Teach Your Dog to Behave in Public
I was surprised when my article (My Dog Listens In Obedience Class, But Not At Home!) was met with the cry of “I have the opposite problem! My dog will listen, but only at when we’re home. He never listens at obedience class.” I assumed (never assume, I know…) the obedience class instructors would have covered that for the students – it’s a really common problem. Based on the response I got from readers, though, I thought this article might be able to help.
What’s Different In Public?
It’s not unusual for dogs to lose their minds when they leave home. Home is, well, sorry to say it folks, but: kind of boring. It’s the same old, same old. Yawn. But outside the yard? Now that’s exciting! Different surroundings are exciting! Different surroundings are distracting!
Here’s a good example of how even the tiniest of changes can profoundly impact our own behavior. I love Wegmans grocery stores (for the deprived folks who don’t have a Wegmans nearby, it’s a high-end, have-everything, destination kind of grocery store) and I have “my” Wegmans. A few weeks ago, I was outside my usual territory and needed to grocery shop. No problem, there was a Wegmans nearby and, well, Wegmans is Wegmans, right?
Yes. And no. Yes, it was Wegmans. The signage was the same and the displays were similar. But the store was set up slightly different than “my” Wegmans. Instead of the bakery being off to the left like it is at my usual store, it was on the right. No big deal, I figured. Groceries are groceries. Well, no. I realized after I’d gotten home that I forgot half the things I needed. All because that slight alteration was enough to throw me off. What seems like a simple thing can actually be quite distracting. Distracting enough to throw off even us “higher beings.”
So, let’s not label the dogs’ distraction at obedience class as “silly,” or as “blowing you off.” No, it’s real, that distraction! And distraction (or excitement) means that performance will suffer. That dog that always sits, no matter what? It’ll look like he has selective hearing. The dog that never jumps, he’ll have his paws all over people. Not because he’s dumb, stubborn, or dominant – just because he’s distracted!
Strategies to Help
What’s a good dog owner to do when his dog is a maniac in dog obedience class? A good obedience instructor will implement one or more of these strategies:
- Use something to help block your dog’s view of the other dogs (put you in an adjacent room, use a sheet-covered ring gate, etc.).
- Add distance between your dog and the other dogs and people.
- Suggest you bring really delicious treats to class. No Milk-Bones, people! Real human food like chicken, cheese, hot dogs, etc. Don’t be stingy!
- Reward your dog for anything and everything that’s not bad. Your dog is silent? Click and treat! Yes, even if he didn’t look at you, click him for not barking (if barking is an issue in class). Find something your dog can do and click and treat him for it!
- Get your dog to class a little early so he has a chance to sniff and explore before other dogs arrive.
Teach Your Dog
Remember that dogs need to be taught how to do a task before it’s fair to ask them to do that task. This sounds so simple, yet I work with people who keep saying “sit, sit, sit, SIT!” When I ask them if their dog knows how to sit, they say “No, but if you say it enough, he’ll eventually do it.” Sorry, guys, but that dog doesn’t really know sit. Teach your dog how to do something in a quiet, distraction-free environment.
Keys to Success
Progress gradually. After you’ve taught your dog what he needs to know and he’s aced it at home, it’s time to take that new knowledge out in the world. Here’s where you play a huge part in your dog’s success: you have to ramp up the distractions in teeny-tiny increments. The responsibility for your dog’s success falls squarely on you at this point. Set your dog up to succeed!
Reward generously. Use top-shelf food – I’m talking ham, cheese, steak, chicken. No dry dog food. Don’t even think of using dog treats of the grocery store shelves, filled with artificial colors and animal by-products. Small, pea-sized pieces of human food are much better for your dog and way less expensive.
Keep your distance. Start off by asking your dog to do some easy tricks as soon as you exit the car. Don’t wait until you get to class to start working with your dog. That’s way too close to other dogs and people! Remember, you’re looking to make your dog successful!
