While we may find a walk through the woods or countryside a peaceful and calming experience, for our dogs that environment can be the total opposite. Now I’m not saying that your dog hates the woods, far from it, but it does provide an environment full of endless sights, sounds and smells which can be overwhelming for them – particularly when they’re still settling in and adjusting to their new lives with their forever family.
You will often hear the rehoming team utter the mantra ‘Keep their world small’ and let them ‘Gather spoons’. Especially when dogs first arrive in the UK, everything they are experiencing is totally new to them – new home, new family, new dogs/cats/pet, new walks… it’s a lot to take in and it’s no surprise they can easily become overwhelmed.
Traditionally we were raised with the advice of ‘taking your dog out for a nice long walk will help them settle’. They’ll burn off some steam and it’ll help calm them down. What this fails to account for is that no two dogs are the same, and we need to adapt to them as individuals.
Some dogs will naturally have more spoons than others and will be able to cope better with change and the excitement and stimulation new walks will bring. But for those dogs who have fewer spoons or are newly settling in, a slower steadier approach is the best one.
There is nothing wrong at all with having a rest day and not doing any walks or keeping walks short and ‘boring’ for a few days if they need it. Slow it down and respond to your dogs needs, if they are anxious, stressed or seem overly excited on walks, take a step back and let them relax. Trust us there are plenty of enrichment activities you can do at home and in the garden to keep them mentally stimulated if they are on a rest day and need something to entertain them (see here and for more ideas here).
SeBPRA dogs are ex-working dogs that are noted for their amazing predatory senses and high prey drive. So when you’re first taking them on a walk in your local woodland, just think there is a LOT going on for them to contend with. So many scents of wildlife and other dogs, so much prey – birds, rabbis, squirrels, etc, probably lots of noises – other people, rustling of trees, wildlife. For some dogs taking them for a walk in the woods and trying to get their attention is the equivalent of standing a child next to the world’s biggest chocolate fountain with an unlimited supply of sweets to dunk in and expecting them to ignore that and have their full attention on you… it isn’t happening!
These kinds of environments, such as the woods, countryside walks, we often refer to as ‘highly stimulating’ walks. There is a lot for them to take in and it can easily become overwhelming. If you’re finding your dog is becoming overwhelmed on these type of walks, scale it back and opt for less stimulating walks, for example, the local park, a pavement walk, or for some dogs the beach is such a walk – not because they don’t love it but there are typically fewer distractions and stimulus to contend with.
One major sign that your dog is too stimulated on a walk is their utter refusal to take any notice of you whatsoever. If you’re dangling a delicious treat in front of your dog’s face and they refuse to acknowledge it at all, it either means the treat wasn’t high value enough or their attention is committed on the overly stimulating environment around them.
Most of us have been there – you’re out on a walk and desperately pleading to get your dog to focus on you rather than that pigeon on the other side of the track, but they’re having none of it. So what do you do? While there is no ‘quick fix’ for this if you are persistent and consistent, you can train your dog to focus on you even in stimulating environments. This will also mean in time that those walks in the woods can be enjoyed by both you and your dog without either of you getting stressed, anxious or overwhelmed.
Training starts in the home. Some people will talk about the three D’s when training – Distance, duration and distraction.
- Distraction – you want as few distractions as possible when trying to teach them something new
- Duration – you will only be able to hold their attention or gain their true focus for short spells at first
- Distance – to maintain their attention you will start with them near to you when training a command.
Now as they progress you can increase the amount of distractions, along with the duration and distance between you and your dog.
One of the key things you can do when your dog is out on a walk and pulling like a lunatic because they’ve seen a squirrel or something they’re reacting to, and you want their attention on you, is the ability to make eye contact with your dog. Once you get eye contact with your dog, it breaks their focus and acts as a reset which can really help calm them down. You want their attention to be on you and not everything else around them.
A key command I use with my dog to get her attention on a walk or when she’s focused on ‘prey’ is the ‘watch me’ command. You could call this ‘look’ or ‘here’ or whatever you want but keep the term you use consistent!
So to teach this (remember we are starting to teach this at home, considering the three D’s, before progressing to doing this on walks)…
- Take a high value treat in your hand and have your dog close to you so they can see the treat
- Bring the treat up to your eye level and hold it next to your eyes
- Wait there until your dog looks up and glances at you/the treat
- When they do give them lots of praise and give them the treat
- Then start to do this and as you lift your hand up to your eyes use your verbal command ‘Watch me’
- Each time they do it, lots of praise and give them the treat.
- As they improve increase the D’s – distractions, distance and duration.
Having your dog ‘check in’ on you while out on walks is a great way to assist in training their recall and again get their focus back on you and not their environment.
So tips to train…
- Take your dog to an empty secure field/garden and if in a public/unsecured area attach a long line
- Completely ignore your dog and wait for them to give you attention (word of warning – you may have a long wait)
- As soon as your dog checks in on you/ looks at you – praise them! Instigate play/lots of cuddles/give them a treat. Let them know that giving you attention is the best thing ever!
- Practice, practice, practice.
Over time your dog will learn that focusing on you is far more rewarding than looking off somewhere else and wandering off in search of that pigeon.
Our dogs have high prey drives, and part of this is what makes walks in interesting places a whole lot more exciting. In the event they do start to pursue prey or chase a cat, etc, having the ‘leave’ command down to a T is invaluable.
- Start with food – put a treat on the floor in front of your dog and tell them to ‘leave’ (if they won’t at first, cover it with your foot if needs be)
- When they do leave the treat or if they look away from it, give them lots of praise and then give them a different treat from your hand to reward
- You can even designate other household animals as “leave” and once your dog has mastered the command, they should completely leave their brothers and sisters alone.
- Small world – start with small ‘boring’ walks and build up gradually. What may be a boring walk for you will still provide a lot of stimulation for your dog.
- Rest and recover – Remember if you dog has had a very stimulating day give them plenty opportunity to recover their spoons. If they need a rest day, don’t be afraid to take one.
- Harnesses – we always advise every dog is walked on a properly fitting harness (see here). Many of the harnesses we recommend have a front clip attachment which can be invaluable if your dog is overly stimulated on a walk and you need greater control of them to stop any pulling.