Whenever I post about allowing dogs to sniff, one of the concerns I hear is that sniffing will prevent the dog from walking nicely with the handler. It’s not unreasonable to want the dog to be able to walk with us; however, it may create a conflict of interests between what the human wants from a walk and what the dog wants from a walk, particularly if we’re pulling them away from scents every 2 seconds.
It doesn’t need to be this way; we can teach the dog to walk with us when required but also allow them lots of sniffing time. Firstly, we should appreciate that asking the dog to walk at heel is really not a natural way for them to walk – evolution had no pressure to create any animal to naturally walk beside a different species and maintain the exact same pace and alignment – it’s hardly surprising that loose leash walking is such a big problem for so many people.
One of the problems with loose leash walking is that we often have unrealistic expectations. When we train other behaviours, for example, sit, down, hand touch, or spin, the behaviour takes a matter of seconds; however, when we teach heelwork, we often expect the behaviour to last for a much longer time period – perhaps in excess of 20 minutes. That’s a very long time for the dog to concentrate on what ‘you want’ in a sea of alternative stimuli. Another issue is that, in the books, it’s often described as teaching the dog to walk along looking straight up at the handler the whole time; the rationale is that if the dog’s looking up at you, they can’t be pulling on the leash. I don’t think this level of attention is required unless you are training for obedience competition, and it certainly doesn’t make for a pleasant walk for the dog.
To allow sniffing but still train heelwork I do as follows:
Get some really tasty treats. These should be very small (size of your little fingernail) so the dog doesn’t need to stop to chew. I prefer a moist treat for this because we’re asking the dog to walk and swallow at the same time – dry treats are a little more likely to stick or make the dog cough.
1: Feed the dog the treats (one at a time) with your hand straight down at your side
2: Each time you practice give a cue word (let’s go, bib, or whatever you like) just before you start to feed the treats. Note that it’s not neccessery for the dog to look at you before getting the treats – they only need to get themselves to your feeding-hand
3: The dog will quickly learn that when you give the cue word, treats are going to appear at your side.
4: Begin to feed the treats as you start walking – take 6 steps forward (giving the treats one by one as you walk).
5: Slowly increase the number of steps up to about 20.
6: Begin to reduce the feeding rate so you’re giving treats every 2 steps and, over time, continue to reduce the rate until you are at 1 treat every 5 steps.
7: Begin to increase your pace when you practice – the dog will recognise that this is the pace and posture that delivers treats at your side – eventually you may not even need the cue word because the dog is reading your body language – they know the game is on.
8: You can now begin to extend the distance and fluctuate when the treats are coming.
9: Over time you can reduce the reinforcement rate (treats) but I never let the treat-river dry up completely – I don’t expect my dogs to walk like this for miles but it’s very handy for when you want to pick up the pace or move out of a situation you’re not happy with.
Inevitably people will read the above and come up with reasons why it won’t work for them, but we should not view life this way. It’s more helpful for us to think ‘how can I make this work for me’, rather than dismissing everything which isn’t a perfect fit. One of the reasons I often hear is that a particular dog doesn’t eat treats when outdoors. This is a valid point, but it’s not more of a reason to prevent sniffing, it’s actually more reason to allow sniffing because they may be anxious. There are alternatives to feeding treats, such as using a toy or having a play, but it’s much easier to provide a high rate of reinforcement with food treats.
Owners of small dogs do need to work much harder at this exercise because the dog can’t reach the handler’s hand – one method is to place a treat by the side of your foot and increase the number of steps you take between treats, but it is a little more difficult to keep the pace up.
When heelwork is trained positively, it’s interesting, rewarding, and enriching for the dog. When done well, training is just more enrichment.