Over the coming weeks, I’ll be tackling fifteen very common problems that owners have with adolescent or adult dogs… behaviours that are so super simple to avoid through good puppy training but also cause problems for owners who have adopted adult shelter dogs or who missed a bit in the puppy department. These fifteen behaviours are ones that often lead a dog to be abandoned at the shelter too. The good news is that even if your dog had all fifteen of these behaviours, they’re things that can be addressed very well. I’ve yet to find a dog who does all fifteen, but it’s not uncommon to find a lot of them in combination. They’re also all problems that people ring about in the first few days of an adoption, as well as being ones that – sadly – end in owners returning dogs to the shelter at the end of their tether. What makes me sad is that if they’d called us, we could have helped them with the problem.
The fifteen most common problems that people call about or lead to returns are: house-soiling, chewing, barking, digging, escaping, jumping up (exuberant behaviour), humping/mounting, leash pulling, no recall, poor socialisation with other dogs, biting, fighting with other dogs, fearfulness, resource guarding and problems being left home alone.
In this post, I’ll be exploring one that is very close to home… one that had me exasperated yesterday. Over-excitement before a walk and poor impulse control on the leash. Yes, you’ve got it… crazy behaviour before a walk, and not much better on it.
I’ll be splitting these up into two posts as really they are two separate problems, so I’ll to start by looking at how to bring pre-walk excitement back under control.
Let’s be clear… ALL my dogs, (that’s three of my own and two in foster care) are excited before a walk. But Heston… ah, Heston. He lives for a walk.
Circling, barking… kind of the same behaviour we see in a lot of shelter dogs at walk time.
In the interests of clarity, by the way, this used to be Heston’s default pre-walk behaviour. He’d already had a walk that morning and I usually don’t allow this level of excitement. You can hear me encouraging it for the video. Normally I don’t flap a leash at him, stand by the gate and mention the dreaded W-word with a camera on him. That said, sometimes I am incredibly busy and it’s harder to be consistent. Also, to be completely honest, he can be much, much worse than this. Yesterday morning, he was so over-excited that I spent it doing remedial pre-walk exercises. And then, when I wanted to make a video to show you all… he’s all “What?! Me? Over-excited? Never!”
But he’s not alone. All four of the other dogs here right now can also be agitated before a walk if I let them. Amigo whimpers and runs about. Tilly also cries and runs about. Effel has this weird behaviour where he comes barging in, lifts his paw and then when you put the lead on him behaves like a greyhound in the slips. He’s also a giant knob in the car. Benji barks and won’t stand still. Try putting five leashes on that lot of 200kg of excited dogs and walking out of the gate or putting them in the car.
You’ll notice that I put “if I let them” in italics way back there.
That is because this excitement is caused by me either intentionally (particularly in this video) or unintentionally. Heston does not spend all day circling and barking of his own accord. It’s me (or in this case me taking him on a walk) that has caused this behaviour. Can you imagine this 24/7?!
But because I cause this, it’s also up to me to manage it. What I cause, I can control. You can see though why a lot of people simply stop exercising their dogs or doing fun stuff with them, which can worsen other behaviours.
No, whether I like it or not, I’m the only one of us in that partnership that can also bring this lunatic back to non-crazy behaviour. I can’t expect Heston to “grow out of this” (he’s almost five!) or to stop because I’m telling him off.
Calming a dog’s pre-walk energy is up to you.
It depends on you understanding the prompts and cues you give, and taking a bit of time to address the problem. The good news is that it is a problem that is easy to solve, if a little frustrating. Don’t get me wrong: that frustration will certainly be yours, not the dog’s.
I think one of the most frustrating things about managing this behaviour is that even human beings just want to get out of the gate and have a walk! The first thing to do is put the idea of “a walk” out of the way until you’ve got this behaviour under control. Sure, that might mean your dogs only get a 5-yard ‘walk’, but a couple of weeks addressing this behaviour and I promise you that you’ll have an end to pre-walk excitement – and a dog you can communicate with right from the very first moments of your walk.
