Coyote Encounters

In a previous post ( Eastern Coyote Myths and Reality | The Animal Nerd ), I discussed eastern coyotes and their habits – and tried to dispel a few misconceptions about them.  Since then, I have spoken with a number of people who have encountered coyotes in suburban communities and are somewhat apprehensive about their proximity to their small children and pets.  Based on these concerns, I would like to offer some guidance on how to manage interactions with coyotes and how to discourage them from approaching people or residences.

A few facts about urban coyotes:

First, they are predators and opportunistic feeders.  And they’re omnivores.  They will hunt and forage either in small family groups or as individuals.  As individuals, they will hunt small animals or forage for fruit and tasty vegetables, and will scavenge human food sources.  If you leave food out for neighborhood cats or desirable local wildlife, you can expect to get a visit from a coyote.  They will also prey on any small feral or domestic animals that they can catch, including small dogs and housecats.   Individual coyotes do not chase or try to catch deer, but will do so in family groups.

Second, although they are semi-social animals, they do not form “packs”.  Coyotes live as individuals or in small family groups consisting of a breeding pair and their pups, possibly including young coyotes from a previous litter or a bachelor that they allow in their group.  Large packs of coyotes are simply not a thing.  And they do not always stick together in groups, when you see an individual on his own, he could simply be doing his coyote business away from his family and will return to them later.

Third, they are vocal.  When you hear an individual coyote howling, he is generally trying to get a response from his pack/family in order to have them join him, or to establish a territory for himself.  When you hear a group howling together, it is generally a greeting behavior.  People generally wildly overestimate the number of coyotes involved in a group howling session, three or four of them can sound like eight or ten.  What they do NOT do is howl during hunting or to “celebrate” a kill.  They have no wish to warn prey that they are in the area or to attract other predators to any animals that they have successfully hunted.[i]

Fourth, eastern coyotes are genetically distinct from the ones found in western states, particularly so in the northeast states.  While their population expanded eastward from the upper mid-western states, they intermingled with a hybrid wolf population in Ontario and picked up from grey wolf and dog DNA along the way.  This does not mean that they are “coy-wolves” or “wolf-hybrids” or any such scary mutation.  They are about ninety percent coyote and have not become a new species.  They are, however, slightly larger and have more variation in their coats.  The coyotes in the southeast

If a coyote appears to be watching you, or seems to be following you, he is not hunting.  He’s either curious or is worried because you are near his den.

states did not expand through areas where they could pick up any wolf DNA, however that population did pick up a very small amount of dog genetic material.  They are not interbreeding with domestic dogs –  there is no need for them to do so as their population isn’t under any pressure.[ii]

Fifth, they are becoming more common.  Over the past several decades, coyotes have established themselves along the east coast and in the New England states.  Urban and suburban areas have abundant food sources for them and they are thriving in our neighborhoods.  They have established themselves as apex predators, filling the niche that we created when we humans exterminated other predator species in the east.  They have become part of our urban landscape, much like deer, foxes and other native species.  Over the years of human contact they have become a primarily nocturnal predator, although they are also commonly seen during daylight hours. [iii]

Which brings us to the topic at hand:  As they become more common, people are encountering them more often in locations that coyotes were not expected to be found.  And, being humans, we often respond to unexpected events with alarm or by behaving inappropriately.  So, I’d like to offer some advice and guidance on how to act in the presence of coyotes and how to be a good neighbor to them.

First and above all:  We want them to be shy and wary of us.  They are not tame or backyard animals and, for their own benefit, coyotes should be fearful of humans.    They are wild animals and we need to keep them wild.

Second, if you see a coyote at a distance, going about its business, there is no reason to do anything except say “Huh, a coyote.” and go back to what you were doing.  if you find that a coyote is watching you or even appears to be following you at a distance, there is no cause for alarm, and you don’t need to do anything.  He isn’t stalking you, he’s just wary and curious.   In fact, if one is “following” you, it may be that you have wandered closer to his den and pups that he would like, and he is escorting you from the vicinity.[iv]

However, if one is closer to you or your home than you would like and does not seem to be avoiding contact with you; you can engage in “coyote hazing” to discourage him from human contact.

Note:  Before engaging in any hazing, take a minute and think.  Are you possibly near his den?  Is it possible that there are pups nearby?  Coyotes have one breeding season, in late winter, and pups are born in the spring, maturing over the next several months[v].  You don’t want to engage in any threatening behavior to any animal that is protecting its young.  Second, take a minute to observe the coyote.  Does it appear to be generally healthy and alert or is it acting as if it is ill or suffering.  If so, just leave the area and notify local wildlife authorities.[vi]

If the coyote appears to be healthy and you are in an open area where dens are unlikely to be located, you can discourage him by hazing.  This consists of making yourself threatening to the coyote, taking advantage of their natural fear of humans.  Make yourself big, wave your arms and shout at it.  Take a couple of threatening steps towards the coyote while you’re doing this.  Noisemakers such as whistles or shaker cans, or bright flashlights are also helpful.   Hazing generally works, but might not be effective if the coyote is already habituated to human presence.[vii]  If it doesn’t cause him to flee, then you should simply leave the area.  Remember, the point is to keep him wary of humans and help prevent him from becoming accustomed to being around people.[viii]

In addition, you should discourage them from being near human homes.  There are several simple steps you can take to accomplish this:

First, do not put out feeding stations for any wildlife, including feral cats.  They are prey animals and their presence will attract coyotes to you home.  It is never a good idea to feed wild animals, regardless of how cute they are.[ix]

Second, if you have bird feeders, regularly clean the area around them to discourage any rodents from feeding on fallen birdseed.  They are also prey for coyotes and will encourage them to hunt in your yard.

Third, if you have a cat do not let them roam outside.  They are prey for coyotes, hawks, large owls and other urban predators.  In addition, they are active predators of desirable wildlife, including songbirds. [x]

Fourth, if you do not have a securely fenced yard, don’t put your dog outside without y

ou being present and in control of his movements, even if he is on a tether – particularly if your dog is not spayed or neutered.  And if you have an invisible fence, remember that it will keep your trained dog in your yard, but does nothing to prevent predators from entering.[xi]   Also, do not allow your dog to interact with coyotes during walks, and keep your dog leashed if you are in areas where coyotes tend to be found.[xii]

Summing it all up:  Coyotes are here and they’re here to stay.  They are adjusting to our environment and are thriving, and its up to us to live alongside them and to act responsibly.  We can do this by limiting our interactions with them, discourage them from getting accustomed to us and helping them to stay wild.

