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How To Train Your Dog To Be Calm On Walks

Introduction

If you're curious how to train your dog to be calm on walks, you've trotted to the right spot! It's ruff business getting yanked towards every fire hydrant and bunny; maybe you might be questioning whether you're walking your dog, or your dog is walking you!

To train your dog to be calm, the first step is to train yourself to have proper expectations of your pup, the second step can be training verbal commands, and the third step includes some shortcut "tricks" to reinforce steps one and two. In this article, you can nibble on these kibble-bits of info, which you can hopefully digest for your upcoming excursions with your pup!

Training Yourself to Have Proper Expectations of Your Pup

Ironically, the first steps to training your dog to be calm don't involve your dog at all; instead, they involve training yourself! Your relationship with your dog is exactly that – a relationship, meaning it involves principles such as empathy, compromise, understanding, and daily renewed effort.

For example, if Gertrude, an optometrist with her own clinic in downtown Lethbridge, only has time to walk her 2 year old border collie, Francine, 45 minutes per day, since she's so busy running the clinic, not even Cesar Milan could magically keep Francine calm!

Carrying along this example, border collies were bred hundreds of years to roam the plains from dawn 'till dusk, nipping at the ankles of livestock to herd them from pasture to pasture. Cooping these creatures up in a 1 bedroom apartment, you could almost argue it's a violation of physics to expect them to be calm during just a couple walks per day.

Therefore, for the sanity of yourself and your pup, temper your expectations of your dog being calm; perhaps for the first walk of the day, compromise that she'll yank the leash a little bit for that first beam of sunshine at daybreak.

Fortunately, that philosophy tugs both ways; for instance, if Gertrude sets her alarm earlier to take Francine to the off-leash park for an hour and a half before work, she ought to expect Francine to feel more subdued. If Francine starts yanking on the leash during an afternoon walk, Gertrude's in a much more appropriate position to assertively expect that Francine remains more calm – perhaps communicating that via verbal commands which will be discussed shortly here.

Oddly enough, the net effect of having justified expectations of your pup, whether they're expectations that your pup will be excited or calm, you'll project more confidence and sense of calm yourself which should then rub off onto your pup! Additionally, it can encourage you to take your pup for proper quotas of exercise, having the expectation that energy levels will likely be elevated in the morning and thereby require some activity.

A Toolbox of Commands

To start out, here’s a list of essential commands which your dog should know; by having this toolbox of commands, you’ll be able to better curb your dog’s excitement, whether it’s in the house or during walks.

After you've trained yourself to have fair expectations of your pup (and gained some self-confidence as a pup parent along the way), another handy step is having a toolbox of verbal commands!

While amateur dog handlers often think their pups can read their minds, or even understand full sentences of English, the truth is that they cannot; certainly, pups can interpret broad strokes of body language and tone remarkably well, but owners often wildly extrapolate these abilities into thinking their pup understands that Starbucks got their order wrong that morning.

Communication breakdowns between humans (who aren't experienced trainers) and their pups often leads to frustration on both sides. For example, if Gertrude's border collie, Francine, wildly barks at a coyote in the distance, Gertrude might hug and comfort Francine, worried that Francine is scared of the coyote; as Francine quiets down, Gertrude (the owner) might come out of the situation thinking her comforting worked perfectly; on the other hand, Francine (the border collie), might think her owner was praising her for alerting her about the coyote, encouraging her to bark even more excitedly next time.

For that reason, clear verbal commands are extremely useful, because they serve as unambiguous, mutual means of communication between humans and their dogs.

Sit

The most crucial command is “sit”. You can start by pushing your dog’s butt to the ground to physically encourage the sitting, followed by rewarding your pup with a treat (which acts as the positive reinforcement). Then, progress to simply using the verbal command. After that, try commanding your dog to sit in more distracting environments; with larger groups of people, in the company of other animals, and outdoors.

Stay

Paired with the sit command, you’ll also want to teach your dog to stay. You can extend your open palm forward to help reinforce the verbal command. As with the sit command, use positive reinforcement at every step of the way, and try the command in more distracting environments as well. Also, try having your dog stay and just remain in place for an indefinite amount of time; chances are, your pup will simply fall asleep – and if so, congrats to you for your persistence and patience!

Quiet & Talk

If your dog’s lack of calm during walks manifests as barking, then it’s also handy to have these tools in your toolbox: the “quiet” and “talk” commands. 