So what do we need to do?
The first is to understand the unintentional cues we give our dogs. Cues are “signals, words or other stimuli” that “reliably result in the animal performing a particular behaviour”. There’s bags of science behind this: unconditioned stimuli, conditioned stimuli, secondary reinforcers, antecedents and all kinds of trainer talk. Blah Blah sciency words. Cues can be deliberate, like asking for a sit, or they can be unintentional, like going to the fridge and being followed by a pack of dogs. When I bend down with a dustpan and brush, Heston reliably play-bows. My actions cue him to play bow. Who reading this avoids saying “walk” or “bath” because of the signals it gives to the dog? We are very adept at noticing the things we say that turn our dogs into lunatics, but not always good at noticing what we are doing.
These cues… they’re not all deliberate. Nor are they all avoidable. I may not mean to give them or even know I’m doing it. It’s only when I thought about it that I realised every time I stand up and push the chair under, Heston makes for the door. Or I may be aware that I’m doing it and be unable to avoid doing it. Like I know my keys set him off, but how can I lock the door to go for a walk without using my keys?
If you want to see cues at work, go and pick up your dog’s leash and see what happens. Stand up. Notice what your dogs do? Move towards the door. Do they look interested? That’s an action prompting a response from your dog. In the shelter, walking past the dogs with a leash is a massive prompt of excited behaviours. In the home, picking up your keys or a leash can be a cue for excited behaviours.
So why do these cues make dogs circle, bark or whine before a walk?
Because a walk is a massively fun and rewarding thing. It is the highlight of many dogs’ days. You might get this when you come home too. Benji, one of my current fosters, does these because me coming home is like hitting the jackpot and he’s excited to see me. Effel is just as excited at food time. If I say “Does Tilly want a treat?” she’s going to whine and whimper and race about like a fool.
You can get these perfectly normal doggie behaviours at any point when a dog is excited.
But when it can be cute from time to time, it’s not cute when five dogs are doing it before you go for a walk. And once one starts barking, the likelihood is that the others will all follow suit. That’s something else about canine excitement: it’s contagious. Thus I’ve got five barky, over-excited, whining, circling dogs to get through a gate and along a narrow path, past four houses with other dogs, over a main road and around ‘dog pee’ central where all my neighbours’ dogs also pee on the corner. I really, really don’t want that excitement behaviour.
How then do I stop it?
The first way to stop it is to break your cue-chain. This is a chain of classically conditioned associations. W leads to X leads to Y leads to Z.
Dogs are super-expert at reading cues and putting them together. Heston’s go like this…
Am I awake?
Have I had breakfast?
Did we have a nap?
Is it light outside?
Is she standing up?
Is she putting socks on?
Is she putting shoes on?
Has she opened the shutters?
Has she brushed her teeth?
Has she picked up her keys?
Has she put on her hat?
Has she got her coat?
Has she got a leash?
Has she locked the door?
Then it’s WALK TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I’ve talked in previous posts about trigger stacking, but the same is true of cues we give our dog. A combination, particularly in a formula, is very predictable, like the pins falling into place on a lock. Every single one of those cues contributes to the excitement the dog feels. But when they’ve learned W leads to Z, and all the other cues before lead to Z, they’re going to get excited when the first of those pins falls into place. And that excitement is just going to grow and grow.
The fact is that Heston realises there’s quite a long chain of events that lead up to a walk. There’s a lot of predictable cues that let him know a walk is on the way. Our main job is to disrupt the sequence, desensitise the dog to various cues that are absolutely necessary and make whatever leads to the excitement much less predictable, so that the dog is calmer and you can work with them.
Ever tried calming a dog like the Heston in the video? Not so easy, is it? Couple that with frustration, a barrier… bringing a dog back down from that into a learning zone can be really a challenge.
One of the main things that we need to do is stop this level of over-arousal ever happening in the first place, so that the dog is listening and responsive.
