As dog walkers we don’t train to change dogs’ behavior for their owners. That’s a trainer’s job. We train for canine safety and to make the job easier and more enjoyable for ourselves. Training means an easier time getting past distractions like squirrels, children, garbage on the ground, and other dogs. It means an easier time getting and keeping a dog’s focus. It means an easier time keeping off-leash dogs nearby, and the peace of mind of knowing they’ll come when you call. In short, walking dogs is fun, but walking calm, responsive dogs is a blast. It’s also good marketing; nothing looks quite as impressive as a dog walker in full charge of her cheerful four-legged clients.
Here are 5 key training tips to make your dog walks easier, safer, and more enjoyable:
1. Reinforce behavior you like—you’ll get more of it
Remember, dogs do what works. We’re very quick to tell children, dogs, and those below us at work, “No.” We’re always quick to punish. But we’d get more done by saying “Yes” more often, and rewarding good behavior. Remember operant conditioning: Rewarded behavior increases and ignored behavior decreases. Is a dog sitting nicely? Find a way to tell him thanks. When an off-leash dog checks in with you, let him know you appreciate it with a treat or the throw of a ball. Like it when a dog comes when you call or walks nicely on leash by your side? Don’t make the mistake of not reinforcing those behaviors.
2. Use life rewards (i.e., Don’t give away the candy store)
Giving a treat is an effective way to tell a dog what you like. But it’s not the only way. As a dog walker, you hold control over a long list of items on most dogs’ favorite things list: Having a leash clipped on for a walk, having the door opened to the wonderful outdoors, having a leash taken off for some free play, having a ball thrown, being allowed to move forward on leash toward a good smell or item to investigate, and on and on.
You can use these life rewards to build a wonderfully-mannered dog simply by asking for polite behavior to gain access to them. If a dog wants her leash clipped on, she’ll need to sit for it. Would she like her ball thrown? Another sit. Want to go smell the hydrant? No problem, so long as there’s no pulling to get there. Using life rewards provides a systematic way to train the dogs in your charge as you enjoy your walking time with them.
3. Don’t reinforce behavior you don’t like
It’s a simple concept, but so easy to forget in practice. A dog barks and we forget ourselves and throw the ball. A dog jumps on us when we enter their home and we leash them up for the walk anyway. We allow dogs to pull us down the sidewalk. But dogs do what works, and unless you enjoy being barked at, jumped on, or dragged along, be careful not to reinforce these and any other behaviors you don’t want to see more of.
4. Remove rewards for behavior you don’t like
Unfortunately, just ignoring behavior you don’t like isn’t always enough to make it go away. To have a quicker impact on behavior, remove whatever reward the dog is after. Instead of throwing the ball for a dog who is barking at you to do so, walk away. (Or, even better, pick up the ball and put it in your pocket for a minute or two.) When a dog jumps on you as you enter his house, turn around and leave. Stand on the front porch for a moment before trying again. Repeat this as many times as needed. When the dog finally does not jump on you, reward him by clipping on his leash.
You may need to plan some extra time for the first few days of this kind of training, but it’s well worth the effort.
5. Be consistent
Behavioral science has repeatedly shown a challenging fact: Intermittent reinforcement strengthens behavior. That’s why dogs who are only occasionally fed at the table become such dedicated beggars. (It’s also why gambling is so addicting.) So be careful; once you decide to no longer reinforce behaviors like pulling, barking, or jumping, stick to your guns. You can work consistently for weeks on teaching a dog not to pull on leash, but it only takes bending the rules one day when you’re feeling rushed to undo all of that work.
If you’re already a dog walker, you already have arguably the best job on Earth. With a little effort and careful adherence to these 5 training tips for dog walkers, your awesome job will be even more enjoyable for you and the dogs—and safer, too!
Want to learn more about dogs and dog behavior for easier dog walking? Become a Dog Walking Academy graduate.