By Jennifer Guglielmo
When a pet parent asks why their pup may have unruly leash manners, or why they display anxiousness with people or noises, or why the pet parents themselves have anxiety when having to leave their pup for a stay, I often hesitate. Why? Because, if I’m truthful, I have to break the news that your dog’s behaviors are likely caused by… (pause … cringe … sorry!) … YOU.
This is not easy news to hear. We all love and want the best for our pups, but there are times when we’re not doing our pups any favors by giving them all love and no thoughtful, basic training.
Basic Leash Manners
Let me preface my leash discussion by acknowledging that there is no rule requiring your dog to be perfectly leash trained, to always walk at a heel, and to never pull. Walks are meant to be enjoyable for both of you— dogs want to walk, see, smell, explore, potty, and spend time with us. They’re excited! But that doesn’t mean you have to be pulled, yanked, jumped on, or stressed because your dog is unruly on the leash during walks.
The more in control you are of your dog during the walk, the calmer, more enjoyable the walk will be for both of you. Control does not mean being a walking drill sergeant of commands—“Left, right, left, right, halt!” It is simply being aware, being their leader, and giving clear direction.
Allowing a dog to pull will only promote more pulling. Sometimes it’s just “easier” to let our pups pull, but it teaches them that pulling is the way to get where they want to go, on their terms. If you let it go, they won’t know you disapprove, and they’ll keep doing what works for them. If you don’t take the time to show them how to walk in a way that you do approve of, they’ll think it’s their job to lead the way.
You are in control of your dog’s leash and where that leash takes you. You are the leader on any walk, whether you’re just going from point A to point B, or you’re taking a long walk for exercise.
Your dog does not need the full length of the leash for the entire walk, and they certainly do not need their leash length PLUS the length of your arm. Allowing your arm to be pulled to follow the direction your dog is going sets you up for being knocked off balance if your dog yanks or jerks hard on the leash. I often remind pet parents to keep that arm glued to their side and to walk with a tall posture with any pup on a leash. This gives you the greatest strength and the best chance to maintain your balance and keep you safe.
When walking by a group of people, passing other dogs, or entering a room, shorten the leash to stay in control and keep your dog safe. Simply draw them toward you and grip about halfway down the length of the leash.
It may take a bit of effort, commitment, and consistency, but it will be worth it when you’re able to enjoy walking together.
There’s a reason dogs are considered man’s best friend. They offer loving, endearing, and loyal companionship. It is a beautiful bond. Trust me, I love being with my own dogs. It’s hard for me to leave my dogs, even at my own boarding facility. I know without a doubt they are treated with an obnoxious amount of TLC, in a safe environment, with clean beds, fresh water, food, treats, and tons of attention. Still, it tugs at my heart every time I have to leave them. But guess what? My dogs don’t mind me leaving them nearly as much as I mind leaving them. And do you want to know why? Because I intentionally do not make my departure an anxious or sad event. I just leave. (I only cry on the inside!)
This may be a scary, unpopular suggestion to some, or a welcomed evening away from your pup for others: on occasion, board your dog overnight at a facility you trust. Do it for one reason—so that your dog’s very first boarding experience isn’t during a time of emergency, or when a last-minute obligation keeps you from being able to care for them at home. Let them get used to a night away from you while the situation is calm, and so are you. I can almost promise it will be harder for you than for them, and at pickup, your boarding facility will be able to give you feedback on how their stay went. And hopefully the news is great! This will prepare your dog for the possibility of future stays, and you’ll be able to assess whether this is the right facility for you and your dog. Then, in an emergency, you AND your dog will both be more comfortable if you have to drop them off unexpectedly.
In addition, allow your dog some alone time on a regular basis. This will teach them that they are safe, and they have no reason to fear being alone. If you never leave them alone, you may be setting your dog up to experience separation anxiety.
Don’t make a big deal out of arrivals and departures—talk to your dog in a calm voice when you’re leaving or coming home. Try your best not to make it a loud or exciting event. (Again, keep that on the inside!)
If your dog is rescued or adopted, their past may cause them to get anxious when you’re out of sight. Dogs that have been abandoned once (or more) may want to keep you close and always in sight. Learning to feel safe when you’re not around is the best gift you can give a dog with these concerns. You can’t change what happened to your pup in the past, but you can do everything possible, including some healthy time apart, to teach your dog to feel stable, confident, and safe.
When “It’s Okay” Isn’t Okay
Picture this: you’re with your dog, there’s a loud noise, it’s a new environment, or there are strange people nearby, and your pup is acting hesitant, anxious, or scared. What do you do? If you’re like many pet owners, you hold them close, get in their space, stroke their fur, and try to reassure them by talking, whispering, and hugging, all while saying, “It’s okay. You’re okay. It’s okay. Shh-hhhh, shhhh, shhh….”
We may think we’re being reassuring in a situation like this, helping them know that it’s all going to be “okay.” But what we’re really doing is reinforcing their fearful behavior, even encouraging it, by giving them the message that “it’s okay that you’re FEELING and BEHAVING this way.” And that message is the opposite of what we should be communicating.
During times of fear, dogs do not need affection to feel better, they need our confidence and leadership. Remaining calm and not adding unnecessary energy (or words) is one of the keys to helping them truly be okay. If they see that we are not rattled by that loud noise, strange environment, or new person, it will help them not to be afraid. You may still have a nervous pup, but at least you won’t be ADDING to their nervousness.
There are times when our dogs can have absolute fear and no amount of our confidence or leadership will help—such as during thunderstorms and fireworks celebrations. Some dogs will flee out of fear, looking for safety. During these events, we must keep them safe by keeping them as calm as possible and staying calm ourselves. Some dogs may need prescribed medication, or even to be removed from the stressful area completely. I know more than one pet parent that leaves the city during the 4th of July fireworks.
We can’t tell our dogs that everything is going to be okay with words, but we can definitely show them with our own actions and calm, confident energy.
Do It For Your Dog
I know it’s hard, but simply ask yourself these questions:
● Is your pup safe? Yes.
● Are they free of danger? Yes.
● Are they allowed to have feelings of anxious or afraid?
● Should you encourage the behavior? No.
● So, are you encouraging the behavior? Maybe?
Your dog will never resent you for being their leader; in fact, they will love and respect you more for your guidance and instruction.
You do not need to have a perfect, fully trained, obedient dog to have a happy dog—take it from me, someone who doesn’t always follow through perfectly with her own dogs! Practicing these basic concepts will teach your dog to be confident and secure in your leadership, knowing what is expected of them.