The first thing to do is identify every cue that excites our dog. I need to make a list of every single thing I regularly do before taking my dogs for a walk. That can include things like pushing a chair under (because I have one dog who likes to get up on the table) and locking the food away (because I have another dog who likes to break into the food room and have a picnic). I make a list of every single movement I make in the half-hour leading up to a walk, including the time I regularly walk the dog. What’s tipping Heston off? I’m going to list everything.
Then, I’m going to eradicate every single cue that has become an accidental part of the chain… the non-essentials. Is it essential I walk Heston first thing? No. Could I walk him before breakfast? Yes, if it’s light enough. Do I need to open the shutters? No. Must I put on my boots right before the walk? No. So I get rid of every inadvertent accidental cue. Do I need a hat? Could I keep it in my pocket? The shorter the time that excitement has to build up, the easier it is to manage.
Identify every single behaviour or object that gets a reaction. Put all the things on a table a couple of hours or so after a walk, and pick each one up in turn then move to the door. What does the dog do? Which ones cause the most excitement? Which ones are “hot” objects that really indicate a walk? I just did this… put my hat on and moved to the door… picked my keys up and moved towards the door… picked a leash up and moved towards the door. The hat caused a marginal response. The keys caused a lot of interest. The leash, well, that was a ‘jackpot’ cue… Heston’s scrabbling at the door to get out. Pushing my chair under also has the same effect.
Once I’ve identified the problem cues that I can’t eradicate, I need to choose a programme to tackle this. I need to break the connection between these things and the consequence being a walk, and I need to be less predictable.
For the rest of the cues, well, unless I want to leave my house naked and barefoot, without a leash, without my keys, I need to find out just how stimulating each one of those things is.
Part of lowering this level of over-arousal with a stack of cues is to change the sequence. For anyone whose dog gets excited when they put a harness on, the simplest thing to do is put the harness on when you are doing something else – like they’ve just eaten – and leave it on until you take them.
Your aim is to stop the harness meaning a walk.
Once the dog comes to realise there is no longer an association between a harness and a walk, the harness going on doesn’t trigger excitement. It’s the same with a leash. One of the best things to do is have a harness that you put on when it is nowhere near walk time, and clip a leash to it at the same time. Wrap the leash around the dog so it’s not dragging on the floor but is easy to unwrap, and then you’ve removed a very significant cue from the order. Taking the fun out of a leash is vital. Put it on 50 times a day. 100. Carry it around with you all day. That leash needs to mean nothing at all. That can be hard with a dog who knows what it is, but you will notice that your dog becomes less and less excited the more you handle the leash.
Another way you can do this is to switch the normal walking tools. If you use a flat collar and leash, switch to a harness and a new type of unexciting leash. If you use a harness, switch to a flat collar and leash for a little while and let your dog wear the harness round and about the house until the harness stops meaning “Walk!”
I’m also going to do that when I have absolutely zero other cues around. Nothing on my list of cues can be anything that vaguely raises an eyelid. If I go and start messing around with leashes when I am in my coat and hat, wearing my boots, got my keys in my hand, it’s going to be too much.
I’m going to do it when he’s had a walk already.
I’m going to leave his leash on in the house for five minutes or so, and then I’m going to take it off and carry it about a bit. I’m going to sit and watch TV with it in my hand.
Then the next day, I’m going to do it a bit more.
This way, the dog has zero expectations. Who goes on a walk when they’ve just got back from a walk? No dog on the planet. Never in the field of canine walking has a walk come immediately after a walk. It is a very safe time to teach a dog that a leash is meaningless. Leave it on, take it off after five minutes, play with it. Put it away. Next day, do it a bit more. Within a week, you should have a dog who is happy for you pick up and move the leash without assuming that a walk is going to follow. Stop hanging the leash in its habitual place, too. Keep it around and about you.