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[i] Fergus, C. (January 15, 2017).  Probing Question:  Why do Coyotes Howl?  Penn State News.  Retrieved from Probing Question: Why do coyotes howl? | Penn State University (psu.edu)

[ii] Nagy, C.,  (2017)  New York’s Newest Immigrants:  Coyotes in the City.  Anthrozoology Graduate Program, Canisius College

[iii] Coyotes 101.  Coyote Smarts.  Retrieved from Coyotes 101 – CoyoteSmart (coyotesmarts.org)

[iv] What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season.  March 22, 2021.  Wolf Conservation Center.  Retrieved from What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season | Wolf Conservation Center (nywolf.org)

[v] Bradford, A. and Pester, P.  April 02, 2021.  Coyotes:  Facts About the Wily Members of the Canidae Family.  LiveScience.  Retrieved from Coyotes: Facts about the wily members of the Canidae family | Live Science

[vi] Coyote Hazing Field Guide. Project Coyote.  Retrieved from CoyoteHazingBrochureFieldGuide.pdf (projectcoyote.org)

[vii] Bonnell, M. A & Breck, S. W.  (2017).  Using Resident-Based Hazing Programs to Reduce Human-Coyote Conflicts in Urban Environments.  Human Wildlife Interactions 11 (2).

[viii] Coyote Hazing:  Guidelines for Discouraging Neighborhood Coyotes.  The Humane Society of the United States.  Retrieved from Coyote hazing: Guidelines for discouraging neighborhood coyotes | The Humane Society of the United States

[ix] How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes.  Urban Coyote Research Project.  Retrieved from How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes | Urban Coyote Research

[x] The Case for Indoor Cats.  The Wildlife Center of Virginia.  Retrieved from The Case for Indoor Cats | The Wildlife Center of Virginia

[xi] Derrick (March 9, 2021). Coyote Behavior –  Fascinating Facts About Coyotes.  Wandering Outdoors.  Retrieved from Coyote Behavior – Fascinating Facts About Coyotes (wanderingoutdoors.com)

[xii] Dogs and Coyotes.  Project Coyote.  Retrieved from Dogs_Coyotes.pdf (projectcoyote.org

 

Dog-to-Dog Reactivity

Many of the dogs that I encounter at the shelter are overly stressed and somewhat frightened.  And they sometimes come to us with, and because of, behavioral issues that their owners were unable to manage or live with.  Reactivity is one of the more serious of these issues that we encounter.

“Reactive” is a poorly defined term that is commonly used in describing dog behavior.  I tend to use Dr. Karen Overall’s definition of a reactive animal as one who responds to a normal stimulus with a higher-than-normal level of intensity.  This can be based in a strong emotional response to that stimulus, such as fear, over-excitement, or simple frustration.  Putting it another way, reactive behavior is a severe, undesirable response to anything that causes the dog to feel fear, anxiety or an abundance of stress.  If the intensity of the response reaches the level that the dog is unable to control his actions, this becomes a problem for most owners.

Reactivity is very common among the dogs that you will encounter in shelters.  Shelter dogs are under a great deal of stress under the best of circumstances and may be prone to having exaggerated reactions to the presence of certain stimuli – most often other dogs.  Their level of stress may be such that the sight of another dog, or any other stimulus that triggers a strong emotional response, is all it takes to put them over a behavioral threshold into a state in which they become aggressive.  This may be due to a number of reasons:

  • They may be experiencing barrier frustration, due to being restrained by either a handler’s leash or by the walls and door of their run.
  • It may be that the dog is fearful of other dogs, based on some prior negative experiences.
  • The dog may be poorly socialized.
  • The dog may never had been trained to exercise self-control.
  • It could also be that the dog has a genetic predisposition that against tolerating other dogs.

This dog is reacting to the barrier frustration of being restrained by a leash.

Note that I have not used the word “aggression”.  Reactivity and aggression are two entirely different things.  A reactive dog is over-reacting to a particular situation – he may simply overly eager to meet and greet another other dog or a person.  However, the amount of frustration that he experiences during this excited state can reach the point at which he behaves aggressively, or even redirects his over excitement and potential aggression to the person that is handling him. (Rakosky, 2020).

Please also note that, although the presence of other dogs is a very common reason, a dog can be reactive to almost anything that causes an emotional response.  Men wearing hats, children, cars, or anything else that induces fear or excitement can cause a dog to become over-excited and react.  The reaction can be based in fear, over-eagerness, or any other strong emotion.  And this behavior can become reinforced over time:  If your dog sees a person or another dog outside your window his territorial instincts may go into overdrive, causing him to go ballistic.  When the trespasser eventually goes on his way, your dog will interpret that as the result of his over-the-top performance and will reinforce and encourage that behavior (Miller, 2003).

Which brings us to a dog that I’ve been working with at the shelter.  She is a one-year old Akita, very pretty and well-socialized with people, who was presented with a history of strong reactivity to other dogs.  In reviewing her history, I found that she had initially been transported in from another state with very little background or information, and then was adopted out to a local home after a relatively short stay in the shelter (this is not surprising, pure-bred dogs do not tend to have lengthy stays in shelters).  Her adopters lived in a townhouse with a small, fenced back yard, and she had been “aggressive” with the neighbor’s dog through that fence.

I began working with her by taking her on walks around the shelter grounds, avoiding interactions and keeping to quiet areas with trees and benches.  She was extremely anxious the first couple of times I had her outside her run:  She was on high alert and was vocalizing with whines and whimpers, with her Akita tail held down and refusing treats.  That said, she never displayed any anxiety about being handled or being fitted with a harness.  It took three outings on consecutive days before she relaxed and began to enjoy being outdoors with me.  She eventually relaxed, interacted with her environment and me in normal, curious manner and carried her tail in the distinctive Akita curl.  Once I had gotten her accustomed to the shelter grounds and a low level of activity, I worked on determining the level of her reactivity.

Given that she was a large and powerful dog, for safety’s sake I tested her reactivity by having her harnessed and on leash while an assistant leash walked a life-like dummy dog near her and we both watched her closely while this stimulus was present.  She became agitated when the target (dummy) dog was being walked (pacing and whining), but she could be easily distracted from it and never lost her leash manners or responses to my instructions.  However, when I had my assistant position the dummy so that it was facing her – apparently standing still and “staring” at her – her response intensified, and she began aggressively barking and lunging.    However, she never became so aroused that she ignored her handler or redirected her “aggression” to any persons or objects.  Throughout this exercise she was relatively easy to distract and move away from the dummy.

