Last month, I discussed some strategies for using the local dog park and some reasons to be cautious about using the dog park to meet all of your dog’s exercise or socialization needs. For those who prefer to avoid the dog park altogether, there are plenty of other healthy ways to provide exercise and enrichment for our dogs.
For most dogs, being outside requires being on a leash, so good leash manners using the right equipment are important first steps. You can enroll your dog in a variety of local dog obedience classes, where you’ll learn about using the leash, appropriate collars or harnesses for walks, and greeting other people and dogs in public. Be sure your instructor (and the company behind the instructor, if there is one) are committed to the use of positive reinforcement in training. This means the heavy use of play, praise and treats in training classes.
Avoid dog training methods that involve outdated, punitive strategies such as using chain collars or electronic collars to punish noncompliance. Avoid classes that emphasize techniques based on dominance, the establishment of “alpha” roles or heavy-handed physical manipulation. Such strategies, while popular in past decades, are no longer supported by professional animal behaviorists or veterinary behaviorists due to their lack of support in the research literature on dog behavior, their risk of side effects and their common misuse by laypeople and dog trainers alike.
Once your dog has learned some basic leash manners, you should plan to walk her regularly in your neighborhood or other areas. Be sure to bring water and treats on your walks so that you can work on new skills or reinforce previously learned skills in public. One of the best cues to work on while on walks is a basic name cue. Simply call your dog’s name every once in a while and if she looks at you, praise her and give her a treat from your pocket to reward this. You also can work on sit/stays or down/stays in the presence of distractions such as bicyclists, vehicles, children or other animals. Keep these stays short in duration, and work at a distance from these stimuli at first so that your dog gets it right (that is, earns praise and treat for holding the stay) most of the time while training.
For any learner — dog or human — getting it wrong too often will lead to frustration, learning fatigue and burnout. So set your dog up for success by working in progressive stages and keeping your expectations in line with your dog’s current skill level.
Bringing toys on walks and public outings is a great way to help your dog stay busy without always seeking attention from others in ways that can include jumping, mouthing or barking — responses that are normal for dogs but often a nuisance to people. Keeping a toy on hand so that you can toss (within leash distance) or tug with your dog while other people are around is a great way to teach him to interact positively with you while preventing less desirable attention-seeking responses.
Of course, for real aerobic exercise, your dog should move at his natural pace for longer periods, or should run and chase over shorter distances in play. You also can teach your dog any of several scent-tracking or search-and-find games for beginners, and those who work regularly with their dogs often discover that the dogs catch on as quickly as their people can teach them.
When in a smaller fenced area or inside, you can exercise your dog with toy retrieval as well as recall games (using the “come” command) to have her running back and forth and all over to find you in exchange for merry praise, petting or a treat or toy.
Finally, when it comes to socializing with other dogs, you should consider using a friend’s fenced area if you don’t have your own to allow your dog to play with one or two other dog-friendly dogs whose owners you know. Finding friends from your dog training classes or the dog park is a great way to facilitate smaller play sessions among dogs whose behavior is compatible with your dog.
Megan Maxwell is a certified applied animal behaviorist. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.