Ignoring the dog??!!!
Anybody who has ever learned scentwork with me will no doubt be shocked to hear me suggest that you should ignore your dog. Especially since my huge bugbear is trainers teaching scentwork without teaching students to observe and support their dogs at all times. Heck, I teach handlers to move backwards explicitly so that they can keep their eyes on their dogs throughout every part of the search. But there are times when ignoring your dog will actually result in her giving you more attention and better results. This training nugget was recently described as a game changer by one of my lovely clients.
Think about how you behave when you walk your dog off lead. Do you work hard to keep your dog with you, to maintain engagement? Do you practise recalls? Play games? Call her off the fields? Away from the ditches? Stop her from going too far from you? Or do you let her do her own thing, whatever she chooses to do? Ditch diving. Running into the far distance. Only interacting with you when you clip the lead off at the start of the walk. And on again at the end.
Nag, nag, nag
There are problems with both approaches. In the first, what starts out as teaching and maintaining safe and responsible practices can easily turn into nagging. And we all know that nagging never works. The dog simply turns off and stops listening. There’s too much noise, too many words, too many requests. She can’t sift through them all to figure out what’s important. Plus she wants some time to explore, have fun, be carefree.
In the second, letting your dog do whatever she wants is, frankly, irresponsible. When walking in public places, you have both a legal and a moral responsibility to have control of your dog. I love dogs, my life is dedicated to them. But even I don’t want to be jumped on by an unfamiliar dog, especially if she is wet and muddy.
I recall a walk in Balloch Park, a beautiful spot on the shores of Loch Lomond. It was a sunny Autumn Sunday. The sort of day when families meet to walk through the park together. A leisurely stroll in a stunning landscape. One such family were walking in front of me. I noticed them immediately because one of the women was wearing an expensive looking coat. A full length wool coat. A white coat! I specifically remember thinking that I must make sure that my dogs don’t run near her in case they splashed her with mud as they passed. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than we were overtaken by a large, exuberant Golden Retriever. I swear what happened next seemed to be in slow motion. The dog made a beeline for the white coat and jumped up on the oblivious woman. Hitting her from behind she had no idea what was coming. She was very lucky not to be knocked over. But the back of her coat was not so lucky. From her shoulders to her hem, her pristine coat was dripping with the wet and very muddy imprint of the Goldie.
Not all unwanted interactions are so dramatic. But to me, any unrequested interaction is unacceptable. Of course I’ve been caught out when my dogs rounded a corner to be surprised by somebody coming the other way. But I’m a firm believer in taking swift action and apologising profusely for not paying attention. Thankfully, my genuine horror and acceptance of being in the wrong has meant that it’s rare for someone to be upset or take offence.
Having two terriers now makes unexpected interactions more risky. Little dogs, mine anyway, like to jump up. I’m not as assiduous in my ‘paws on the floor’ training as I should be, especially with Ettie who has lived most of her life in lockdown. Bar delivery folks, she has very rarely had a visitor into our home for her to greet. This is something I’ll need to address at some point. But for now, when we see people outdoors, I call her, and Ella back to me to be put back on lead. I do this with Cherry too. There’s no danger of her jumping up, or making any sort of contact, but I want to make sure she doesn’t worry anyone, especially non-doggy folks.
Free running can also be risky for the dogs. No matter how well trained a dog is, walking her off lead near traffic is a no-no. I knew a trainrd who was walking her well behaved dog in a park. This was a new walk for them, so when the dog went over the hill out of sight, she recalled him. He turned and came running back to her. Sadly, and unknown to the trainer, there was a road through the park at the top of the hill. So when the dog recalled back, he ran over the road for a second time and was hit by a car. He recovered fully but it was a stark lesson to us all.
So we don’t want to nag the dog. And we don’t want her to be out of control. Is there a middle ground? Yes! Active ignoring is a wonderful way to give your dog freedom but maintain control without nagging. Let me explain.
Timing is everything in training. And walks are when you have the least control over the environment. This means that unexpected things can happen, such a wildlife appearing or sudden loud noises like crow scarers. It is also when your dog has access to a wonderful array of sights, sounds and smells. Things that us trainers often see as distractions, hindrances to our training. But let’s look at these distractions from our dog’s perspective. Isn’t this what their walk is for, to enjoy physical and mental exercise? To get the best results, we need to work with the dog and with the environment.