I reported to shelter management that I thought her reactivity was at a low level and was manageable.  From what I observed, she was uncomfortable with other dogs and tried to avoid interacting with them.  When confronted with the dummy, she had engaged in distance-increasing behaviors and tried to move away from it; and it was only when we increased the level of engagement with the dummy that she increased her distancing behaviors and put on a threatening display (Farricelli, 2021).  I informed the shelter staff that, although I hadn’t observed her in her adoptive home, I considered it possible that her yard had been too small to give her a chance to escape the neighbor’s dog even though they had been separated by a fence.  I also offered the possibility that she engages in trigger stacking and that the intensity of her reaction to the dummy had been increased by the “background” stress of being in a shelter.

This illustrates the need to closely define the exact stimulus that triggers the over-the-top emotional response in a reactive dog.  It could be a person walking by the house, or just a person walking another dog.  It could be anyone who comes to the door, or just a deliveryman in a uniform.  It could be the presence of one dog, a particular behavior by that dog, or a group of dogs playing.   Before diving into a treatment, you must first diagnose the specific stimulus that is sending the dog over his behavioral threshold.  It’s not enough to say that he’s reacting to other dogs, you must fine-tune that statement as much as possible.  For example, does he react to the sight of all other dogs everywhere he encounters them, or is it only under certain circumstances?  Is it all other dogs, or just dogs of certain sizes?  What are the dogs doing that sends him over the threshold of his self-control?  Are they excited, playing, roughhousing? running?

And it illustrates the need to closely observe the dog in situations where the reactivity occurs.   Ideally, you will observe the dog with its owners in the home environment in which the behavior occurs.   You must identify how the dog behaves from the moment that he first encounters the stimulus that causes his reactive behavior.  Does he try to distance himself from it?  How is he communicating his anxiety?  And at what point does he reach a behavioral threshold?

Its only after going through this process that you can determine how to manage or treat the dog’s reactivity.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it requires the owners to either commit to avoiding or managing situations in which the reactivity can be triggered, or take part in course of systematic desensitization.

I’m happy to report that my akita friend was adopted last week.  The shelter staff took care to place her with experienced adopters who had more space and were committed to engaging a behaviorist/trainer to help socialize and desensitize her.

 

References

Farricelli, A. (2021, April 12). Distance Increasing and Decreasing Signals in Dogs. PetHelpful.  Retrieved from pethelpful.com/dogs/-Distance-Increasing-and-Distance-Decreasing-Signals-in-Dogs

Miller, P. (2003, October 10).  Causes of Reactive Dog Behavior and How to Train Accordingly.  Whole Dog Journal.  Retrieved from www.whole-dog-journal.com/behavior/causes-of-reactive-dog-behavior-and-how-to-train-accordingly/

Overall, K. (1997).  Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals, 1st Edition, Maryland Heights, MO, Mosby.

Rakosky, E.  (2020, August 19).  What is Aggression?  Dog Reactivity vs. Dog Aggression.  Retrieved from www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/reactivity-vs-aggression/

Excited Biting / Arousal Biting

I’ve recently worked with two shelter dogs who were in danger of being deemed “unadoptable” due to their excessive mouthiness with humans.  Both dogs were medium sized mixed breeds who had developed tendencies to grab arms, hands and clothing when being handled – to the extent that some shelter personnel were unwilling to deal with them.  It became my job to identify the reasons for this behavior and find a way to reduce its intensity and severity.

The first of these dogs, “Aggie”, was the more severe case.  She was a very pretty, goofy and friendly pit mix who was almost impossible to handle due to her biting and grabbing behavior.  She would be walking on leash and suddenly turn on the handler and begin intently biting his shoes, cuffs or socks.  When being harnessed, she would grab and hold the handlers’ hands or forearms.  Her behavior was escalating and becoming a serious problem and impediment to adoption.  So she became one of my “project” dogs.

Excited/arousal biting is an impulse that some dogs have to use their mouths inappropriately when they are in a high state of excitement.  Their need to use their mouths to hold and chew something becomes greater than their bite inhibition, and they tend to grab something that in inappropriate or harmful to others.  Arousal can be defined as “The state of being that occurs when strong emotions are evoked by fear, anger, stress, excitement or joy…During heightened arousal, animals are predominantly reactive, the limbic system in the brain manages their flight or fight reactivity.  During peek arousal, the animal may be unresponsive to attempts to elicit trained behaviors.”  (Handelman, 2008).  This behavior is sometimes found in dogs that are housed in shelters, due to the high levels of stress that they’re under in those environments.   One of the primary roles of shelter staff and volunteers is to reduce the dogs’ overall stress and help them find ways to cope with life in a shelter Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd .

Mouthing during play is a normal puppy behavior. They learn bite inhibition during early socialization with littermates and humans.

Dogs use their mouths to play and to grab, hold and carry things.  It is a completely natural behavior that is part of their normal daily life.  And dogs generally exercise exquisite control over the speed and force with which they use their mouths.  This control, generally termed “bite inhibition” is learned during early socialization, primarily from their dams and littermates; and behaviorists encourage owners to continue this learning when they bring puppies into their homes (Dunbar, 2003).   Not all dogs learn this inhibition during the critical early socialization phases, however it can be trained later in life.  This important subject will be addressed in a later article.  The immediate problem we’re addressing here is how to deal with a dog who is prone to becoming so excited that his arousal level overcomes his training and bite inhibition.  I should point out that this is not aggressive behavior – it is simply a reaction to an overwhelming level of arousal.  But it can easily escalate due to frustration and responses to the handler’s reactions, leading to injuries.

This was the case with Aggie.   During the first few sessions I had with her, I simply observed her behaviors and interactions, and learned a few things:  First, she was very social and affectionate with her handlers.  Second, she was highly stressed (This is normal for shelter dogs.  No matter how much enrichment and positive experiences that a shelter provides, simply being in the shelter is a stressful situation for any dog.) Third, she didn’t have the normal ability to shed stress and didn’t engage in the usual self-soothing behaviors that most dogs have in their repertoire.  Lastly, she “trigger stacks”.  Trigger Stacking is a phenomenon that occurs when reactive dogs are exposed to multiple events that trigger excitement at the same time, or in succession, so that their excitement level ramps up to the point that they reach threshold that causes a behavior to occur.  In her case, when handlers came into her run, she gave them an excited greeting which the handlers responded to and inadvertently encouraged.  They then tried to get control of her in order to harness her for walking by giving her high-value treats.  The presence of the treats and the prospect of going for a walk further added to her excitement level, sending her over her arousal threshold and causing her to lose her inhibition against grabbing and biting.  This level of excitement carried over into her walk outside, to the point that any new stimulus caused aroused biting.