When your dog is no longer as aroused by you picking up the leash, you can also use post-walk time to get the dog used to you taking off and putting the leash back on again. When’s the best time to practise putting a leash on without excitement? When you’ve just taken it off. If you use a clicker, you can reward calmness. A lot of us ask our dog to sit before we remove a leash, so keep them in a sit and immediately clip it off, then clip it back on. Do it ten times or so in the first couple of minutes after a walk and you’ll have a very different reaction from the one you get trying to do that before a walk. I’d also vary it – try taking the leash off and putting it back on five minutes after a walk. Leave longer intervals between taking it off and putting it back on. If your dog gets excited, leave it til after the next walk and do the same, just with less of a duration.
If I take him for a walk before he’s eaten, he isn’t as excited. It’s unexpected and unpredictable. If I went out barefoot, that would be too. If I didn’t have my keys or lock the door, that would be too. All of these tiny, tiny prompts add up together, and if I miss one out, it decreases his excitement because it becomes an unexpected walk and he hasn’t worked himself into a frenzy.
For many excitement behaviours, doing things out of sync can reduce them, or mixing them up. The more of those behaviours that Heston understands make it more and more inevitable that a walk will happen. If I could do them all simultaneously in one second, it would catch him off-guard, but the fact is that some of those things are ones I have to do.
I don’t walk Heston in the dark. I don’t walk him barefoot. I don’t walk him without having locked the door, and I don’t walk him without a leash. Some of these things are going to have to happen in an order. But some don’t have to happen in that order, or only happen right before a walk. For instance, like the harness or leash, I need to take the fun out of my keys, and the door being locked whilst we’re both on the “walk” side of it. I need to disconnect my boots from a walk, and my coat. Yes, I’m going to have a few days where I’m just picking up stuff and putting it back down, right after a walk. I’m going to do it at random and schedule it so that it will seem random to the dog but that I am being systematic.
At the same time, I’m really, really working on some trainable calmness. Sit. Lie Down. Settle. Look at me.
But you want to know five biggest changes that turn a crazy-eyed loon into a mild-mannered dog, reversing the Tasmanian Devil effect…
- The first was making sure my dog has had some exercise before the walk (avoiding making pre-walk exercise the cue for a walk!) and I’m going to do things that are mentally taxing, not physically taxing. Thirty minutes of searching for breakfast in the garden will do that. Chewing is also a great activity to get dogs to calm. Working on a bone for half an hour before a walk is no bad thing.
- I’m also going to make sure that my multi-dog household are not feeding off each other’s excitement. Actually, that means really messing with my schedule for a couple of weeks until the dogs are all calm and sometimes only taking one dog.
- Eradicating cues is a big game changer. I put my shoes on when the dogs are eating breakfast, and leave my coat to grab on the other side of the door. I don’t push my chair under or put my hat on. I leave the leash wrapped around Heston’s collar from dawn until a couple of hours after the walk. I practise putting it on and taking it off before the walk. Heston’s two biggest excitement factors are the keys and the leash, so I make them meaningless.
- Shaking it up with the cues you can’t eliminate also helps. Instead of moving towards the gate, I move away as if I’m going into the garden. I don’t even go five yards before he’s looking at me like, “the walk’s this way, dumbass” and he’s so bemused, he’ll sit.
- The fifth tip is to increase your expectations about calmness and to stop wanting to go for a walk yourself. If Heston’s barking and circling, I go back in. Barking and circling mean “too bad!” and he knows that’s a great big end to the fun.
What works, then, is a high expectation of calmness and careful exploration of your cues. Manage both, and you’ll have a calm dog waiting for a walk without going mental.
For further information, if your dog jumps up, leaps or grabs the leash, you can also check out this post which will also help you bring those excitement levels back down so that you don’t have to put up with a lunatic on a leash. In the next post, I’ll show you a video of Heston’s best ‘leaving the house’ behaviour before explaining how to stop leash-lunges and poor on-leash behaviour. Guess what? He’s my poster boy for that too!