My boyfriend and I recently adopted a 6-year-old Golden Retriever named Becca. She is the sweetest, most loving dog in the world, but I am having an issue with walking her.
When we go for walks all she wants to do is sniff, and if you attempt to make her go in a direction other than where she wants to go, she will stop and literally not move another inch.
I have tried changing her leash, routes and collars, and taking treats and toys, but none of this works. It seems to help if more than one person is on the walk, but that is not always possible. I am the walker in the family, and would love to be able to enjoy long walks with my dog as my companion.
The other issue is listening. When we work on commands like sit and come, she does great. But the second we head out for a walk and I say, “Come,” she seems to forget anything I’ve taught her.
The rescue organization believes she was used in a puppy mill as a breeding dog and then dumped on the street when she was “too old.” She was rescued about a year before we adopted her. She’s been checked by the vet and aside from some allergies, she seems to be a healthy girl.
If you can offer any advice I would be so grateful.
First let me say how much I wish everyone with a training question went into the detail you did! Thank you for that. You painted a clear picture to work from.
Your story is very common with puppy-mill breeder dogs. Fortunately Becca has an outstanding personality despite her horrific beginnings, and actually has not acquired many behavior problems frequently seen in puppy-mill dogs, like extreme fear/shyness; little or no social skills with people and/or dogs; self-mutilation behaviors like excessive licking or pacing; or no interest in toys or interaction because of early deprivation of these critical things.
The thing about walking Becca is that any dog, from any type of background, is extremely distracted by the awesomeness (mostly smells but a lot of visual) that’s suddenly around them. Becca’s acting like a puppy in that respect because it’s all so new to her.
The way to change that is to realize that in the house, you’re pretty fascinating to her, because you play with her, feed her, interact with her a whole bunch and just generally live together with her in the same world. No offense, but the moment you take her outside, the incredibly stimulating environment completely overrides her interest in you!
This will happen with any dog who’s not taught attention exercises before going on walks. Just think about how you really enjoy your family’s company at home, but if you went to a huge place that had great food, awesome stuff to look at, free new clothes, very cool people and a wonderful smell and sound to it, may I venture to guess your overwhelming desire to immediately and fully interact with your surroundings would steal your attention from your family? Sure, you’d hear them talking to you, but wow, look at that! Chocolate, champagne and strawberries handed out at this Manolo Blahnik shoe boutique!
The outdoors are really that wonderful and distracting to Becca right now, so please know it’s completely normal. Now the fun challenge is getting her to see you as even better than that squirrel she smells down the block.
To get started with some attention training, please read my advice to Cody’s mom in My Labrador Pretends He Can’t Hear Me. The key is to really “talk up” Becca when you get her attention inside – go nuts with lots of silly-sounding praise and treats, and pair that with a particular sound like a clicker or a kissing sound. You’re conditioning her to respond to that sound the same way she’s responding to your mega-attention.
After you’ve been patient with her, doing brief, fun, upbeat and very frequent training sessions, and she’s responding to the paired sounds from another room and comes running in, it’s time for a brief walk outside.
Amp up your enthusiasm even more, and if she’ll take them, give her little treats, too. Take very brief, fun and frequent walks, and reward a really great response to you with a “Go sniff” command! That’s going to be her ultimate reward – being able to sniff her beloved outdoors. Not doing this very important step is a huge reason dogs pull; they figure what the heck, I never get to sniff so I’m just gonna pull like mad to get to this patch of grass.
The main key in dog training (worthy of chiseling into stone): A dog’s biggest rewards change according to her environment/situation. So, as a reward when you’re walking Becca, let her pee on a popular grass spot or nibble at some dandelions! Work with the environment rather than fighting it. Any trainer will tell you that’s a battle you’ll always lose.
All of this takes pretty good training and timing skills, so do yourself and Becca a big favor and hire a coach to help get you started. A trainer who uses positive reinforcement, fun and motivational techniques will show you how to get where you want to be with Becca. It’s well worth the time and effort, and will help in every aspect of your life with Becca because you’ll use these skills with all your interactions with her.
The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) is a great place to start your search – just type your zip code and find a trainer near you. It’s important to call at least four trainers and ask questions about their techniques, and get a feel for their overall professionalism, before you make your decision.
One last point: Your trainer may recommend that you use a head halter of some type to help keep Becca’s attention on walks. If used properly, this is a great tool and will makes walks a lot easier while you’re training Becca. Some come with instructional DVDs. I strongly advise against choke or pinch collars.
I’d love to hear back from you, Kate, after you’ve started your training journey. Remember how critical patience is, both with Becca and yourself, and to keep your training sessions short and be sure they end on a positive note.
PHOTO: Magnus Bråth