Today I met with a delightful adult spaniel rescue and her adoring family in Santa Monica. They’ve been struggling with increasing displays of anti-social behavior on walks when in close proximity to other dogs, delivery trucks, and postal carriers. Recently, their beloved canine companion snapped at a toddler and her mother, and that was enough for the family to seek professional canine coaching.
During our initial session, this pup worked herself into a state of high-excitement whenever the leash came out, long before it was attached to her collar. Because the family lives in a condominium in Ocean Park, this behavior has been reinforced up to 6 times each day, and the dog has been increasingly difficult to control on leash.
This is a common problem I find with clients who are experiencing undesirable behavior during walks. Most people assume it’s “normal” for a dog to become overly excited before every outdoor adventure, because that’s been their experience with a variety of dogs. Like many human “beliefs” about dog behavior, this is a misinterpretation, and probably at the root of at least 50% of the leash-related problems I encounter.
While it’s nice to see a dog perk-up at the mention of a walk with their master, if you’re experiencing excessive barking, lunging, or straining on the leash, this excitement is part of the problem. If you’d prefer a calm, peaceful walk with your pup, it’s vitally important that you start that calm experience from the moment the leash comes out, and maintain it as you gather your keys, the waste bags, put on your shoes and coat, etc.
If your dog is already in the habit of ramping up at every stage of your pre-walk routine, desensitizing them to this process is the 1st step. In between walks, practice taking the leash out, then putting it back where you keep it without placing it in on your dog, several times a day for a week. This will condition your pup to stop assuming the presence of the leash means they’re going outside. Their excitement level will gradually decrease, until they barely react at all when they see the leash in your hand.
Once your dog has stopped reacting at the sight of the leash, expand this exercise to include placing it on your dog, then immediately removing it and putting it away. Again, practice this a few times a day for several days, until the act of putting on the leash stops overstimulating your dog. This usually takes a week or less, but every dog is an individual, so your mileage may vary. Let your dog be your guide.
Continue to expand this exercise to include each of your pre-walk preparations, one at a time. Take the time necessary to complete each stage before moving on to the next challenge. The entire process may take several weeks to complete, but in the end, your dog will learn to associate walks with calm energy.
Next up: How to handle distractions while on-leash.