Sunday, March 13, 2011

Training an adult dog - what we've learned (part I)

In early 2009, we adopted an adult dog from a shelter. Like many rescue dogs, he came with some quirks. He'd been kept outdoors, had lived with another dominant dog, and he definitely lacked confidence. One of the first things we did was potty train him, which was pretty easy since we used the crate technique and were super consistent. Then we enrolled in some basic obedience classes (we took our classes from Laura through our local Petsmart). This helped tremendously as it taught Rob and I how to effectively communicate with Murphy, but it also helped him feel more confident. For the non-dog owners out there, training can really do a great deal for a dog's confidence. Murphy likes it when he knows he's understanding us, doing what we want, and of course he loves the rewards.

In obedience class, he learned to sit, lay down, stay, "leave it" (command used to prevent him from grabbing things he shouldn't), and shake. He had a hard time with the lay-down command, but we worked hard at it and now he's a champ. We taught him to play fetch (he did not have the lab retrieving instinct at all). We taught him to sit and wait until we say "OK" when we feed him so that he doesn't knock us over with food-anticipation excitement. We taught him to do a dog high-five where he jumps and touches his nose to our hand when we put it up. He responds well to positive reinforcement and was really pleasant to train, and we were proud of the results.

Except for walking, that is.

Murphy's never been all that good on a leash. He's fantastic off leash. In fact, we have done a lot of this training with him, starting in our front yard (which is unfenced). When we go on longer trips like camping or to the cabin, we don't use a leash at all. If I'm just going to run some errands and want to bring him with, I also don't bring a leash. He always stays within a few feet of us. People are often impressed that he won't leave the yard, even if we're not paying close attention (don't worry - we wouldn't leave him out there unsupervised as we know accidents can happen and we're much too careful for that). But he doesn't run away, even when he's had the chance. He wants to stay near us. He wants to pay attention to us and listen to us. He's a great dog when he's off leash. But as soon as you snap a leash on his collar, it's a whole different story.

He's 115 pounds (probably more since that vet weigh-in was a year ago and he's filled out more) and strong. So when he pulls, he REALLY pulls. And worse, sometimes he's so excited to be out walking that he starts jumping and lunging. And this dog can jump (click here for humorous proof). He just gets out of control. We spent so much time trying to figure out how to effectively train him to walk well, and I think we finally have made some progress. So I'm going to share our journey in case it's helpful to others out there who've adopted an adult dog.

What we tried
Laura gave us a few techniques to teach Murphy how to walk well on a leash. I always suspected that it would have been easier if he had any leash experience when he was younger, but what can you do? The first technique is called "stop and be a tree." Here's how it works. When we're walking Murphy, we stop and freeze in place (mimicking a tree). The idea is that it teaches the dog that he can't pull because it slows him down. If he wants to go in a certain direction, it slows his progress. We tried this over and over and over and over (you get the idea) with Murphy. No luck. Murphy thought it was some type of game, and he LOVED it. When we'd stop, he'd stop too. Then when we started walking again, he would lunge forward with even more force and speed than before. No matter how much we tried this, he just didn't respond to this technique. So we went on to the next one.

(Disclaimer: We understand that consistency is the most important thing when training a dog. I want to reiterate that we spent a considerable amount of time with each technique before giving up. I figured someone might comment on that.)

Another technique Laura told us to try. We call this one "go the opposite direction." Again this uses the theory that the dog is pulling because he's eager to get somewhere. So when he pulls in one direction, you turn around and go the other way. That way you're again leading, and also he doesn't get to go where he wanted to go. This also did not work for us. Murphy loved this game too. Murphy doesn't care so much where he's walking to, he just is excited to be outside and interacting with us. When we'd switch directions on him, he would take off full speed in the new direction, like it was a contest, yanking the leash holder's arm off in the process. No matter how much we tried, he just never got it.

Next we tried the Easy Walk Harness. Our friends Melissa and Nick had great luck with using this on their adult dog. This harness is a little different in that the leash hooks onto the front of the dog's chest. So when he pulls, he ends up turning himself around. At first, I thought this was a miracle product. It actually seemed to work! But soon, Murphy decided that he would deal with this new obstacle by pulling extra hard, like a husky. I have to admit it was kind of comical (though disappointing) to see him arch his back and pull forward with all of his might.

