How being prepared can help keep your dog relaxed and calm


29 January 2015

How being prepared can help keep your dog relaxed

Prepare properly and heading off to the park can be a relaxed and calm experience, as trainer Tony Cruse explains.

If your dog leaves the house with a cool head, the chances are he'll be better behaved at the park. In this month's feature we are focusing on setting off to the park in a safe and controlled manner.

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Perfect timing

Dogs are naturally crepuscular, meaning they are more active around dawn and dusk. Therefore it's a good idea to exercise them as close to dawn and dusk as possible, when they are at their most active. Avoid the midday heat of summer, which can affect dogs, particularly black ones. A hot dog is a lethargic dog and any quality park training you attempt may be a waste of time.

Feed on the go

Walking your dog in the morning and evening can tie in with your dog's mealtimes. I recommend feeding on location to many of my clients. It's simple: grab your dog's meal quota of dried food and put it into a treat bag. When you reach the park you can feed him some of his meal when he does something you really like. For example, when you practise your recall (see last month's ‘Walk in the park') and he comes back, grab a small handful of his breakfast and drop it by your feet. He is earning his food.

If your dog glances back at you, rather than chasing another dog, say ‘Good boy' and give him a couple of pieces of his meal. If part of the meal remains, you can feed him in the usual way when you return home.

Like all animals, dogs will repeat what works for them, so you are encouraging good behaviour. Also, a hungry dog is usually a motivated dog.

Many owners find taking their dog to the park a real challenge, which isn't surprising when you think you're responsible for keeping a completely different species out of trouble in an environment full of attractions! Common issues we see in the park include:

  • Dogs running up to other dogs.

  • Dogs ignoring their owner's desperate calls.

  • Dogs chasing squirrels, rabbits, or deer (remember Fenton?).

  • Dogs interrupting sports games by chasing the ball.

  • Dogs chasing joggers.

  • Dogs leaping into dirty water.

  • Dogs excitedly running up to children.

  • Dogs gatecrashing picnics!

Training exercise - Reaction reduction

The owner picks up the dog's lead to take him out for his walk and the dog gets so excited he becomes airborne! Chaos ensues. This is a very common issue. The whole journey to the park then becomes full of excited tension and once the dog arrives, he is like a spring being released. Is it any wonder he then gets into trouble?

Over time your dog's lead starts to become associated with the fun and excitement of the walk. The walk is the highlight of his day after all! The exhilaration of the walk and the fun at the park becomes paired with the lead. Anticipation builds and builds.

This short exercise is designed to make the lead so insignifi cant that it stops being the predictor of fun and chaos. We are focusing on the lead but it can be practised using the lead and harness together, or indeed anything you pick up that makes your dog behave in an excited manner, for example car keys, dog walking jacket, or boots.

During the exercises, remain fairly impassive and show little emotion; be cool.

Picking up the lead

(Repeat this 20 times a day at various intervals)

  • Walk over to where you keep your dog's lead and pick it up.

  • Walk around the room for about 15 seconds holding it.

  • Place the lead back where you got it from.

  • Carry on as usual.

  • Once your dog shows little reaction, move on to ‘Connecting the lead'.

Connecting the lead

(Repeat this 10 times a day at various intervals)

  • Pick up the lead and connect it to your dog's collar as if going for a walk.

  • Stand still for 15 seconds.

  • Remove the lead and put it back in the draw/on the table.

  • Success is apparent when the dog is cool and calm after having the lead connected. It may take many repetitions over several days.

Never leave the house when your dog is amped up and raring to go. Connect the lead and pause for a few minutes until your dog is relatively calm. Then you can set off with more chance of success.

Training exercise - Loading the car

This technique can save time and prevent back strain! You request ‘In' and your dog leaps into the vehicle.

Be aware that jumping in and out of a car can impact on the joints and ligaments of a developing or an elderly dog. If your dog is under the age of 18 months, a senior dog, lame or recovering from surgery, you can purchase a fold-up ramp to help him in. If in doubt seek the advice of your vet.

Work towards using an arm signal and the word ‘In' to get your dog to jump into your car.

  • Place a tasty treat in your hand and show it to your dog so he can smell it. A small piece of low-fat cheese or chicken makes a good treat.

  • Slowly and with an exaggerated action toss the treat into the car, where you want him to jump in.

  • Wait for one minute. He may jump in to get the treat.

  • Take the treat back and repeat the exercise if your dog hasn't jumped in.

  • Once you have your dog leaping in, throw the treat and put a word to the action, such as ‘In'.

  • After repeating the toss and command about 20 times over the course of a fortnight, bluff the throw. Pretend to throw the treat in and say your request, ‘In'.

  • Your dog should leap in. Say ‘Good dog' and then produce the treat.

  • The arm action and your word ‘In' are the cues. You will soon find that you may not need the food - the destination of the park becomes the reward!

If your dog does not leap in after tossing the food and pausing twice, lift him in as usual and allow him to discover food. Keep trying over the weeks. You will soon find that he will follow the food as you toss it excitedly into the car. One day, out of the blue, he will leap in and surprise you! You can then follow the instructions above.

Car sickness

It is common for many dogs, particularly puppies, to vomit while in the car. This is often because the car journey has previously led to a trip to the vet's for an injection, or because their first journey started with the trauma of being removed from their mother. The motion of the vehicle can also bring on sickness, all of which helps to develop a negative association with car journeys.

A quick car journey to your local park can be the perfect remedy. It ends with an enjoyable experience, and time spent in the car is short enough for your dog not to develop motion sickness.

Even if the park is only down the road, it can be a good way of helping your dog come to terms with a vehicle journey. Your car slowly starts to become the predictor of good things (a fun park walk with you).

After a couple of weeks of driving to the park, you should find that you can drive for longer journeys without having a sick dog. But maintain the short park journeys for a while. Keep your dog guessing the duration and the destination.