So we need to time our interventions well. For example, it’s better to catch the dog’s attention as she stretches her neck up and focuses on an ‘invisible’ spot on the horizon rather than once she’s off and running towards the target. To offer her the chance of a game when she’s not in the middle of deciphering the most glorious scent. And to reward her for choosing to give you attention rather than whooping and jumping like a fool to get her to even look in your direction.
I mentioned before that active ignoring is the way to go. By this I mean paying attention to your dog without her necessarily knowing that is what you’re doing. One of my most effective strategies is to keep moving. This results in my dog having to keep track of me, instead of me tracking her. And since I can have up to 6 dogs on a walk with me, this becomes even more important. For example, if my dog stops to sniff something, I keep walking. I don’t wait for her. Likewise if she decides to move down the bank towards the water or the ditch (or both), I keep moving.
The dog quickly learns that I might change direction, move out of sight, or do something exciting that she could miss out on if she doesn’t make the choice to keep track of me. I might take the ball out of my pocket and toss it in the air. Or I may reward one of the other dogs with a tasty morsel. Or she might lose me and that is the worst. The same applies if the dog is ahead of me. I can use the same tactics to teach her to check in. To pay attention to what I’m doing and where I’m going.
I enhance these check-ins by randomly rewarding the dog. Sometimes I toss her a treat. Other times I produce a toy for her to find or retrieve. Often, I praise her with a ‘Good girl, go play’ (a verbal reward followed by a cue which she also finds rewarding.) With some dogs I add touch. Cherry likes a gentle stroke on the cheek as she comes alongside me.
A lovely example of how this works is when we go for new walks. As we come to junctions with different paths leading in various directions, my dogs hop around from path to path until I catch up or signal which way to go. They have the apparent freedom to go in any direction, but they choose to wait for me and go where I’m going. This is what active ignoring is all about.
I also use various cues to help keep my dog engaged and behaving as I’d like. ‘This way’ is used for direction changes. But also for moving her along or away from areas or objects I’d rather she avoided. Depending on the object I might also use ‘Leave’ meaning ‘Don’t touch’. I use ‘Go play’ to signal that she can move along. ‘Leave’ followed by ‘Go play’ is a nice cue combination. ‘Find it’ is a really effective way to gain attention, whether you want your dog to look for scattered treats or scented articles.
Another cue I like is ‘Look’ which means I’m going to get a toy out of my pocket. Toy play during walks maintains physicality and movement and is particularly useful when there are other distractions around. Producing a toy when passing other dogs or people works really well as it gives my dogs a focus and pulls their attention away from the tempting distractions. But I don’t throw the toy when we are close to other dogs. The worst case scenario is throwing a toy which both my dog and the unfamiliar dog then chases. This rarely ends well and is unfair on everyone.
You might have noticed that the cue I use the least on walks is ‘Come’. Frequent recalls are tedious for the dog. It can result in her getting filled up with treats, getting bored of the treats/games, or even ignoring the call as it keeps interrupting her sniffing or having fun. It’s much more effective to give random rewards whenever the dog chooses to give me attention, move in my direction or respond positively to one of my other cues. Recall is an important cue. It’s what allows me to walk my dogs safely off lead. To give them the freedom to explore and run and swim and play together. This cue is never issued as a request. It’s imperative that when I call my dog, she comes back.
And so I protect this precious cue by using it sparingly. And smartly. Don’t just recall your dog when there are people or dogs in sight. Doing this risks the dog learning that recall = other dogs/people and so she scans for them rather than returning to you. Likewise, don’t just recall at the end of the walk to attach the lead. A nifty trick is to call your dog, clip the lead on and then immediately take it off again to let her ‘Go play.’ In essence, the lead going on is rewarded by the leading being taken off.
Ignore to get more
My message today is ‘Ignore to get more’. The more you (appear to) ignore your dog the more attention she will offer. Yes, keep her in sight out the corner of your eye. But don’t beg for her attention. Teach her to choose you by being fun, unpredictable, rewarding. And by having the confidence to give her a sense of freedom and support without smothering or nagging her. You will both be happier for it.