Over the coming weeks, I’ll be tackling fifteen very common problems that owners have with adolescent or adult dogs… behaviours that are often simple to avoid through good puppy training but also cause problems for owners who have adopted untrained adult shelter dogs or who missed a bit in the puppy department.
These behaviours are unfortunately ones that can lead to dogs being abandoned at the shelter.
The good news is that even if your dog has all of these behaviours, they’re things that can be addressed easily. 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 a trainer, they could have helped them with the problem.
The fifteen most common problems that people call about or lead to returns are:
- jumping up (exuberant behaviour) and also a post here and here
- lead pulling,
- no recall,
- poor socialisation with other dogs,
- puppy biting, biting and play biting
- fighting with other dogs,
- resource guarding
- 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 lead…
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 before you start. I’ll then link you to a video to help you teach your dog to walk more nicely on lead.
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. Dogs like walks. Walks are their celebratory moments of the day. The first thing we need to do, then, is accept that walks are fun and know that this might cause behaviours that we find undesirable.
You can see some of those behaviours spilling out here: 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 lead at him, stand by the gate and mention the dreaded W-word with a camera on him. 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 don’t manage it well. 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 leads 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 don’t manage it’ 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.
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, as well as 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.
What you can’t do is just let your dogs get more and more wound up, let them off lead for the first half hour and let them run it off. I guarantee that if they don’t have enough impulse control not to pull on the lead or to manage their excitement, they won’t have enough impulse control to walk nicely on the lead or to come back when you ask.
So what do we need to do?
#1 understand our accidental cues
The first is to understand the unintentional cues we give our dogs. Cues are signals, words or other signs that reliably result in the animal performing a particular behaviour.
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. For instance, if I tie my boots up, usually that will cause some excitement. If I pick my keys up, there may also be some excitement. If harnesses and leads come out, even more excitement still. Most of the problems that cause dogs to get over-excited before a walk come from accidental or unintentional cues.
These cues… they’re not usually 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 lead 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.
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.
It can be cute from time to time, like when your dog is a puppy and you could train it out of them.
Instead, many of us encourage it: ‘Awwww… is Fido all excited? Are we going for a walk?’
Not cute when they’re five.
And 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?
#2 Desensitise the dog to the cues
Once you’ve identified your cues, you then need to help your dog feel less bothered about them. This will help to break your cue chain or your chain of 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 lead?
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. This process is called ‘back chaining’ and it means that the first thing comes to reliably predict the second, which comes to reliably predict the third… and so on.
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 lead up and moved towards the door. The hat caused a marginal response. The keys caused a lot of interest. The lead, well, that was a ‘jackpot’ cue… Heston’s scrabbling at the door to get out. Pushing my chair under also has the same effect.
#3 Become less predictable and teach the dog that the cue means a very specific behaviour
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. I also need to teach the dog what to do instead of running around circling.
We do this out of context. It’s actually a good time to do it when you return from your walk and your dog is calm. They’re not expecting another walk. It’s a really good time to start your training.
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. Easier still is to teach the dog that when they see a certain thing happening, they need to perform a certain behaviour.
It’s really hard when dogs are excited to ask for static behaviours like ‘sit’ or ‘down’. Not impossible, but that takes some impulse control.
It’s actually much easier to teach your dog to do something that involves movement whenever you do that thing you do.
For instance, when I tie my shoes, Heston goes to pick up a ball. When I’m about to open the door, bums must be on the floor. Each cue in turn means the dog has to do something specific, or the next piece of the chain won’t happen.
Your aim is to stop the harness meaning a walk. Your aim is to make the harness become a cue for something else entirely.
Once the dog comes to realise that whatever you do, whether it’s picking up keys or it’s putting on your boots, that it’s just time for them to go and do something instead, it helps them channel their energy and know what to do.
It’s the same with a lead. One of the easiest things to do is leave the harness on after you’ve been for a walk, and 10 times during the next hour or so, clip the lead on to it then take it straight off.
Then you can do the same with the harness. Take it off, put it on. Make it less of a cue that you’re going to go on a walk. Have a harness that you put on when it is nowhere near walk time, and clip a lead to it at the same time. Wrap the lead 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 lead is vital. Put it on 50 times a day. 100. Carry it around with you all day. That lead 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 lead.
#3 If you can’t desensitise easily, bring in new cues and habituate the dog to them long before you use them
Another way you can do this is to switch the normal walking tools. If you use a flat collar and lead, switch to a harness and a new type of unexciting lead. If you use a harness, switch to a flat collar and lead for a little while and let your dog wear the harness round and about the house until the harness stops meaning “Walk!”
You want these to go on and off at least ten or fifteen times a day and never be paired up with a walk.
Then, when you do go out on a walk, the dog won’t associate them with being put on and going out for a walk.
You will need to keep doing this plenty of times though. It’s no good to go back to putting the harness on right before a walk and then hoping your dog won’t make the connection.
I’m also going to do that when I have absolutely zero other cues around that form part of that cue chain. There should be nothing on my list of cues can be anything that vaguely raises an eyelid. If I go and start messing around with leads 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 lead 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 lead 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 lead without assuming that a walk is going to follow. Stop hanging the lead in its habitual place, too. Keep it around and about you.
When your dog is no longer as aroused by you picking up the lead, you can also use post-walk time to get the dog used to you taking off and putting the lead back on again. When’s the best time to practise putting a lead 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 lead, so keep them in a sit or a stand 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 after a couple of weeks from the one you get trying to do that before a walk. Make sure you build up and practise regularly throughout the day.
I’d also vary it – try taking the lead 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.
It can also help you to vary your routine and take your dog for a few additional, unexpected walks completely out of sync. It’s much easier to teach your dog when they don’t have a whole load of expectations about what should be happening.
Make it unexpected and unpredictable.
All of these tiny, tiny prompts add up together, and it’s much easier to teach our dogs each cue one by one without adding in all the others too.
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 lead. 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 lead, 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. I may also teach him that some of these cues mean that he should do a specific behaviour. For instance, when I put my boots on, he goes to his toy box to select a squeaky toy, and that way he doesn’t end up annoying me by whining all the time.
At the same time, I’m really, really working on some trainable impulse control and frustration tolerance.
Of course, 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 and desensitising 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 lead 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 lead, so I make them meaningless. Stop announcing that you’re going for a walk five minutes before you go on one.
- 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’ . Teach them that the cues you can’t avoid are signals for them to do X or Y instead.
- The fifth tip is to increase your expectations, remember you’ve got a dog, teach impulse control instead of expecting it, and teach your dog to tolerate and cope with frustration.
For further information, if your dog jumps up, leaps or grabs the lead 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 lead.
If you’re struggling to walk your dog, remember that loose-lead walking is an art in itself. This free two-hour webinar talks you through how I teach my dogs to walk on a loose lead.
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