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Milo, my one year old Lab mix, is very curious and excitable outside with all small animals — squirrels, chipmunks — people, and other dogs. How can I train him to remain calm outside with so many distractions? — Tatyana
Milo sounds like a fun, confident adolescent with enough enthusiasm to go around. I assume when you say “curious and excitable” you mean pulling on leash, lurching toward small animals, and jumping up on people and dogs. This can make walks unpleasant and social interactions stressful for you as well as those you encounter in your travels. The good news is it sounds like he is brave, smart, and excited to meet life head-on which will serve him well for years to come. Here are some tips to help him stay chill while doing so.
First, set Milo up for success.
Start small and train in a space that has minimal distractions. Training while he is overwhelmed by too many distractions is going to be a non-starter. He will need you to give clear information at a time and place where he can be calm and focused. You can then slowly increase his distractions over time. But you can’t teach him if you can’t get and hold his attention.
I would suggest starting leash training indoors where he can be more focused. Use a mix of medium and high-value rewards to encourage him to stay to one side and stay focused on you. Pick one side of your body to be the “dog side.” Be sure to keep your body relaxed and the pressure off the leash. Dogs have a reflex to pull against pressure called an oppositional reflex. The more you pull back on his collar or harness, the harder his will pull against it. We are looking for a casual loose leash walk.
Connect rewards with good behavior.
Manage your expectations and focus on small victories. Don’t dangle treats in his face to hold his focus. Instead, keep them up towards your chest to encourage him to look up at you. As you walk and he keeps next to you with a loose leash, mark his good behavior with a “yes” and reward him with the treatopens in a new tab. Using a reward sound such as “yes” helps connect the good behavior to the reward. Try to keep the reward sound novel so your dog can more easily connect it solely with reward. Words like “good” or “good boy” tend to lose meaning over time because the dog hears it in so many different contexts.
Try not to produce treats only to regain his attention when he loses focus. Instead, keep a steady stream of rewards for good behavior. You can then fade to treats over time as he becomes more and more focused and reliable. During this stage, try to avoid areas and activities that will be overwhelming to him or allow him to engage in the overstimulating behaviors.
Level up his enrichment.
I would also increase his environmental enrichment in the home. Feeding him through interactive food dispensing toysopens in a new tab, training games and scent games like “find it” opens in a new tabare fun and easy ways to engage him in the mental stimulation that he seems to be craving outside. These activities also give him a chance to practice focusing and seeing you as a source of fun and excitement.
Slowly increase distractions.
Once he is able to stay focused on you and keep the leash nice and slack, try bringing him to an area with slightly more distractions such as a yard or quiet street. Repeat the exercise rewarding him for staying focused and keeping a loose leash. Once he is choosing to focus on you, gradually move to more and more distracting locations. Avoid moving too fast. Remember, even the brightest fifth grader will fail the high school regents exam. Your goal is to meet Milo where he is at and set him up for the most success. This keeps training fun for you both and encourages him to stay engaged. Everyone likes doing well.
Find the right gear.
You may want to explore some other equipment options as well. No pull harnesses can be very effective. These are harnessesopens in a new tab where the leash is attached to a clip in front of the dog’s chest, instead of his back between the shoulder blades. This moves you in front of the dog’s center of gravity and can provide leverage. Leaning his weight against the leash is less effective and makes it less likely to engage the oppositional reflex.
Be sure you read the harness instructions and size it correctly. Some very determined pullers will lean sideways against the pressure and pull using their shoulders. This can have negative effects on his joints and should be avoided over the long term.
Head collars are also a good option. These go around the muzzle, resembling a horse bridle. When used correctly, these can be very effective in curbing pulling and lunging while being minimally aversive. It will take time to get him comfortable wearing it and you will want to expose him to it slowly while making positive associations over time.
