Caroline has more than 12 years of experience solving canine behavior problems either with families, in rescue or at her own home.
Training Your Dog to Be Calm on Walks
Do you watch other dogs with envy? If you do, you are not alone. Many people tell me how jealous they are of other peoples' dogs, and how they wish theirs would walk to heel without pulling so hard they are actually choking themselves, or how they wish their dogs would come back when called or at least not disappear into the distance when the lead is un-clipped. Or maybe they just wish he would simply ignore other dogs and not jump all over every one he comes across like as if it’s the last dog on Earth!
Well, the good news is that with a bit of hard work and patience, you, too, could have a calm dog trotting beautifully beside you while everyone else in the park is wishing they were you.
Why Training Your Dog to Heel Is Important
A calm, attentive dog looks amazing as he danders along the forest path with his family. That alone is a good enough reason to work on your dog's behavior on the walk, but there are other reasons that I want to talk about before we get on with the “how to.”
Walking to Heel Makes for a Calmer, Better-Behaved Dog
First, let's talk about the calming effect walking to heel can have on your dog. Slowing down the walk and adding some structure slows down the mind and can turn a reacting dog into a thinking dog.
A thinking dog is much easier to walk; he considers his actions and consults his pack before making decisions. This dog is listening; he is paying attention and is in the right state of mind to learn new behaviors. This is a much better alternative to the half-crazed dog that is jerking from one side to the other, sniffing everything, barking at other dogs, and generally making a nuisance of himself.
Walking to heel also requires some self-control, and all dogs will benefit from mastering this. It will make a big difference to your walks, but also to his behavior in general. The discipline needed to walk to heel provides valuable mental stimulation too, which is especially important to very smart dogs, but any dog will enjoy the challenge.
How Much Exercise Do Dogs Need?
If you are going to master the walk with your dog, it is important to get every aspect of it right, so we will start by making sure your dog is getting the right amount of exercise. If you get this wrong, it will have a massive impact on your success.
Every dog is different from the next; they all have different lifestyles, different foods, and different personal needs, so it is very difficult to offer a definitive answer, but as a rule, every dog needs at least one walk every day, but most would benefit from two.
The walk should consist of all five elements of a good walk (see below), and your dog should be tired at the end of it. After all this, if you are still struggling to solve training or behavioral problems, then it is a good bet that he still needs more exercise.
5 Elements of the Perfect Dog Walk
The perfect walk should consist of five key elements in varying proportions.
1. Structured Heel Walking
Every dog benefits from the discipline of lead walking and I talked in a lot of detail about that at the start, so I won’t go on about it again, other than to say that every walk should consist of at least some structured heel walking At a minimum, he should get at least the first and last five minutes of every walk, this sets the tone of the walk, and settles the mind and body.
2. Free Running
Free running is essential for every dog; it burns a lot of energy quickly and really gets his heart racing. This is great for his mental and physical well-being, but if you are not confident your dog will come back to you when he is off the lead, look out for some local dog parks that are enclosed. Your dog will be safe while he is playing and running, and in the meantime, you can work on his recall.
3. Sniff Time
Investigating is very important to every dog. Dogs love to learn about the world they live in. Just one quick sniff or taste can tell him so much about where he is, other dogs that have visited before them, or maybe they are discovering new things for the first time.
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4. Play (Ideally With Other Dogs)
Every walk should contain an element of play too, ideally with other dogs. This is vital for his emotional well-being, and it gives him a chance to practice his social skills in a safe way. Play with you can also focus an easily distracted mind and keep wandering dogs from disappearing into the distance when you let them off their lead.
Finally, every walk should include an element of problem-solving. This can be achieved with a few rules, such as insisting your dog sits at every kerb or before you take his lead off. Or maybe you could add a mini training session to his walks to sharpen up his skills while you are out.
The Right Tools for the Job
Let's take a moment to talk about all the various different harnesses and leads that all promise to help you walk your dog more comfortably. There is no quick fix; however, some work better than others, and you might need to experiment a little before you find the one that will work best for you. As a general rule:
Head harnesses such as Halti’s or Gentle Leaders work by transferring control away from the neck and shoulders, which is where the dog is strongest. These harnesses work better on medium to large dogs but can take a little time for the dog to get used to. With a little patience, though, most dogs get the hang of them, and they can make a huge difference to the way the dog feels on the lead.
Body harnesses work by tightening around the dog's body when he pulls and this can unbalance him. For this reason, they tend to work better on smaller dogs. The great thing about body harnesses is that almost all dogs readily accept them as they are very comfortable to wear. However, larger dogs may find it easier to pull against them, and that is why larger dogs do not always suit body harnesses.
Most dogs have a collar and many are walked very successfully with just a lead and collar, if you are having trouble though, it may help to move the collar further up his neck so that it sits right under his chin and comes up behind his ears, it will look weird and you will have to keep a small amount of tension on the lead to keep the collar in the right position, but it will give you more control and will reduce the strength of your dog. Always choose a standard clip or buckle collar; I don’t recommend choke, half choke collars, or any other type of collar that is designed to use pain as a deterrent to pulling.
You will also need a lead, you can get many fancy leads that do all kinds of things, but for this type of training, I like to keep leads simple; a good-quality rope or leather lead will serve you well for many years. Just bear in mind that you will be holding it quite short at the start, so just choose something that is not too long, and that is comfortable for you to hold.
How to Train Your Dog to Walk on a Lead
Now down to the nitty-gritty—the actual walk.
- When you are ready to start, bring your dog to your side; his shoulder should be in line with your leg.
- Now take up all the slack in the lead so that it is as short as it can go. It will feel tight, so let it out by half an inch or so, just enough that it slackens slightly.
- Now just wait for your dog to stand still, and then you are ready to take your first step together.
- Be prepared for him to shoot off and for the lead to tighten when you take your first step. This is normal; just stop and wait for him to settle again.
- Once he is still again, take another step. Now just repeat, repeat, repeat. If you are patient, he will soon realize that you go faster when he stays beside you.
Don't forget, he is used to walking with tension on the lead, so this will take time. Be patient and try not to worry if you don't get very far the first few times.
How to Train Your Dog to Come
There is no magic trick to learning the recall either. Just like the walk, it will take patience and practice—oh, and a bag full of yummy treats!
Tip: Start in the garden; it is a safe place for your dog and will probably not have too many distractions.
- When he is not too far away from you, maybe just a few feet, get a tasty treat ready in your hand, hold your hand at roughly the same height as his nose, then call his name first (to get his attention), followed by the command, like this: Barney, Come.
- He should come to you straight away. That’s assuming he didn’t already come to you when he heard you getting your treat ready.
- Give him the treat and loads of praise too. He did great!
- Practice this over and over in the garden, each time letting him get further and further away from you before you call him.
When he can do it easily in the garden, it’s time to find another safe place that you can practice, maybe a friend's garden, or a secure dog park. Failing that, buy a long lead from the pet shop and use that to stop him from running off while you continue to practice.
Practice this as much as you can and with as many different types of distractions. Make it fun, and he will have this mastered in no time.
You're Ready to Master the Walk!
Now you know how to do it, you have some hard work to get on with, so here are a few final tips.
- Be patient and don’t put pressure on yourself to walk a certain distance. It will take time and patience to break your dog's habits.
- Be consistent. This is very important. Your dog will be confused if the rules change all the time.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2016 Caroline Brackin
Brian McDowell from USA on October 19, 2016:
Never thought of sitting at the curb as problem solving! We do that constantly (mainly for safety reasons - for both of us).
I need to get back into including more play. I used to do this all the time. I have to get back into that. Thanks for the gentle reminder!