All right, you’ve had two weeks of practicing no-pull walking in non-stressful situations. How’s it going? Hopefully pretty well! (If not, consider contacting a dog trainer, joining a group, or hanging out who-knows-how-long until I post a video. That might be a while.) By now you should be seeing a significant improvement in calm situations. That would be a situation when there’s no dog, squirrels, cats, trucks, bikes, scooters, skateboards, kids… you get the idea.
Now it’s time to generalize. There are two ways to train through stressful situations (read: anything not-calm). We’ll talk about them both.
1. Positive reinforcement, distraction, and baiting
This should be used primarily with puppies and dogs who are strongly treat motivated. If your dog would rather chase the cat than have a treat, start with #2 and come back here when your dog starts trying to restrain themselves! (You’d be amazed how they become treat motivated when they aren’t allowed to chase, even if they aren’t normally.)
Start when your dog’s ears prick up and the wrinkles appear in their forehead. This is usually a full block before people expect to see it happen: from that distance, your dog is already talking to whatever it’s looking at. Whether it’s in hunt mode, attack mode, or excitement mode, the response is the same. First, stop walking. This will give you time to organize. Next, get a treat. To get your dog’s attention back, put the treat right by their nose, and when they start sniffing pull the treat up to your eyes. His eyes should now be on your eyes. Praise, and give him the treat. Instantly get another. Start walking, continuing to do the treat-to-nose-to-your-eyes. This is positive reinforcement: we’re reinforcing him looking at you instead of whatever else is coming. As he gets better at this, you can use a command to bring his eyes up. “Watch me” or “look at me” are typical. Then you can start asking him to hold your gaze for a second, two seconds, three seconds before giving him the treat. The goal there is to build stamina.
Now, if your dog is trying to do this but returning to the prey quickly, then we begin using distraction techniques. Talk to your dog. Once you have his attention via treats, talk to him while you get another treat. Give him something to focus on — your voice — other than whatever he’s not supposed to focus on. This seems overly simple, but it’s really important. Look at your dog. Talk to your dog. Convince him through body language, gaze, and voice that you’re not worried about those things up there. Most people start looking at what their dog is looking at: stop that! It doesn’t matter! Look at your dog. That’s what matters, and that’s the information you need.
Finally, if your dog REALLY can’t handle walking past, start baiting. Baiting is where you put the treat on their nose, pull it up before they get it, and then wave it around. Do this until you’re about to lose his attention, then give it to him and start over. Quite often you can bait a dog past a problem, and then slowly work towards distraction and then positive reinforcement for looking at you. Again, talk to them.
2. Reprimanding bad behavior
Remember those reversals? Let’s talk about reversals for a moment. There’s a bunch of reasons they’re effective. For one, it teaches your dog that they can’t get to whatever they want if they’re naughty. For two, it takes away what they were staring at, and gives them a minute to collect themselves. For three, if you do it quickly it acts as a larger check.
So here’s what we do: when you’ve tried checking and your dog refuses to come back to you (continues to wrinkle), turn sharply away and walk in the other direction until your dog stops wrinkling. This could be one step, or it could be a hundred. Watch your dog’s ears. When they relax, praise and turn back the way you were going. If you have a treat, grab it and start baiting as above. If you don’t, keep talking to your dog as you turn. Keep praising them as long as they’re un-wrinkled. As soon as they wrinkle, do it again!
It will take you a long time to get past whatever it is you’re walking toward. If you’re lucky, that thing will be stationary. Most of the time, the thing is moving. In that case, when you finally turn around and it’s right there, just walk past.
Second, you can do a hard sit-down. A hard sit-down has one verbal cue, “Sit,” said very sharply (because this is a reprimand) as you pull up, hard, on the collar. We are not giving them a chance to listen and respond: we are saying, “You have been bad, you are in big trouble, mister, now sit your butt down and focus on me.” If you dog doesn’t look at you (most will, as this startles them), then turn around and make him walk away with you.
If you’re working with a dog who is aggressive in any form, there are some things to note.
1. If you have any reason to believe your dog might bite a human, do not do anything but positive reinforcement until you’ve spoken with a dog trainer. Some dogs who are already on the threshold of biting will snap back when you nip at them — what your dog perceives we’re doing.
2. If your dog tends to lunge at other dogs, then as you get close make sure your collar is as high as you can get it under his jaw (to control his head), get space if you need it (walk into the street), and cinch your dog’s head high and tight against your body. This will keep him from lunging out, give you the leverage you need to keep him (no matter how big he is), and though his body might twirl around, his teeth will be safely away from another dog. Note that to do this, you might have to stop walking and adjust his collar.
Safety trumps all training, everywhere. Even I stop checking, treating, baiting, and reversing if I’m handling a dog aggressive pup and another dog is coming close.
Finally, I’d like to point out that working with stressful situations is almost the same as working with regular situations. Expect more reversals and treats, because it’s harder, but it can be done. Like I said before, half of dog training is just out-stubborning your dog!