The first treatment that I put in place was to change her handlers’ behavior.  The goal was to make being harnessed, leashed and taken out of her run a normal and routine part of her day.  So, I eliminated the use of all treats in her run and instituted a friendly and low-key attitude for handling her.  At the first sign of arousal biting, handlers were told to leave her run for a timeout and avoid all other forms of correction.  I also adopted a Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior protocol, giving her a “sit” command during harnessing and leashing.  These served to keep her excitement level below threshold during leashing.  After a couple of days, she was much calmer during handling insider her run and would simply approach handlers for pets and affection rather than jumping and biting, then sit as soon as she saw the leash and harness.  She was visibly excited, but she was making good decisions and controlling herself.  However, as soon as she was taken out of the shelter building for a walk, her excitement level would ramp up to “11” and she would lose all bite inhibitions and would stop responding to any commands or prompts.  Virtually and sight or sound would send her over her behavioral threshold, and she would attack handlers’ shoes, clothing, hands and arms.  This was part of her trigger stacking: although she was handling the excitement of being harnessed and leashed, she was still in a highly stressed and aroused state and was unable to deal with additional stimuli.

I experimented with giving her an alternative outlet for her biting impulse.  As soon as I took her out of the run, before going outside the building, I showed her a huge rope chew (double rope, 30 inches long).  She immediately adopted it as her favorite thing in the world and began treating it as a tug toy as soon as we went outside.  For the next half-hour, she initiated tug-o-war games and carried the rope toy throughout our walk.  Whenever she made a move towards my shoes or pants cuff, I gave her a light audible correction and reintroduced the approved toy.  After two of these interventions, I saw her look at my shoe, then decide to grab the toy instead.  After a while, her excitement level dropped, and she began dropping the toy to sniff interesting things; and I noticed stress-relieving behaviors on her part (yawns, body shakes, etc).  After a while we stopped for a rest on a bench, upon which she jumped up alongside me, put her head in my lap, sighed deeply and relaxed.  Later in the day, I was able to use the toy as part of training the “drop it” prompt.  Other trainers began using novel tug toys with her and reported similar results.  And, in a few days, her biting impulse in general was much reduced.  By having an approved alternative outlet for her excitement, she was able to regain some self-control; and by having an outlet that did not provide any feedback from being bitten, it became a less desirable behavior.

The second dog, “Anna” was a different, and easier, case.   Anna is a medium-sized Labrador mix (AKA, American black dog).  Like Aggie, she was friendly with shelter staff and volunteers but was difficult to handle due to her constant state of stress-related excitement.  When she was in an aroused state, she was very reactive.  She would respond to the slightest touch by whipping her head around to the hand that was touching her, sometimes making contact with her teeth.  Unlike Aggie, she retained better bite inhibition and didn’t attempt to grab and hold her handlers’ arms or hands, but her behavior was escalating.  While observing her I noted that she is a very food-motivated, almost to the point of becoming fixated on any food that is in her vicinity. I also found that the shelter staff and volunteers were using food as a bribe while harnessing and leashing her for an outside walk, which increased her stimulation and excitement level – making her even more reactive.  I also saw that she had a similarly strong fixation on squeaky toys.   She would ignore durable chew toys or tugging ropes, or any other toy that did not provide an audible squeak when she bit down on it.  Her fixation on these toys did not reach the level of resource guarding to the point that she would show any signs of aggression but, once given a toy, she would actively keep anyone from taking it away.   It became we were dealing with a dog that had near-obsessions with food and with particular kinds of toys, and who became excited and reactive when she had them.

The first thing I did was to eliminate the use of any treats while she was in her run.  I wanted her to become accustomed to be leashed and handled without associating people with food treats.  In fact, I withheld all treats except to use as reinforcers when she was being trained on a new skill and kept training sessions very short.  She was so food-motivated that she would learn new skills very quickly, and by keeping the sessions short we could keep her excitement level down to a manageable level.

I then began walking her to quiet areas of the shelter grounds and sat down with her before giving her a a durable squeaky toy.  She immediately grabbed the toy and began mouthing it, while I engaged in touching and petting her.  At first, each time I touched her she would redirect towards my hand before returning her attention to the toy.  But after a while she began to relax and accept touching.  And, without any other exciting stimuli in the area (other toys, dogs, people), she began to self-sooth and seek contact with me.  Over the next several sessions, she became much easier to handle in her run and she continued to shed stress during walks.  She continues to be fixated on food and squeaky toys.  But, by incorporating these traits into her training regimen we’ve been able to modify her obnoxious behaviors and help to reduce her reactivity.

Aggie has since been adopted and her new owners are telling us that they’re thrilled to have her in their home.  Anna is in the process of being adopted and the shelter is encouraging her new family to continue training and socialization.

Additional information on dealing with dogs with excited biting and mouthiness can be found here:
How to Survive Your Dog’s Arousal Biting – Whole Dog Journal (whole-dog-journal.com)
Managing mouthing in dogs | Animal Humane Society

References

Dunbar, I.  (2003).  Doctor Dunbar’s Good Little Dog Book.  Berkeley, CA.  James and Kenneth Publishers.

Handelman, B (2008).  Canine Behavior.  A Photo Illustrated Handbook.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Three

In my earlier post ( Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two | The Animal Nerd) I went through my recommended process for leashing a dog and taking him out of his run with the minimum excitement and drama.  Today, I’d like to talk about working with him outdoors.

First, before taking the dog out of his run, you should find out whether the shelter staff has drafted and implemented a training or behavior modification plan for that dog, and what it entails.  It may not be a formal document and behavior log, and you might find it to be as simple as asking whether they have any particular instructions for that dog.  As always, if you don’t feel comfortable working with that plan, find another dog to work with on that day.

Before taking the dog outside, ask the shelter staff what his day has already been like.  Did he have a vet visit?  Has he already had some play time?  Has he been seen by potential adopters?  If he’s already had a big day, it might be best to just take him outside and let him sit quietly in a nice quiet spot and relax.