If you just slap it on his face and start walking, he will most likely react poorly and the device can become intrusive and uncomfortable. When the time is taken to desensitize him to the head collar, it can be an incredibly effective anti-pulling tool. Remember, dogs will repeat behavior that works for them. If pulling works less and focusing on you works more, he will choose to walk calmly by your side.
Counter-condition his prey drive.
When it comes to small animals outside, it is likely you are working against Milo’s genetic disposition to chase these irresistible critters. Once you have utilized tools and techniques that prevent his lunging and established a solid training routine around distractions, you can start gradual exposure sessions around the chasing behaviors and triggers. This may begin with simply being in a place where he has seen small animals in the past.
Dogs usually remember trees and hedges frequented by squirrels and chipmunks. If you can get him to work on your walking and training skills without him fixating on the possibility of seeing a squirrel, you’re off to a great start. Practicing some basic manners like “leave it, watch me, and let’s go” in these areas will improve your experience even more.
Eventually, try to engineer situations where you are a good distance from foraging squirrels and maintain his focus and response to training cues. Expect this to take quite a bit of practice and time. It will require plenty of management; you are likely fighting nature a bit here. You can also practice impulse control around humans and other dogs who are easier to enlist in helping. Have Milo on leash as he approaches one of his favorite people. As you approach, praise and reward him for his calm behavior. Once he begins to pull or jump, you can about face and walk a few feet until he is calm again. This teaches him that a calm approach will gain access to the person and pulling or jumping will lose access. Repeat this until he can approach relatively calmly and say hello. Pairing the presence of other dogs to reward can condition Milo to focus on you when he sees a dog which can be incredibly useful.
Build your bond and a regular routine.
It is important to note that you shouldn’t count on any device to do the training for you. The training comes from you motivating behavior, limiting his distractions, and rewarding his good decisions. Your relationship and bond is the strongest training tool you have and time should be taken to develop that tool above all. Try to think of it as a game you both want to play. I would suggest working on leash skills when he is hungry and you have all the good treats! Don’t get discouraged; be patient. Remember you are his teacher and practice makes progress. You will need to work for a while to build a solid routine, especially when he is so easily overwhelmed by his environment.
Practice regular impulse control exercises.
Your training routine should go beyond leash training alone. Manners matter; building a strong foundation of basic cues is just as important. All dogs should be fluent in “sit, stay, lay down, go to your place, drop it, and leave it.” Once a basic cue is learned you can incorporate it in a deference routine — meaning your dog defers to you for things.
Everything Milo wants should be filtered through you and earned using his learned skills. For example, when Milo wants to go outside or come up on the couch, he should offer a learned behavior like “sit” or “down” before being invited to have access. This gets him in the habit of pausing and looking to you for guidance. This should be done consistently with positive reinforcement and with no force or ill will.
Another great exercise for impulse control is using “go to your place” and “stay” as part of a relaxation exercise. This is essentially building your dog’s “stay” cue up to a point where you are adding higher and higher levels of distraction. Having a dog who knows to stay while you take a few steps away is a great start, but having a dog who will stay while you do yoga or answer the door is a truly useful behavior. It is a great way to help Milo learn to remain calm while things are happening around him. It also follows a golden rule: teach your dog what they should do, not only what they shouldn’t do.
Find the right help.
It’s okay to seek help and find a Certified Professional Dog Trainer opens in a new tabwho practices LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) techniques. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Counselors both have a “Locate a Trainer” search tool on their site. A certified trainer with lots of experience should be able to help you sharpen Milo’s skills and offer guidance to help manage his impulses. Training will strengthen your bond with Milo and enrich your relationship for many years to come.
Robert Haussmann, CPDT-KA
Robert Haussman founded Dogboy NYC in 2005 to help pets navigate the urban jungle that is New York City using creative, practical, and humane training methods. Haussmann is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant, specializing in helping dogs overcome behavioral issues including fear, phobias, anxiety, and aggression. He advises owners on the best practices for making their dogs feel safe at home and beyond.
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