So you’re heading out the door with Fido. Are you prepared to help him along the the way? Always being prepared with the right training tools is an essential part of successfully teaching your dog to behave in public. If you’re unprepared, you miss opportunities to show him what you want and expect. Your dog is always learning – so be sure you set him up to learn good habits, not bad. Here are my thoughts on some of basic training tools owners should have when heading out with their dogs.
Training Tools to Have on Hand
6-Foot Leash: A regular, 6-foot cotton or leather leash is a training staple. There are style options to consider from when selecting a leash. I prefer a flat (versus round) cotton webbing (versus nylon) which folds comfortably in my hand and doesn’t slip. Leather leashes can be more expensive, but soften from the oils in your hands over time and are second to none. Also consider your hand size when selecting a leash – I prefer a 3/4-inch width, but my husband’s hands can manage a 1-inch width just fine.
15-Foot Leash: In addition to a short leash, a 15-foot leash (or longer) is essential for long-distance work such as an emergency recall (come). A long-line provides an added measure of safety for your dog and protects your training efforts until your dog is consistently reliable around distractions. But don’t get me wrong – I don’t endorse dogs being off-leash in public! However, I am in favor of teaching safety cues and in setting our dogs up for success during the learning process. Speaking of safety … avoid retractable leashes at all times – they reinforce pulling and are notoriously dangerous to both dogs and humans. You’d be hard-pressed to find any trainer that recommends them.
Harness: A dog tends to be more relaxed when their leash is attached to a harness rather than a collar. A well-designed harness keeps pressure off the dog’s trachea and distributes energy more evenly across his body. There are a confusing number of harnesses on the market today, but the essential feature is in where the leash attaches – in front (at the dogs chest) or, at the dog’s back. Which harness to choose depends upon intended use and the length of leash you will be attaching. A well-fitting front-clip walking harness is essential for dogs who have not yet mastered leash walking but should not be used with a leash longer than 6 feet. In comparison, a back-clip harness allows the dog more freedom and is perfect for working in an open field on a long-line.
Treats: Don’t make the mistake of heading out without food. Dogs, like humans, have a currency system – ours is money, a dog’s is food! However, people must be taught about money – we’re not born that way. To dogs (and humans), food is a “primary reinforcer” – which means we’re born liking it – we don’t have to be taught. For this reason, food is the preferred training reward for most dogs and, their insatiable appetites allow us ample opportunities to train and maintain desired behaviors.
Like us, dogs have individual taste preferences, and may be more motivated by high-value treats (soft, pungent & moist morsels) than low-value treats (like dry biscuits). Think in terms of $20 and $100 bills and what difference they mean to you! Or think about earning celery versus desert (even if you like celery). There’s no question that behavior that’s reinforced will be repeated. So don’t miss opportunities to catch your dog doing something good!
Bait Bag: A bait bag is another must have. Holding treats in our hands or working directly from a crinkly bag of treats is both cumbersome and ineffective. Good training technique dictates that food remain out of sight until the dog has earned a reward. Failure to do so overshadows the actual behavior being taught and effects overall learning. Bait bags keep your pockets from getting dirty and allow ample room for treats, potty bags, a toy and maybe even keys. Bait bags attach to either a waist band or a waist belt and allow easy access to rewards on the go. Be sure to break treats into small pieces, no larger than a pencil eraser, prior to leaving.
Non-Food Reinforcers: No matter how much you dog likes food in familiar places, in a novel environment, your dog may lose interest in taking even high-value treats. But there are a whole host of outdoor opportunities that may be highly motivating to your dog. Be prepared by knowing what you can use, other than food, to reward good behavior. Be observant to learn what your dog wants on walks (access to sniff spots, greeting opportunities, running to a favorite tree) and use these things to reward good behavior as well. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to give these opportunities away for “free” instead of teaching your dog to earn them thru you.
Have a Plan: Before heading out, decide what specific training goals you’d like to work on with your dog. Focusing on one or two small pieces of a long-term goal (like rewarding for slack in the leash or for looking in your direction) is a realistic and effective way to achieve your ultimate goals without you or your dog becoming overwhelmed or frustrated. Have a basic plan in mind so you can help your dog succeed and know how to adjust your training environment to achieve your goals.
A little bit of training goes a long way, so be sure to make the most of your outings. This is how dogs learn that good manners are expected everywhere, not just in class and at home.
All images provided by Creative Commons/Pixabay