Once he’s leashed and you have good control over him, take him directly outside.  The dog has been cooped up and will need to relieve himself – that’s a little bit of stress that you can help him with immediately.  Hint – always have a few poop bags in your pocket when you’re at the shelter.  Don’t try to do any training for the first few minutes, until he’s had a chance to work off his initial excitement.  If your shelter has an outdoor off-leash pen, you might take him to it so he can work off any “zoomies” that he might have from being cooped up, or you can provide him some enrichment by playing with him – that’s one reason that I favor cargo pants, you can always have a tennis ball handy.

However, if the dog is new to the shelter or if you haven’t worked with him before, I wouldn’t include any off-leash time or play in the first couple of times that you take him out.  When I’m working with an unfamiliar dog, my practice is to take him for a long walk on the shelter grounds and let him have a good sniff around.  I don’t include any training or play, and I try to not correct anything he does – beyond removing him from any situation that raises his stress level or causes an over-reaction.  Remember, he’s new to you and doesn’t know you.  You want him to associate you with a pleasant, relaxing experience.  I also try to incorporate quiet time, in which I find a pleasant spot for him and me to just sit and relax.  Let him get used to the sights and smells of being outside and learn how to get comfortable.  This is an opportunity for you to observe him and learn his behavior cues and characteristics – What does he focus on?  At what distance does he react to other dogs?  What are the signs that he’s feeling tense?  How does he self-soothe and shed stress?  This knowledge is invaluable in socializing him.  And simply experiencing being outdoors provides a great deal of enrichment to him, engages his brain and helps his emotional state.

Once you’ve had him out a few times, and he knows you, then you should be able to incorporate some light training or play time – in a closed, controlled area.  Although, except for leash walking,  I recommend against trying to do any training while you’re outdoors – there are simply too many distractions.   When playing with the dog, especially for the first few times, carefully watch his excitement level.  A lot of shelter dogs have a tendency to become overexcited when they’re playing and can become difficult to handle.  I’ve had pitbulls suddenly become overexcited during play and decide that my sweatshirt would be an excellent tug toy.  For this reason, I strongly recommend that you leave their harness on during the play session, and leave the leash attached for the first couple of them.  If the dog becomes jumpy or mouthy, you can step on the leash and reduce his movement until he regains some self-control.

When you’re walking the dog, remember that he is not your dog and that you are not his buddy.  He really doesn’t know you.  He may decide to head in a particular direction that you don’t want to go.  In this case, simply plant yourself and wait him out.  After he stops pulling, you can simply say something like “Let’s go” and head in the direction that you want.  Or, he might stop and freeze, or pancake himself and refuse to move.  If either of these happen, do not get into a contest of wills or a tug-o-war with him.  You can kneel or crouch down and wait him out – give him the choice of either doing nothing or approaching you.  Or you can change direction and head off at an oblique angle to your original plan. This usually gets him to go along with you.  Don’t get frustrated or let your attitude show anything except that you’re having a relaxing good time.

At the end of the walk, he might not want to go back inside the shelter.  If this happens, try taking him back inside through a different door than his usual one.  This is also the time to use some very high-value treats to help him go back inside.  And always give him a few treats when he goes back inside his run – not only does this help him associate the end of the walk or play session with a positive reinforcer, but by scattering a few treats in his run you buy yourself a minute to take off his leash and/or harness, and get out the door while he’s distracted.  This reduces the drama associated with leaving him inside, and prevents him from door-dashing while you’re exiting.

That’s it for today.

Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two

Let’s talk some more about the best practices for handling shelter dogs.  Specifically, taking them out of their runs.

Assuming that you’ve gone through your shelter’s orientation program and received the basic instructions on safety and dog handling, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the best way to go about your volunteer responsibilities.  Some of the things I’m discussing may not be required at your shelter, but I recommend doing them anyway, as long as they don’t directly contradict any of their procedures or requirements.

First, wear appropriate clothing – clothing that it wouldn’t bother you to get muddied or torn.  Long pants are the best option to protect your legs.  I prefer cargo pants, as the pockets offer places to stow treats, poop bags, cell phone, eyeglasses, etc.  Wear work shoes or boots, or athletic shoes that won’t slip on a wet floor and are easy to clean – keep in mind that from time to time you will step in something unpleasant.

Avoid wearing sunglasses when you’re working with a dog that doesn’t live with you.  Dogs read our facial expressions very well and are constantly checking in with us.  They want to see your eyes and can get nervous when you hide them.  And avoid wearing anything around your neck when you’re dealing with a dog that you don’t know, including lanyards or scarves.  The last thing you want is for a rambunctious or over-excited pup to turn that into a tug toy.

Second, wash or disinfect your hands before entering the shelter, and between visiting any dogs.  There are diseases that can be passed from dog to dog, and you do not want to be the way they’re transmitted.

Third, check in with the shelter staff before handling any dogs to make sure that there are no changes in the dogs’ status, their physical condition or if they have any medical or adopter appointments scheduled.   They should know what dogs you will be working with while you’re on site, and what activities you have planned for them.

In my last post, Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd, I talked about introducing yourself to a shelter dog.  Now, once you’ve sufficiently gained his trust, how do you get him leashed and out of his run?  First, watch him for a minute and see how he reacts to you being there.  What does his behavior and body language Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu) tell you?  If he approaches you quietly; shows a calm, friendly demeanor or offers you a toy then your job is easy:  Leash him up and have a nice quiet walk with him.  If he does anything other than that, then take it slow.  Remember these dogs are stressed and over stimulated just by being in the shelter.  And, to them, you’re just another stranger who’s coming into their space.

First and above all else, your job is to be a calming presence and to reduce the dogs’ anxiety and stress.  If the dog is showing signs of fear or anxiety then, for the first few times you visit him, you can just sit or kneel down, facing away from him at an oblique angle, and relax with him.  Toss a few tasty treats near him and in the space between you to see if he approaches you and takes them.  Don’t stare at him, just be a friend and talk quietly.  Then leave him alone for a while.  You can try again a half-hour later and try again.  Wait until he approaches you and allows you to touch him before attaching the leash to his collar or attempting to put on his harness.

