April Ask a Trainer: Pulling towards other dogs

Photo-9_2This month Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, writes about one way to teach your dog to look to you in the presence of other dogs.

One of the most common complaints trainers hear from dog owners is that their dogs pull on leash to get to other dogs.

Why do they do it? It might be the desire for social interaction, or it might be the desire to make the other dog go away, but either way it goes back to how animals learn: They try something, and if they like the result, they try it again.

If you actually wanted to teach your dog to pull toward other dogs, you’d do what many owners routinely do, which is to walk him toward other dogs while he’s pulling. Even if you allow pulling to “work” only once in a while, the dog will keep trying it; in fact, randomly disallowing it will just frustrate the dog, causing him to pull harder.

So what can you do?

If at all possible, avoid the first response that occurs to most humans, which is to stop moving, tighten up your dog’s leash and/or pull him close as the other guy passes. Dogs have an opposition reflex—meaning when you pull them one way, they pull back the other. Pain or discomfort caused by walking or training equipment (whether or not the equipment is specifically designed to cause it) can become associated with the other dog, and a dog who initially was just frustrated at not being able to greet may begin to warn off other dogs to avoid that feeling. And if your dog is already worried about whatever’s coming down the pike, heavy restraint can make him feel like a sitting duck. Dogs who feel like they can’t flee are more likely to fight.

Instead, at the first appearance of another dog, create distance. Then engage your dog in something he really loves to do with you, and reinforce it frequently and well.

The distance part is key. Distance is pretty much inversely proportional to distraction—the closer you are to something, the more likely it is to attract your dog’s attention. Think of each distraction as emitting a tractor beam, like the Death Star in Star Wars. If you and your dog blunder into the beam, there’ll be little you can do to avoid getting sucked in. So start moving proactively, before your dog really starts pulling, encouraging him to come along if need be. Keep going until you get to where you’re pretty sure he’ll be able to respond to your cues. That’s where training can start.

A corollary: The closer you are to your dog, the more likely he’ll be to pay attention to you instead of the distraction. But the trick is to move closer to him—not move him closer to you (see above re: tightening the leash). A technique I like, best described as miming rock climbing up the dog’s leash, is demonstrated by trainer Grisha Stewart in this video.

Pretrain the behaviors you’d like your dog to do when he sees another dog, so that they become habitual before you try them in the problem context. “Sit” is popular, but it requires a fair bit of self control and it may make some dogs feel vulnerable. Behaviors that involve movement, such as turning toward the owner at the sound of the name or following a hand target, may be more useful because they can be used to help create space in the first place.

Behaviors that involve sniffing and eating, such as “find it” (a cue to sniff for a treat you just tossed into the grass), are also a good bet, because most dogs already like doing them. In general, the easier the better: Unless you’ve trained for long duration and high distraction, the dog is most likely to succeed initially with a rapid-fire series of simple behaviors rather than one long one. Cue the behavior, reinforce it, and repeat until the other dog has moved on.

If you have a new puppy, starting this process right away will set you up for a lifetime of pleasant walks. If your dog already has a big fat history of getting reinforced for pulling toward other dogs, you may initially need to practice at off-peak times or in less congested places. After you have some well-rehearsed behaviors under your belt, a small group class may also be a good way to work on them in a controlled setting. (Be sure to let your instructor know your dog’s history with other dogs and your specific goals.)

If your dog’s pulling is socially motivated, you can even use interaction with other friendly dogs to reinforce (and thus increase) the attentive behaviors you’re asking for. This can be extremely powerful if you can swing it, but on-leash greetings do require some finesse that I don’t have room to detail here. At minimum, be sure to (a) ask permission from the other owner first and (b) eyeball the other dog’s body language to ensure that he really wants to meet. A wagging tail isn’t enough; if you’re not sure how to evaluate this, read more on how dogs communicate with each other.

With consistency, the appearance of other dogs can actually become an environmental cue for your dog to offer preferred behaviors, or just to check in with you to see what fun stuff you might have in store. In most cases, too, your need for distance will gradually decrease over time.