Q&A: How do I calm down my excited puppy on walks?

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Question submitted by Mike C.
Hi. I have an eight-month-old male Husky/German Shepherd mix. He is a great dog with very few issues except one. When we go for a walk, he gets very excited when he sees other dogs. I don’t mind him playing with other dogs. In fact, we go to the dog park often and he plays all the time with no issues. The problem I have is that when he meets others on our walks, he starts to whine, pull, bark and his ears seem to shut down as nothing I say will get his attention. Even when I jerk at his pronged training collar, he continues his behavior. With effort, I can get him to sit but even then he whines and quickly gets up. He is in training to be a registered therapy dog, so I have to get him from this stage to one where he won’t go up to other dogs unless he is told it is OK. Any suggestions?
Mike, you have a puppy – with a puppy attention span.  The very first thing I would suggest is to work on a solid “watch me” command.  When you are at home with no distractions, ask for a “sit”, then take a medium value treat (hot dog pieces, cheese) in very small pieces and ask for a “watch me.”  Hold the treat at the dog’s nose then move it straight up to the side of your eye.  As you move the treat, say “watch me” and as his eyes follow the treat, you will see his eyes divert to your eyes.  Jackpot – give the treat. Timing is very important in this exercise.  You want to make sure that you are rewarding him for looking at your eyes, not just following the treat.  Repeat this every chance you get (you really can’t practice this too much) and after a while, you can vary the length of time he must keep eye contact before he gets the treat. After lots of practice, you can ask for a “watch me” from across the room.  The goal is to have him stop what he’s doing and look to you for direction.  After you feel the command is reliable in your home environment, take it outside.  This will allow for more distractions, so you may need to up the value of the treats (boiled chicken, peanut butter).  Now it’s time to take this act on the road.
Keep a watchful eye on what is coming toward you.  When you see another dog (or anything really), you can put your dog in a “sit” and start the watch me – treat cycle.  You should be able to keep this up until the other dog is past you.  Now, if you are caught off guard and your dog sees the other dog before you do, it will be really hard to get his attention.  The best thing you can do at that point is to turn and walk away from the approaching dog.  Get some distance and start the sit/watch me.  He will get the idea that his rowdy behavior gets him taken away from what he wants most (the other dog), but calm behavior allows him to stay in the vicinity – and maybe a chance to greet the other dog.  When you are feeling more confident in him paying attention to you, start weaning off the treats – maybe every other time, and then every third or fourth time.  Because he knows that he will get a treat one of these times, he will continue to offer the behavior.  The “watch me” command will be invaluable with a therapy dog. It is very versatile.  Good luck and let me know how the progress is going.
Terry Meeks is a dog trainer, APDT Member an CGC Evaluator in Pinellas County, Florida.  Find Four on the Floor Dog Training at FourontheFloor-Dogtraining.com and on Facebook.

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