On the other hand, he may be over stimulated and be racing around you, jumping and mouthing at the prospect of going outside.  He may even treat the leash, harness or your clothing like a tug toy.  Even if he responds to a “sit” command, he’ll be vibrating like a guitar string and will only be able to hold the sit for a few seconds.   In this case, the key for you is to not become excited or overwhelmed, and not escalate his arousal and excitement.  Don’t shout any commands or corrections and don’t get into a wrestling match trying to harness him up.  And don’t give him any reinforcement such as bribes for allowing you to harness him:  Remember, you want to lower his stress level and prepare him for life in a home.  Try waiting him out:  Simply stand with your hands, leash and harness out of his reach and do not react to him at all until he calms down enough for you to get him ready for his walk.  If that doesn’t work, stop and get someone to assist you by distracting him while you get him harnessed.  Once the harness is on and/or the leash is attached, you can reinforce him with treats or praise.  Over time, this will become routine for him, and his level of excitement will drop.

Lastly, if, when you approach the kennel, he shows any sign of defensive, territorial, or aggressive behavior (teeth showing, low growls, lunging, warning barks), then don’t enter.  This should be reported to the shelter staff, and they may want to evaluate his behavior before having him up for adoption.  On the other hand, it may only be a matter of having you introduced to the dog by a person he trusts.  In one case, I had the opportunity to handle a dog with sever anxiety issues.  The first time I walked up to the kennel, he had an extremely territorial reaction – it looked like he was auditioning for CUJO.  But when he saw me reaching for the door lock, his whole demeanor changed, and he accepted me as one of the good guys.   But it’s a matter of having the shelter staff and behaviorists involved.

In all cases, when leashing a shelter dog do not – repeat not – stand in front of them and bend over them.  To a dog, this is an extremely threatening posture and can provoke a fear-based reaction.  My preferred method is to put myself alongside the dog, facing in the same direction that he is and have all contact with him as low on his body as possible without ever reaching over his head.  Kneel down and make yourself as small as you can while still being able to stop and stand up easily if he becomes over-excited and you need to stop contact and give him a time-out.

Next, we’ll talk about behavior on walking and socialization.

Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One.

If you’ve taken the first steps towards becoming a volunteer at an animal shelter, then congratulations!  You’re about to have a fun and rewarding experience.   As I discussed in a previous post,  Volunteering at a shelter (animalnerd.com, there are a lot of ways to contribute to the operation of a shelter and to the welfare of the animals housed there.  My own area of expertise is in handling and socializing shelter dogs, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

The first thing to do is to go through your shelter’s orientation program, paying particular attention to animal handling and safety measures.  I can’t stress that enough.  Second, become familiar with the equipment that you will be using, including how it should fit properly.  For example, martingale collars should be fitted so that you can fit two fingers under them when they’re drawn tight.  And every dog harness fits differently – you should practice putting them on dummies or large stuffed animals before trying to put them on a live dog.  In (  ), I discussed my preferred way to hold a dog’s leash to keep him from pulling it out of your hand, or pulling you off-balance.  You might find it helpful – but if you find a method that works better for you, please post it.  Third, have some appetizing dog treats.  They don’t have to be expensive, a hot dog that’s been chopped into tiny pieces works just as well as designer dog morsels.  The smaller and stinkier they are, the better.

Now you’re ready to deal with a shelter dog.  There are a few of things to keep in mind when you approach one of these dogs for the first time:  First, be constantly aware that this dog is highly stressed and overstimulated.  No matter how much a shelter tries to make itself a quiet and easy place for a dog to be housed, it is still a highly stressful experience for them.  These dogs have been separated from whatever life they’ve known and are in a new place where they’re being constantly bombarded with new noises, new smells and new people who handle them, wash them and perform medical exams and procedures on them.   These pups are completely on edge.   Second, keep in your mind that this dog doesn’t know you.  As far as he’s concerned, you’re just another human.  This may change over time as you handle this dog in days to come, but for the first few times that you handle him, you’re just someone with a treat bag who’s holding the leash.  Third, remember that you are not there to do the specific job of walking the dog:  You are there to help the dog get adopted, and that may mean helping him to cope with the stress.  You are not there to add to his stress level.

Watch the dog as you approach his run and observe his body language and facial expressions.  Do not immediately open the door, just stay relaxed and calm and see what he does as you approach.  Also, do not stand squarely in from of the entrance and lock eyes with him or stare at him, this can be perceived as threatening.  Instead, turn yourself about 45 degrees away from him, and see what you can detect from his general posture and expressions.   Is he watching you or turning away?  Does he approach you as you stand outside?  Is he fearful and guarding the entrance?  I’ve included some good links (Below) for interpreting canine body language and facial expressions, which may help you in decoding the messages that the dog is sending you at first meeting.

Don’t rush your first meeting.  If the dog is so stressed that he is growling or showing teeth, then you might decide not to even go inside his run.  In my experience, this sort of reaction isn’t uncommon when a dog is newly arrived in a shelter.  Just keep yourself turned somewhat away from his run and sit or kneel down outside it where he can see you.  Be as non-threatening a presence as possible.  If possible to put some treats into his run without opening the door or putting any part of your hand inside, go ahead and do so.   And just stay there for a while, so he can get used to the idea that you aren’t scary.  After a while he may settle down and you might be able to enter the run safely.  If not, or if you are uncomfortable going inside, then just maintain a calm presence until he begins to relax, and then let him be while you go handle another dog.  By doing that alone, you are helping him to adjust to the shelter and making it easier for the next person.

Which brings me to my next point:  Work within your comfort level.  If you feel that a dog is too worked up or too strong for you to handle, if you feel that the dog is dangerous or if you are just uncomfortable with a particular dog for any reason, end the interaction on a positive note and leave him in his run.  There’s no problem or stigma associated with that.  In fact, the shelter staff would appreciate that as feedback about the dog.  You can’t help a dog if you are stressed out while working with him.  And part of the reason that you’re there in the first place is to enjoy yourself.

Once you’re inside the run with the dog, continue to relax and take it slow.  You might not be able to leash him up during the first meeting – which is perfectly OK.  The dog can react to you in a number of ways.  You may get an excited, even overly excited greeting, with the dog jumping on you or even mouthing.  If this happens, it is an excellent time to start working on socialization and behavior management.  Just turn your back on him and stop all interaction until he’s stopped with all four paws on the floor, then give him a calm bit of praise.   If he starts over-reacting again, repeat this lack of feedback as many times as necessary.  If he doesn’t stop after five minutes (which will seem like an eternity while you’re in there), then leave and come back later.

On the other hand, the dog may retreat and huddle as far away from you as possible.  If this happens, my preferred response is to sit or crouch down, facing away at a right angle, and let him calm down.   Watch his face and posture for hints as to his level of stress (below).  The key thing is to let him set the pace of the meeting.  Since we have limited time to work with these dogs, I sometimes get the dog to approach by scattering a few treats in the space between him and me.  The important thing is to not increase his anxiety.  If he doesn’t approach you at the first meeting, that’s perfectly OK.  You can leave, let him scarf up the treats that you’ve put out, and come back a little later to try again.  It may take a few visits to get him to relax and approach you.

