When you walk with your dog he can be in one of three basics positions.
Most professional dog trainers prefer not to train dogs to walk out front. Doing so allows them to take the position of being in charge of the walk and controlling it’s pace and direction. You should never allow your dog to take this position as it can significantly change his behaviour.
Many young dogs sadly start to develop lead reactivity (behaviours like barking and growling at other dogs) around the age of 6-7 months simply because they have been allowed to walk in front which gives them the impression that they are in charge and it is up to them to decide what to do about potential threats.
As puppies grow up they go through several critical periods in their development. Of particular interest relating to the fact above is what’s known as the Second Fear Impact Period (6 -1 4 months). It’s also referred to as the ‘Fear of Situations Period’ and usually corresponds to growth spurts.
This critical age can depend on the size of the dog. Small dogs tend to experience these periods earlier than large dogs.
So…around the age of 6 months your young pup may well suddenly start to view things they previously weren’t that concerned about as frightening or threatening. If your dog has been allowed to walk in front and thinks it’s his job to deal with potential threats he may well start barking at other dogs to keep them away.
Handled incorrectly i.e. remaining passive and allowing the dog to bark, scolding the dog, attempting to distract the dog when they are too close and over aroused and exposing them to situations that cause this behaviour every day will rapidly make this behaviour more engrained and before very long you will find you are dealing with a lead reactive dog.
Great care must be taken during the Second Impact Fear Period not to reinforce negative behaviour during this time. Forceful handling can frighten the dog, and soothing tones in the face of anxiousness and uncertainty can serve to encourage his fear rather than as owners often think re-assure. Any fear your young dog shows during this period should be handled with lots of patience, kindness and specific training to put the dog in a position of success, while allowing him to work things out at his own pace while building his self-confidence.
Take home point: If your young dog starts to bark and growl towards ‘xyz’ it is critical that you act appropriately so that the behaviour does not become engrained.
The first step is always to take immediate action to avoid situations that put him over threshold (his ability to cope and remain calm). Don’t just stand there and watch or scold but actively retreat until your dog is calm enough to sniff for a treat on the ground or take a treat from your hand.
Back at the ranch then with our walking to heel behaviour. Our goal is always for the dog to be able to walk beside you, stay close, and not allow distractions to make him leave his spot. You will need plenty of patience, especially in the early phases of training as you well know by now!
Make sure you have plenty of time to practice walking to heel every day, at least one or two 15-minute training walks per day, every day of the week on top of his normal walks. This will speed up the training process and your puppy will be getting plenty of exercise at the same time. You don’t have to go far to do this, a few minutes on your front drive walking nicely is much more valuable than a longer walk pulling in front. Think quality over quantity every time!
I can’t stress enough that you need to maintain your role as pack leader on the walk at all times with your pup. This will help ensure he grows up secure in the knowledge that he can trust your guidance and he has simply to follow your cues to be safe.
On to this week’s exercise – Teaching Walk Behind Me & Switch Sides. This is a super skill for your pup to master:
1. Start with your dog on lead and sitting beside you
2. Have your lead and a treat in the hand nearest the dog and looking over your shoulder towards where you want your dog to move to, put both hands behind your back and gently guide your dog around behind you to sit on your other side.
3. Practice moving from side to side while fairly stationary a few times with the treat in your hand and then try without the treat to see if your pup recognises that when you put your hands behind your back he should move behind you.
4. Practice moving from side to side and rewarding when your pup reaches the new side in a small area until you feel you are both becoming more fluent before you try it while walking along in a straight line.
5. Once you start practicing as you are moving you may need to go back to having a treat in your hand the first few times which is fine just remove the treat lure as soon as you can.
6. Once fluent you can add a verbal cue like “Switch” or just rely on the physical cue of moving your hands behind your back.
A great skill to include on every walk!