Introduce requirements one at a time. It’s unfair to ask your dog for a sit-stay in a distracting environment unless you’ve already taught him how to (1) sit, (2) sit for a long time, (3) sit while something is distracting him, and (4) sit while you’re away from your dog. Each of those skills needs to be taught separately before you ask your dog to do all of them at once. Remember me at Wegmans – only the layout was different, yet I forgot half my groceries for goodness sake. Distractions are hard!
Learning to behave properly in class (anywhere in public, really) takes time. It takes effort. It takes persistence. It takes a good trainer – you! Be reasonable with your dog and ask him for only what you know he can do. Start in an easy location like your driveway, before you branch out to the local big box pet supply store. The more you teach your dog, the more places you’ll be able to go together. And isn’t that what having a dog is all about, in the end?
Chery Kendrick aka Doc Chery says
Awesome! Simple reminder yet so critical and often forgotten Thanks!
this has given me some good ideas. I have been in the hospital recently and I have been away from my service dog and away from our normal routine. So you have given me some very valuable way to deal with problems that have developed due to just not practicing and being with someone other than me.
The extra special snacks are a great idea sine someone sent me home-made jerky which is not on my approved diet.
A. Fierro says
We recently moved to a new home and we have been having trouble getting our dog to stay in our yard. Once he is outside, he is off and down the street – or worse, in the street! It seems once he is outside, he completely ignores us! Now I understand, from this article, that he is just distracted (excited). It is all on me to work with him one-on-one to make him successful – duh! Thank you so much for this excellent article, it has brought it full circle for me. Here we go to teaching our dog how to be a good neighbor on our new block, just like he was in our previous neighborhood.
Laurie Luck says
Running around is hugely reinforcing. It’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s really hard to convince a dog that it’s wrong. haha. So prevention is the key here. Using a leash is the easiest way. Fencing is another great option, but it’s usually expensive. Preventing the behavior from occurring (and thereby being reinforced) is the simplest (and fastest) solution. Good luck with your training!
Josie Plachta says
6mo springer spaniel. Recall has been great so far, including distractions and new places.
Only exception is other dogs. He goes completely deaf to me as i imagine he is so excited to see another dog. He generally meets and plays with maybe 6 dogs a day, and there are two we see often who he sees but isn’t allowed to interact with as they are dog aggressive. I’ve tried cheese, sausages, chicken, his favorite toys, and attention/play when he does listen, but it still isn’t working when other dogs are present. The idea was to get him to come back to me and heel, and then he is rewarded and allowed to play with other dogs.
I’ve tried going back to basics and doing long leash recall, but still no improvement. It’s hard to walk a springer that you can’t trust off the lead.
Laurie Luck says
It sounds like you’ve done some great training so far and have found some really good things to reinforce your dog’s coming back to you. Way to go! Until you can drill down and get this issue tightened up, I’d keep him on a long line from here on out. There are a couple reasons:
1. Safety, obviously.
2. He is getting reinforced (HEAVILY) for not coming when called.
It’s hard to convince a dog (or anyone, for that matter) that what they’re doing isn’t working when…well, when it’s working for them. It’s the *for them* piece that’s most important. The more frequently he’s able to be reinforced by his most favored reinforcer (meeting dogs! Yippee!), the less likely you’ll be able to convince him that returning to you is a better choice.
Good luck with the training, it’s worth it in the long run. But then again, there’s not a thing wrong with walking a dog on a long line, either. 🙂
Shelly Melanson says
I have a 1 1/2 year old lab retriever/amstaff mix. We are her 3 Rd owner and I adopted her from a shelter. She is really good in the house, but when I take her to places with people and dogs and she is on leash, she loses it. She barks non stop, if.people touch or try to pet her she jumps on them, and is so excited she starts shaking and ceying. She loves every one and I have always thought she wanted to get to them but even when she gets to them she can’t calm down. If we move away she starts barking and crying again. Is this over stimulation, excitement, or anxiety. Please help, I have no idea what to do. I have tried relaxation therapy, treats, and trying to calm her by rubbing her back, blocking her vision, but have gotten nowhere and am out of ideas.