In any case, there are a few things that you should definitely NOT do.  First, never approach the dog (or any unfamiliar dog) head-on and bend over them.  This is a threatening posture, and he may react either fearfully.  Always turn at an angle and make yourself a little smaller.   Also, do not loom over the dog when you’re attaching a leash or putting on his harness.  Put yourself alongside him, facing in the same direction as him, and spend as little time as possible reaching over him.

That’s enough to cover in this post.  In the next article, I’ll discuss leashing up the dog and handling him on a walk.  As always, please feel free to comment or add your experiences.

References:

Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu)

Guide to Reading Your Dog’s Body Language | PetMD

7 Tips on Canine Body Language | ASPCApro

Volunteering at a shelter

If you’re reading this, you’re interested in being a volunteer for an animal rescue or shelter.  Which, I can tell you, is a wonderful experience – whether you are helping to care for dogs, cats, birds, farm animals or any other of our fellow creatures.  And, as in all things we do, you will find volunteering rewarding in proportion to the thought and effort that you put into it.  I’ve been volunteering for years at a shelter here in Rhode Island and would like to share some of the things I’ve learned.

First, think about what you want to do and carefully pick the shelter that matches your interests.  Take some time and think about what you’d like to do as a volunteer and then look at the websites for the various shelters and rescue organizations that are near to you.  Research their rules and requirements, and their various volunteer programs.  You may find that some are looking for help in areas that do not match your goals.  You may also find that some have hours set aside for volunteer work that do not line up with your available time.  For example, I know of a wonderful avian shelter that has very specific in-house training requirements for volunteers that may be more than you want to take on.  Or you might find that a shelter has specific time slots for volunteers so that they can maintain a certain number of personnel on site during the day, which may be unworkable for you.  Take your time and look at every shelter that interests you and is within a reasonable distance for you before plunging in.

Second, I suggest that you stay local.  If you want to be active with a shelter organization, you should pick one that is within a relatively easy commute.  Your time is important, and you don’t want to spend your day in your car.  If you’ve decided that you can spend “x” number of hours helping at a shelter each week, you don’t want to add a lot more time to that just driving back and forth.

Third, be flexible.   You might sign up to walk and socialize dogs, care for cats, feed the animals, assist with adoptions or do groundskeeping (a very important and often overlooked function), but you might be asked to do other tasks as well.  Many shelters are dependent upon volunteers for their basic functions; you might have opportunities to help with a fundraising activity, transporting animals, or doing other tasks that help the shelter function.  Remember, you’re there to help.

Fourth, check your ego at the door.  Shelter staffs are underpaid and overworked.  They are busy with essential functions every moment they are at work.  Believe me, they appreciate what you’re doing to help them and the animals, even if they don’t always have the time or energy to say so.  Seeing the animals go home with adopters is your reward.

Fifth, watch and learn.   The more you know about the operations of the shelter, the better you can help the staff to run it and the more assistance you can provide.  If you don’t understand why something it being done, ask.  Keep in mind that a reputable shelter must function within strict state and local regulations regarding almost all of its activities, from animal care to fundraising.  Take all the training that the shelter can offer you, from orientation to advanced care.

Sixth, stay positive.  Shelter staffs are stressed and fatigued, and if you can be a positive presence, it makes their jobs a little easier.  And every day won’t be a good day.  You’re inevitably going to find that the animals’ stories don’t always have a have a happy ending.  And if you find that a particular case is heartbreaking, keep in mind that its even harder on the shelter staff.

Seventh, be good at what you do.  If you are there to clean dog runs or cat cages, to do administrative work or to feed the animals, do it well.  If you are there to do maintenance or groundskeeping, do an excellent job.  Each of these functions is essential to the health and welfare of the animals – which is why you’re there in the first place.

Again, these are just my observations.  You might find that there are aspects of shelter volunteering that I’ve missed, or that I haven’t made a point well enough.  Feel free to comment or add your observations.

Dog Pulling, Part 3 – When to consult a behaviorist

This dog is reacting to something that he and the owner encountered on their walk.

In my previous post on this subject, Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash | The Animal Nerd , I discussed methods of managing and training a dog who pulls on a leash habitually.   I also went into detail on the best way to harness and leash a pulling dog, to remain in control of the walk, and some methods on reducing the pull and training him to walk politely with a human handler.

But these methods aren’t guaranteed.   There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution and pulling isn’t due to one single cause.  The dog may pull because of a prey drive (Squirrel!!!) or be reacting to something that he sees or hears.  He may be pulling towards another dog, out of either excitement or fear.  The pulling may intensify due to his frustration at being restrained.  At some point, it may become necessary to call in a professional.

Most dog owners do not have the training and experience needed to identify the cause of a dog’s behavior or to correctly determine their dog’s emotional state.  I routinely hear accounts of dogs suddenly taking off or acting aggressively with no warning and taking their owners completely by surprise.  And I have no doubt that this is what the owners perceived.  However, the fact is that dogs are constantly communicating their emotions and excitement level; the owners in these cases just didn’t see the behavioral clues that the dogs were sending them.

So, when in doubt, seek help.  If you find that your dog is lunging towards other dogs, people, etc.; or if you are simply having continued trouble with his behavior on leash, its time to get a qualified professional to help.  And by qualified, I mean a canine behaviorist or behavior consultant who has been certified by either the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC,  International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (iaabc.org)) or the Certifying Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT, Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org)).  By seeking professionals who are credentialed by these organizations, you will be getting help from people who are not only experienced but have demonstrated knowledge in canine behavior and – most importantly – abide by a strict standard of professional ethics Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org).

