Dogs who struggle to focus on their owners when away from home usually do so for one of two reasons – either the dog is too distracted by the environment, or he’s under the influence of anxiety or fear.
With anxiety and fear, the dog’s body language tells a powerful story. His posture might be slinky – head low, tail tucked, ears pinned back. His pupils might be dilated, with the whites of his eyes visible. He might pant, even if it’s not hot. He might sniff excessively, yawn repeatedly, or lick his lips. His movements could be slow, almost catatonic, or fast and erratic as though he’s trying to escape. Some dogs jump up on their owners in a way that is best described as “clingy,” while others become hyperactive and appear to lack training and be totally out of control. Fearful dogs can also lunge at the trigger (people, other dogs, etc.) as a way of trying to keep the “scary thing” at bay.
In either case, time and patience often go a long way toward helping your dog achieve a mental state that’s more compatible with a training walk. Rather than hit the ground running (or walking), pick a spot not far from your front door and just stand there like a tree. The curious dog is free to sniff around at the radius of his leash. Don’t ask for attention, but reward generously anytime your dog happens to check in with you. Your reward should look dramatically different from when you patiently stand there watching him sniff or look around. Your face should light up in a smile as you back up a step or two, drawing your dog toward you, and feeding several pea-size treats (like, 10!), one piece at a time. After the last treat, release your dog to “go sniff.” Plant your feet and wait for the next time he glances your way. Have another 10-cookie party. (If your worried about too many treats, incorporate pieces of kibble subtracted from his daily ration.)
Do this two or three times as a warm-up before starting the walk. The idea is to give your dog time to engage in a limited version of what he wants – the ability to sniff and look around – while also letting him realize that his choice to interact with you pays quite well. For some dogs, this helps jump-start an ability to focus on the handler during a walk, and the rewards that continue throughout the walk help build and maintain focus. (To learn more about developing your dog’s choice to focus on you, see “It’s All in Your Dog’s Eyes,” WDJ February 2016.)
Especially fearful dogs may benefit from quiet visits to new places, with no expectations. Their sniffing and exploration (to whatever degree they are comfortable) are driven less by curiosity and more by a need to realize nothing bad will happen. Don’t press these dogs to perform specific behaviors (as discussed in the main article); they can’t successfully think about attention or cued behaviors if they are worried. Support your dog with calm praise, slow, relaxed petting, and treats (if she will accept them). You can’t reinforce the fear – it’s a feeling, not a behavior. Your calm reassurance can help your dog relax, while treats build positive associations with the “scary place.”
Many owners of fearful dogs are concerned that if they give their dogs treats or praise, they will reinforce the dog’s fearful behaviors; it’s a common misconception. Let’s say you’re nervous about public speaking, and you’re about to give an important presentation. As you head to the boardroom, your friend stops you in the hallway. “Hey, you’re gonna be great. You’ve got this!” she says, as she gives you a reassuring smile and a hug. Then she slips a Godiva chocolate bar into your suit pocket! Did she just reinforce your fear of public speaking, or did you appreciate her kind and thoughtful actions?