Your walk in the park doesn't need to start in a chaotic, adrenaline-fuelled rush, as trainer Tony Cruse explains.
So, you've arrived at the park. What happens next? Is your dog so excited that he rushes up to other dogs and gets into trouble? Is he so wound up that he chases the joggers around and around… and around?
This is not a great start for a park walk and it really doesn't have to be this way!
Previously we looked at leaving for the park and how to ensure the journey was a calm one. Hopefully, your dog is now happy in the car and not an over-wound spring upon arrival.
This time, we're focusing on the start of your walk. If it starts in an unruffled, controlled way, the rest of it should be trouble-free and enjoyable too.
Don't let the chaos begin!
We've all seen the car arriving in the car park rather too fast, with the dog barking crazily in the back. The owner opens the hatchback and Rover's off, chasing the nearest dog and generally being a nuisance. The owner appears unconcerned as he puts on his wellies, seemingly oblivious to other owners' worried looks. It is not the dog's fault; the dog has never learned what is expected and is in no mood to learn because he is always so excited and full of adrenaline.
From this point onwards the owner will have little control over the dog who is likely to fall into the usual trap of chasing joggers, following other dogs, and not returning when called. You should be looking to engage with your dog and have a connection from the beginning of the walk.
Space and preparation
It makes good sense when you drive into the car park to locate and park in a space away from other parked cars. This enables you to prepare for the walk and allow your dog out without being distracted by a returning walker or another owner who has just arrived.
Having parked up, prepare yourself: first put on your wellies and do a quick check to ensure you have all you need for your walk. Then you can focus on your dog.
Most parks have a noticeboard, which is worth reading so you can familiarise yourself with the park's regulations; some parks have areas where dogs must be kept on a lead. It is also worth making a note of closing times because many parks have gates. It could be a rather embarrassing phone call to the park ranger if you find yourself locked in!
Noticeboards often include a basic map which shows the various footpaths and field paths you can explore. Take a photo of the map with your smart phone so you can refer to it during the walk.
Training exercise - A smart exit
A controlled exit from your vehicle is a smart exit! Use the following exercise to teach your dog to wait patiently in the car until you give a release cue.
Practice this every time you allow your dog out of the car. Over time you will notice your dog begins to wait patiently.
- Very slowly open the tailgate of your vehicle, telling your dog to ‘Stay' or ‘Wait'.
- If your dog tries to exit, gently and carefully lower the tailgate to prevent him.
- Again, repeat the request ‘Stay' or ‘Wait', or if you have a good sit command, request a ‘Sit'.
- Once the tailgate is open, calmly connect the lead to your dog's collar.
- While holding the lead, give your dog a release cue like ‘OK' or ‘Out' and allow him to jump out ready for the walk.
If your dog is still particularly excited and unfocused you can follow this next part of the exercise, which allows you to chill and prepare but also allows your dog to adapt to the environment of a busy park.
Parking your dog at the park
- Wrap your lead around a strong part of the car or a bollard or pole near your car and reattach it to your dog's collar.
- Your dog is now tethered and you have both hands free, allowing you to lock up the car or prepare for the walk.
- Allow your dog to survey the environment and take stock.
- After five minutes or so you will notice your dog visibly relax (often an audible sigh will be heard or he may lie down).
- The second you spot him relaxing, say ‘Good dog', untether him, and start your walk with him on lead.
- He will learn that walks do not start if he is overexcited and they only begin when he is relatively calm.
Training exercise - Unclip and treat
The owner unclips the dog's lead and the dog instantly bolts - this is something that happens quite regularly. It is not good practice and the dog often runs straight into other dogs without thinking and, because of his excitement, trouble can occur.
Other dogs and owners may consider this rude and the owner has little chance of calling the dog back because of his excitement levels.
How good would it be if you could unclip the lead and your dog looked up at you, waiting for the words ‘Off you go'? This means control and focus start immediately. If the park ahead suddenly looks busy or chaotic, you can decide to clip the lead back on for a while.
This exercise ‘Unclip and treat' needs to be trained in an area of low distractions to begin with. As it starts working you can build up the levels of distraction, perhaps one dog in the distance and then two. Soon your dog will hear the click of the lead clasp and look up at you in anticipation of a treat or a game.
Use quality treats like small pieces of chicken.
- With your dog on the lead, request a sit.
- Reach down and pretend you are removing the lead from his collar. Don't remove the lead but with the lead clasp make an audible click as loud as possible. Within five seconds, grab a treat from your pocket or treat bag. Pop the treat into your dog's mouth. Repeat this exercise five times.
- Now with the dog still in a sit, slowly remove the lead, stand up straight and click the clasp. Treat your dog. If you think your dog may bolt, gently keep hold of his collar while removing the lead. Try to keep calm and avoid jerky movements.
- Give the treat within three seconds of clicking the clasp. If your dog is still likely to bolt, toss the treat into the grass by your feet. This buys you time.
- When he has swallowed the treat send him out with a straight arm and the words ‘Off you go'. This is his release cue. He can now go off and do doggy stuff.
- Practice in various locations such as in the garden and park. In the early stages, always unclip and treat.
- Once he starts looking up every time the lead is off, you do not need to treat every time. The chance to go off and sniff becomes the reward.
- If your dog is particularly toy driven you can use the same method but produce his toy rather than the treat.
Walk with attitude
Once you have released your dog, start to walk with a purpose. If your dog is hanging around you, waiting for a treat, just keep walking.
Have an initial destination, even if it is the corner of the field. If you walk aimlessly around you may end up following your dog. Who's walking who? Allow your dog to check in with you and occasionally call him back and treat.
Walkers' kit bag
- Mobile phone
- Dog lead
- Long line (if you will be training recall)
- Poo bags
- Dog's favourite toy