By Erin Moore, Vancouver BC Canada Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training

Dog licking his lips while sitting next to a pile of dog cookies.Boone sneezes on cue. It’s adorable. It’s funny. It’s fun. It’s mostly useless, but it’s an amazing party trick. People are always impressed; I can see their estimation of me as a dog trainer go up as they watch him. Honestly though, it was one of the easiest things in the world to teach. I just fed him every time he sneezed. I knew Boone sneezed a lot when he got excited. I made sure I had treats on me all the time, and whenever he got excited and sneezed, I marked it and fed him. After about a week, he sneezed, got his reward, looked at me thoughtfully, and offered a “by choice” sneeze. From there it was a matter of pairing the behavior with a cue (in this case, me pretending to sneeze with a big old “achoo”) and voilà — I have a dog who sneezes on cue. Simple.

You can use this same simple training strategy to get more of the (actually useful!) behaviors you want on your walks.

Taking Advantage of Good Behavior
Dogs repeat behaviors that are reinforced. We use this to our advantage when we are teaching dogs to be the well-behaved companions we want them to be, but we often make things much harder by trying to get our dogs to do things we want them to do, instead of observing what’s already there, what’s already happening, and reinforcing that.

Think about the dogs who settle calmly in the van on the ride to the walk, or the dogs who naturally check in with you on their own, with no prompting. How about the dogs who are naturally appropriate players, or even the dogs who greet you politely at the door when you pick them up, instead of jumping all over you? Dogs learn best, and can truly thrive, when they have the opportunity to make good decisions on their own. The trick as dog walkers is to pay attention and take advantage of naturally occurring “good” behavior by rewarding it.

The Walker Wins
Rewarding behavior you like that a dog is already engaging in makes your job smoother in several ways.

First, it makes working with multiple dogs much easier. Rather than running around after three dogs trying to get them stop doing an assortment of things you wish they wouldn’t do, you’re handing out treats for things they’re doing right with no input from you. Let a little time pass and you’ll see much more of the good stuff and less of the behavior you find less desirable.

Second, it creates more focus in your dogs. When dogs are regularly rewarded, they often try to figure out what it was that won them cookies so that they can repeat it, which means they are focused on you and working their brains.

Finally, rewarding behavior you like helps set the tone for your walks. If a dog is rewarded every time he checks in with you (whether off leash or on), he’s more likely to check in with you on his own. When dogs check in with you, they’re making a conscious choice to take their focus off of the environment to place it on you. This can create breaks in play that allow everyone to calm and settle down, or breaks in vigilance for squirrels and pigeons, and bring the energy and tone of the walk to a better place.

Remember, rewards don’t always have to be in the form of food or a toy. Sometimes getting to go out the front door or being allowed to sniff the bush that every dog in the neighborhood has peed on is more rewarding to a dog than any food you offer. Using real-life, everyday activities the dog finds rewarding (life rewards) can be very powerful. Pair these with a behavior the dog is already doing naturally and you have the magic recipe! I often hear dog walkers say, “Well, Sadie is so good, he never barks.” Amazing, excellent, fantastic that she doesn’t bark. Thank her for not barking. If you get complacent about noticing and rewarding the things your dogs do (or don’t do), you can’t necessarily expect that the wonderful behavior will stick around.

Give It A Try
Identify five things that each of your client dogs do that appreciate, and find a way to reward those good decisions. This could be:

  • Appropriately greeting you at the door for pick-up
  • Loose-leash walking
  • Taking a self-imposed break from play
  • Settling calmly and quietly in your vehicle
  • Checking in with you voluntarily, with no prompting
  • Responding appropriately to another dog in your group who is a little too exuberant in his greeting

What else can you think of? Actively looking for things to reward shifts our perception and changes how we relate to the dogs in our care. It can replace frustration with creativity as you move your focus from things you want the dogs not to do, to the great things they’re already doing. And that means more enjoyable walks for you and the dogs both.