Laurie Luck says
Hi Shelly, thanks for your question. Yes, sounds like your girl is (1) way over stimulated and (2) might need to go really slow and steady with the training and the overexcitement. First things first: training. I’d work her frequently, slowing ramping up the distractions and duration of the behaviors only when she’s ready for more. I wouldn’t do any person-to-person greeting (or dog-to-dog) until you’re seeing marked improvement in her behavior. Otherwise, she’s (1) getting frustrated, (2) practicing inappropriate behavior.
Kendall Black says
My dog is a poodle/chihuahua mix and we always go out in public. I will sit down with her and she will be good for about 30 minutes then she starts to whine. We take her out to potty but she does nothing so we go back in. She whines again so we let her down and she just jumps back up! We tried treats for being quiet at first but then she just whines more. Next time we brought her stuffie and she did nothing. I am running out of options. Any ideas on how to help her?
Help. I have a almost 3 years Jap Spitz. He is a highly intelligent dog but very very timid boy, will jump with every small sound. He’s really well trained when he’s back home – toilet-trained, and listens to command. But once he is on the leash, he freezes and require somebody to bring him out of the door before we can go off (else will whine). When in public, he will turn into this really different dog that we knew at home – very well behaved, but weirdly he doesn’t listens to command (HATES SITTING IN PUBLIC, even if he is super tired he doesn’t sits, would he be germaphobia????) NEED HELPS THANKS 🙂
Laurie Luck says
Hi Jean, thanks for stopping in. Your problem isn’t uncommon. Some dogs are quite comfortable at home and yet out in public aren’t comfortable at all. Responding to cues/requests while distracted (that’s what being in public is, highly distracting) is quite difficult for your dog. Instead of asking him to do things, I would work on getting him comfortable in public first. This may take a week, a month, or more — every dog is different. Associating great things with short stints of being on the fringe of public activities can be done by feeding delicious treats continuously while you’re out with your dog. Maybe you spend 3 minutes in public and maybe you’re way on the edge of the action. That’s great! No requests to do things, this is simply associating great things with being out in public. After awhile, you will hopefully notice some more relaxation in your dog. Then — and only then — would you ask for the easiest things (like eye contact, maybe), pay generously, and go home! Part of the reinforcement for the dog who is timid, is the ability to leave the disconcerting/overwhelming situation. 🙂 Happy training!
I have a 15 month old purebred pitbull hes so good at home listens everytime but outside he dont listen at all especially when theres people around hes suoer friendly but my question is Will he instantly protect me if im attacked by people or other threats please help with this
Hello! I have a year old dachshund that I have been struggling with. He is so terrified of being outside that I can’t get him to even focus and pee. He’s so anxious that he’s yawning and darts around the whole time and is super disobedient. His heart beats so fast the whole time. He is so smart and knows tons of tricks and loves treats, but the moment we are outdoors, he refuses everything. There have been times he’s slipped from his harness and just bolts without a destination and will never come when I call even though he does indoors. It’s like nothing exists to him outside because he is so afraid. It’s difficult because he will hold in his business until we can no longer stay out and then will go immediately once we get inside no matter how long we stay outside. It’s so bad that if we get his leash down he piddles, shakes very visibly and tries to hide and go limp. I feel so helpless because this has been a year with no change and I’m defeated…
Laurie Luck says
Hi Bethany, thanks for the comment. Sorry your dachsie is so frightened. It must be terrible to be so frightened all the time. I would definitely get your sweet boy to a veterinary behaviorist. This is more than just a training issue and a behaviorist, paired with a qualified positive reinforcement trainer would give you and your boy the best chance for success.
Stephanie Gray says
Wondering if you’ve had any progress. I know for bathroom breaks, you should go out more often for shorter periods of time. And learn his cues so u can go when u think he needs to pee. I’m so sorry you are having these problems. Best of luck to you.
