at my side, I’d occasionally put my hand out and tell him “touch.” Two or three of those when I saw him eyeing something and he’d refocus enough to stay with me for a bit longer.
Chester will never be perfect on a leash, and I don’t really need him to be. But he’s better.
And ultimately, that’s what training is about. It’s not about creating a “perfect” dog (which doesn’t really exist, by the way). It’s about peaceful coexistence, whatever that entails. In my case, I can live with Chester sniffing plants and occasionally pulling a little when we walk. That’s what works for us and as long as the behavior doesn’t get worse, it’s fine.
But that’s just me. Other owners might want their dog to stick tightly to their side. Other owners might want a dog that never pulls or who keeps their eyes forward rather than sniffing things. It’s up to each owner to decide what they can live with.
Long story short: Chester and I still have work to do. But we’re having fun training together. We’re both learning. We’re both improving. And that’s what’s most important.
After five years as a newspaper reporter in western Illinois and two more as a freelancer in Chicago, Bill Mayeroff‘s life has gone to the dogs in the best way possible. These days, Bill lives in Chicago with his terrier mix, Chester, and works at a small, no-kill animal shelter while he studies to be a professional dog trainer at FetchFind Academy. Bill also blogs about his two favorite things – dogs and beer – at Pints and Pups.