Here's an old photo showing a typical dog walk with the harness. You can see that Murphy was totally disinterested in me and still went as far as he could ahead of me. No loose leash here.

The Easy Walk Harness didn't work for us, and might have even reinforced some bad habits. Back to the old drawing board.

Slowly, over the last couple months, we've finally made real progress with Murphy and walking. What finally worked for us? It was a combination of these three things:

  1. Treats/rewards
  2. Eye contact
  3. Verbal command
It seems like the most simple techniques are the ones that worked the most.

First, when we get the leash out, Murphy gets super excited. So we have to establish right away that he has to listen to us, and that there's incentive for him to do so. We make him sit, lay down, stay, etc. a little bit before we leave the yard or house. We use treats here so that he knows he can be rewarded for good behavior. Our dog is VERY food focused. Next we start walking very slowly... and as soon as he starts to get ahead of us or make the leash tight, we speak a command to get his attention. We decided on the command "no pulling" - not very creative, but it works for us. When we say this, he looks back at us, and we reward him for making eye contact. Then he starts glancing back regularly, to make sure we're still ok with whatever he's doing. This funny little verbal command has worked really well, and it's pretty silly that we didn't focus on it sooner.

He's still not perfect, and he will get excited and pull toward something he really wants to see (like another dog). But all in all, he's made great progress and we anticipate (hope) he is going to only get better. We've also been trying something where we make him sit and look at us while another dog/person passes. If he stays focused on us, he gets a treat. It's not that we want to limit his fun and interaction, but we want him to look to us first for guidance on what he should do.

You can see how Murphy is focusing on Rob, even when Rob has stopped and is waiting for me to take a photo:

He stays in place and watching Rob's face even when Rob drops the leash:

He's not focusing as intently in this shot, but he is standing calmly and patiently until we continue walking. Great progress!

Training an adult dog is an exercise in patience. If you have any other tips or important lessons you've learned, we'd love to hear them.

Part II coming soon - how we've helped Murphy overcome some very strong fears.

Photographer's note: Last several images processed with the "Twitterpated" action from Paint the Moon boutique. One of my favorite effects actions.


Cindy @The Flipping Couple March 14, 2011 at 8:25 AM  

You're giving me hope!! We adopted Shalai at a year and a half old and she'd never even seen a leash. She's also really good off-leash but a nightmare on the leash (although she's only 30 pounds, so that helps!!). She'll "heel" perfectly off leash but the second we snap the leash on she's pulling like her life depends on it. So glad it's been working for you and I hope this summer will finally be the summer we leash train our dogs.

Mike and Katrina @HA March 14, 2011 at 10:46 AM  

That's great that he's walking better! I've never had my own dog but I helped a roommate train his puppy for 2 years and I loved it. It's fun to see a dog's progress.

Katie @ March 14, 2011 at 8:09 PM  

We have had the same problems with our rescue dogs. No matter what we tried, they just would not stop pulling when we walked them! We finally got a special harness that actually goes around their mouth. I think it's called a "gentle harness" or something? But anyway... it sounds weird, but it's just a strap that goes around their mouth and the back of their head, and it turns them around (much more effectively than the chest one - we tried that too) every time they pull. THEY CAN STILL OPEN THEIR MOUTHS to pant and stuff - so no worries there.

I know it sounds crazy, but it's definitely the most effective thing we've tried. They still do several somersaults when we first start the walk while they get used to the feeling and people look at us like we're crazy, but so far I'm in love! My stubborn boy still tries to fight it, but I'm no longer going home with blisters on my hand and we can actually cover ground on the walk because I'm not changing direction every 2 seconds! ;)

ashley @ March 17, 2011 at 7:46 AM  

My little 14 lb dog cannot be off the leash, but on the leash she's ok until ANYTHING comes within view. She gets so excited and barks and lunges and people are terrified of her but she just wants to tell them "Hey, we're over here!" It drives me nuts because its scares people. She's so focused on the other people/dogs that I cannot get her to calm down.

Leah April 16, 2011 at 9:30 AM  

I've been following your blog here and there for a while, love it. I think we may live in the same area, based on some of your posts (NE Minneapolis) and I'm from Bismarck too! Anyway, so glad you posted this. We adopted a dog this summer after our first dog passed. She is tiny, but the pulling makes walks NOT FUN. To be fair, we haven't been super consistent, but are ready to buckle down and start training her, we will definitely try this.

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