Laurie Luck says
Hi Bethany, I would definitely get your Dachsie in to see a veterinary behaviorist. That degree of fear isn’t normal and it would be great if you could help alleviate his stress. Here is a directory to get you started: http://www.dacvb.org/about/member-directory/
If there isn’t a board certified veterinary behaviorist near you, many of the veterinarians on this list will do a phone consult with your own veterinarian. Good luck with your dog, I hope you can find a VB to help with his fear.
Jackie Jones says
Can anyone help I have a very large male German Shepherd who is just 2 years old. He is the perfect companion … until we go out walking. He is very aggressive towards all other dogs. He rears up on his back legs all his fur is standing up and he is barking loud and fast. I am a woman and I am struggling to hold him. I have to slip the lead over a gate or fence post just before the other dog gets too close. The other dogs owners have a look of can you hold that dog lady ?. he has pulled me over before now but the passers-by cannot come to my aid because of my dog being aggressive. When my dog spots me on the floor he finally turns his attention to me and starts sniffing my face. He behaves impeccable at training classes and in the vets waiting room in between dogs and cats. Where do I even start ?
Laurie Luck says
Hi Rose, thanks for stopping by and asking your question. I strongly encourage you to find a positive reinforcement trainer in your area. The best help can come from someone who can coach you and your dog in person. Aggression is complex and can’t be adequately addressed online. You can look at http://www.findagreatdogtrainer.com to start your search.
Jackie Thomas says
I would love to hear a response on this one. I have the same problem.
Jackie Jones says
Enlisted a professional dog trainer. He is teaching me how to handle my dog. It all starts with lead control. Walking to heel. Basically lots of patience and repeat repeat repeat. It takes time. Got to put the time in keep at it don’t give up.
Laurie Luck says
Hi Jackie, it sounds like you have your hands full with your dog. I’m sure it’s scary for you and for the folks he’s barking at.
Check http://www.findagreatdogtrainer.com for a quality positive reinforcement trainer near you. This is a problem that isn’t conducive to solving over the internet, but a quality trainer can help you teach your boy better, alternative behaviors to keep you both safe.
Coco Goold says
Sounds like you have a “leash-reactive” dog. Mine is the same, and he only does this on leash. When he sees another dog, he starts growling, lunging, pulling, and barking like he’s going to attack and eat the other dog. It’s extremely embarrassing! Off leash he’ll just go up and sniff the dog, but does not react. There’s absolutely nothing that’ll distract him when he’s going off on another dog, not food or anything. I’d call a good trainer for tips on how to get away quickly when you come across a dog and you’re not prepared. I also strongly suggest you read “Feisty Fido” by Patricia McConnell. It’ll explain why your dog does it, and what you can do to fix the problem. You need to master a solid “watch” signal with your dog. It actually works! It’s the most helpful book I’ve read, and the author has other books that help you understand the dog’s mentality more. Good luck 🙂
Oyunaa Allis says
I have 18 months old Siberian Husky. I would like to take her to public place or somewhere i can take with me. But she is scared and shakes when I took her to some noisy place. I have been trying her but now she dosn’t want to leave car. So any advice?
Laurie Luck says
Taking it slow and steady will net you the fastest progress. If she’s scared, you need to increase your distance from the “scary” stuff. That might mean you start out at a deserted park in the middle of the day and you don’t go any farther than the parking lot. Bring lots of really good treats, her favorite toy, etc. Make it fun, make it short. If her fear is extreme, you may want to talk to a veterinary behaviorist who is in a better position to diagnose and help.
Gerald Ward says
I used to have two Siberian husky
They are like children like on a child’s first day at day at school and they are scared because the school and the people are new to them the same way with Siberian husky they are like children on there first day at school you have to let him or her know that everything is ok
Gerald Ward says
My dog likes to jump on people exspecially when they have children at the library my dog jumped on a woman with a child in her arms he gets excited when he sees children how do I break that kind of behavior
Gerald Ward says
Most of the time the reason that an animal is scared is because it is in a new unfullmilure to the environment that are used to being in put yourself in the animals if you were new to a place that you have never been before wouldn’t it scare you a little bit not knowing what would happen think about