With the quiet command, you’ll have to creatively apply positive reinforcement anytime your dog resists the urge to bark. Remember your precision in what you praise or discourage must be extremely consistent. Like children, dogs are keen on figuring out how to test and break your will, but if you can outdo them with your patience, they’ll learn to respect you, and the training will only get easier rather than much harder in case they progressively lose their respect.

The converse of the “quiet” command is the “talk” command, which again lets you have another common piece of language which your dog and you can share. Again, associate the “talk” verbal command with their barking via positive reinforcement, and remain consistent through it all.

Focus

Another command which is extremely handy to have in the toolbox, particularly for staying calm on walks, is the “focus” command. This command involves training your dog to make eye contact with you the moment you say “focus”. If your dog is being stubborn as you use positive reinforcement to train this command, try using higher value treats, and remain consistent day after day – don’t give up!

As you progress, try to lengthen the time your dog makes eye contact with you; in other words, progress with this command so that your dog holds eye contact with you. Similar to other commands above, challenge yourself and your dog by testing this command in more distracting situations; mastering those, you’ll have a new tool to try if your dog gets a bit excited during walks.

Bonus: Leash Training

Alongside those commands, it’s handy to just have principles to have when taking your pup for walks. A couple to consider are having your dog on-leash and using distance when coming across triggers.

Having your dog on-leash, you’ll not only be able to eliminate improbable outcomes, like your dog running away, or other safety concerns, but you can actually communicate with your dog via the tension in the leash. For example, if your dog exhibits poor behavior, you can apply negative reinforcement (the opposite of positive reinforcement) and tug the leash – of course not enough that it comes close to hurting your dog, but such that your dog realizes that a tug means that the behavior was wrong. 

Similarly, being proactive about distance control from stimuli is also a key role you can play as your dog’s leader. For instance, if your dog tends to react negatively when passing other dogs on the sidewalk, then try looking ahead and moving to the opposite sidewalk next time – in other words, add some distance. Chances are, your dog will already be marginally more calm with that added distance. And hey! – maybe that marginal bit of calm will allow you to squeeze in a command or two like “quiet” and “sit”. If that’s not enough distance, then try a bit more next time. It’s a months or even years long process, but your consistency and patience to continue with the training will be the main factors of how fruitful the results are.

Extra Calming "Tactics"

Now, here are some “cherry on top” tricks to help your dog remain calm on walks. Are these tricks are substitute for the real meat and bones of the training, mentioned above? No they’re not! So unfortunately these probably won’t serve as easy shortcuts, but they’re instead like little speedboosts to build upon the progress you’ll already be making.

Trying a new harness

First you can actually try other types of harnesses when walking your dog. For example, if your dog expresses excitement during walks by pulling the leash, wearing a harness which hitches onto your dog’s back can actually enable the pulling; again, it’s the types of positive and negative reinforcements – if your dog realizes she or he can yank you around and successfully get around faster, it’ll only continue.

Though, some pup owners have mentioned that front-hitched harnesses can actually mitigate the amount of pulling your dog does. Again, this isn’t a silver bullet method, instead it’s perhaps just a little trick to add onto your hard-earned progress through longer term training.

Wearing A Backpack

Another tactic which pup parents have reported as working well is by actually adding a backpack onto your dog’s back, and filling it 10% full with a light load. As pack animals, going on walks actually simulates going on hunts with the pack, working as a team to accomplish an objective.

Many say that by adding a backpack to your dog’s back, she or he feels more sense of purpose, proudly and calmly serving a duty, rather than bothering with barking at other people and pups.

Using Aromas

The third tactic is by using calming scents and aromas such as lavender oil, eucalyptus oil, and frankincense oil to calm your pup. Of course, while humans rely much more on sense of sight, dogs recognize you as their owner much better by your scents rather than by your wardrobe and appearance. Thus, essential oils are reportedly nice for dogs, since they really satisfy their main sense of smell.

This of course may or may not be actually proven, and it’s doubtful that this tactic can be easily applied to dog walks, but it’s perhaps something to consider trying; and, if it fails, then at least you’ve got some nice scents to calm yourself after a full day’s work!

Conclusion

Those are some notes to consider as you’re training your dog to be calm on walks. It all begins with your own calmness and expections as a pup parent. Then, creating a toolbox of commands is vital to efficiently and non-frustratingly (for your pup as much as you) communicate with your pup – remember, your pup can read your mind a bit, but not word for word! Then, you can also apply distance between triggers on your walks to create more fertile situations to sensibly communicate with your dog during exciting events, while training out the negative behavior. Lastly, there are some extra tactics you can try, such as adding a backpack to your dog’s back during walks to give your pup a sense of purpose during dog walking.

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