When you’re hiring a behavior consultant, here’s what to look for:

  1. Look for someone who offers to carefully observe you and your dog prior to identifying the cause of the pulling behavior, and then tailors the treatment of that behavior to the cause and conditions under which it occurs. If he wants to start in with a leash training session without first observing and documenting or recording you and your dog’s behavior, you probably want someone else.
  2. Does he take the time to ask you what result you want, or what you would like the dog to do instead of pulling your arm off? It isn’t enough to make the dog stop doing something, you must teach him what to do instead.
  3. Does he offer to “board and train” your dog at his facility? If so, find someone else.  Your dog isn’t a car that can be dropped off with a mechanic when it acts up.  The whole point of the training is for you to learn how to interact with your dog.
  4. You want a trainer or behaviorist who will abide by LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) principles, Force-Free and/or Fear-Free behavioral methods. You want someone who can help you reduce your pup’s excitement and anxiety level, so he can enjoy a quiet walk with you.
  5. An ethical trainer will use the minimum equipment necessary to reduce the undesired pulling. The proper use of collars, leashes and harnesses was discussed in a previous post.  Any aversive training tools, such as electrical collars, slip leads or prong collars, should be used only as a last resort.   If the trainer mentions these aversive methods as a standard training tool, find someone else.
  6. Take the time to review the CCPDT standard of ethics (above) prior to interviewing a trainer or behaviorist.

I hope this was helpful.  As always, you can contact me with any questions at headnerd@animalnerd.com or in Facebook @animalnerd.

Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash

As we discussed in the earlier post on this subject Dogs Pulling. How to enjoy a loose-leash walk with your dog. | The Animal Nerd, the first step in resolving the issue of a dog pulling on leash is for both of you to get out the door in a relaxed state of mind, without undue excitement.  At the risk of repeating myself, you can’t whip your dog into an excited frenzy and then expect him to behave politely on a walk.

The real fun begins once you and your buddy start your walk.  If you are looking for help in resolving a pulling issue, I can assume that the problem is already well established.  There are a few things to establish before beginning a treatment for pulling:

First:  First, is he just pulling because that’s what he does?  Is this just his normal response to being on leash, does he pull you towards something in particular?   If he just constantly pulls, or just pulling because he wants to get to the next interesting thing, this is a learned behavior.  He has learned that pulling gets him some reward or reinforcement for doing so.  He may be getting to where he wants to be, he may be getting attention and feedback from you, he may be enjoying taking you for a run.  In any case, he has learned that this is how he should act while on a walk. 

Step one: Hold the leash across the palm of your hand with the loop dangling from the top.

 

Before starting on having him relearn his leash manners, you need to have the right tools.

First of all, use a standard 6-foot leash, a martingale collar and a front-clip harness.  I prefer a leather leash, but canvas or any other strong fabric will work just as well.  The martingale collar has pieces:  a collar that fits over the dog’s head, and a circle of fabric that connects to the lead and gets drawn closed when the dog takes up the slack in the lead.  This is not a choke collar – when the fabric circle is drawn tight, it snugs up the collar to the dogs’ neck to prevent him from backing out of it without affecting his breathing.

With regard to the harness, for dogs with thicker coats, an Easy Walk Harness goes on very easily and works well.  For dogs with very short coats, like bully breeds, a Freedom Harness is a little more complicated to put on but has a closer fit with felt padding.  The key is to fit the harness correctly and snugly, so that you can put two fingers between any of the harness straps and the dog’s skin.  And the most important thing is to clip the lead to the front of the harness, on the dog’s chest.  I make a habit of connecting the lead to both the collar and the front ring of the harness, simply because they are both only as strong as the plastic clips used to fit them and to hold the harness straps in place.  By clipping the lead to both, if one of the clips should break, you still have control over the dog.

The key is to have the lead clipped to the dog’s chest.  This way, if he pulls on the lead, he finds himself pulled around to one side, towards you.  Never attach the lead to the back ring of the harness unless you are training him to pull something like a sled.  Many dogs have an oppositional reflex that leads them to pull forward whenever they feel a weight or pressures pulling them backwards.

How to hold the leash:   If you are holding the leash by its loop, or putting the loop around your risk, you are aiding and abetting his pull.   By holding the leash in that fashion, you are giving him all the leverage and allowing him to pull your arm out to its full length and pull you off balance.  The fact is, unless you have a truly giant dog, you are bigger and stronger and should not be pulled anywhere.

Step two: Bring the loop around the back of your hand and put your thumb through it.

 

 

When I’m teaching  leash manners, my favorite method of holding this leash is this:  Put the leash across the flat of my palm with the loop a couple of inches above the web between my thumb and forefinger and the rest of the leash trailing below the bottom of my hand.  Then bring the loop end around the back of my hand and back up from the bottom of my palm, putting the loop around my thumb.  This locks the leash in place so the dog can’t pull it away from me, and by having the lead trail out from the bottom of my fist I have all the leverage provided by my back and shoulder muscles.  Advantage, human.

Once you’ve established control over the dog’s ability to pull, the next step is to teach him that the real fun lies in staying near you and matching your pace.

The first exercise I use is to simply start with the basics.  Start small, in an area with few distractions, leash him up and calmly walk around, changing direction frequently.  Every time you change direction, prompt him by saying something like “This way!” or “With me!”  (I avoid using “Come!” or any other command that I use for other purposes).  And when he joins you in changing direction, reward him with a treat.  You can improve this exercise by making a small maze, using whatever is at hand:  chairs, folded tables, partitions, etc., and walking him through it, making random turns and prompting him.  The result is to teach him to watch you for signals as to where the two of you are going, and reinforce changing direction with you.

Another exercise is the “Lunging Drill”, which teaches him the radius of the leash, and reinforces staying with his handler.    Find an open area with a flat surface, fill up your treat bag with his favorite stuff, leash up your dog, and stand in the middle of that space.  Show him a treat and gently toss it outside the radius that he can reach while you’re holding the leash.  Stand still and let him try to get to it without correcting him or providing any feedback (be a tree).  When he stops straining at the leash, praise him and walk him towards the treat.  If he starts straining at the leash again, stop and stand still until he allows the leash to go slack again.  Then walk him to the treat.  Repeat the exercise until he stops straining for the treat and has learned that the best way to get to it is to stay with you.

Then simply close your hand around the leash, locking it in place. This provides stronger control over the dog.

These exercises should be done for short periods, only about 15 minutes at a time, two or three times a day.  Once he has the basic principles down pat, you can take the treat bag with you on your walks and incorporate the direction change game and the lunging game into your walk routine.   These simple exercises should increase his interaction and attention to you, and help in having him walk with better manners and without pulling or straining at the leash.

Keep in mind that walks are the high point of his day.  He experiences the world through his nose, let him stop and have some good sniffs without being rushed.  If he wants to stop and smell something interesting, let him have a few moments with it before prompting him to continue.  This will further reduce his excitement level and help him calmly move on to the next fascinating sniff.

In my next post, I’ll address dogs who pulling in reaction to something, which could be a person, another dog, a truck, etc.