Training Tips with Cora Wittekind: City versus Country Dogs
Regularly, I hear friends and colleagues lament about their desire to get out of the hustle and bustle that is an inevitable part of living in an urban environment – either physically or at the very least, mentally. Certainly, that was how I felt when I recently departed for a two-week trip to the Scottish Highlands with my training partner, Sim Williams, who represents the U.K. branch of Prestigious Pooch Dog Training. Although I have built a career around being a translator between dogs and their owners, it didn’t really occur to me that dogs also might need to escape the city sometimes in much the same way. Taking a mental break through yoga or meditation class isn’t possible for them. They rely on us to provide that break for them.
Perhaps it is an occupational hazard, but my vacations inevitably involve meeting dogs and applying what I learn from them to my job as the founder of one of the top dog training companies in Los Angeles. This trip was no exception – these country dogs demonstrated many of the characteristics that our clients are desperate to see exhibited by their urban dogs. They were relaxed, happy, displayed excellent recall skills, and were completely focused on their owner.
It is often the case that I am brought in to help clients with dogs that display the exact opposite characteristics – they are easily agitated, display reactive tendencies, and expect immediate gratification… Sound familiar? Just as it is with us humans, the urban environment can be a huge obstacle for the overall happiness of our canine companions. Distractions are everywhere, and living in the moment can be a challenge at the best of times. So what should we do?
First off, I can’t stress how important it is for you to walk your own dog… at least some of the time. It sounds simple, but for many of us, work and life too often gets in the way. We hire dog walkers, or rely on dog parks and doggie daycare to give our dogs the stimulation they need. However, nothing can replace a walk with you in the eyes of your dog. Walking together helps to deepen your bond and establishes trust in your relationship. Not just one that is all “business related” – but one that allows your dog to set the pace as well. Taking them out of the city to a place with a more natural environment is optimal, but failing that, a “smell walk” is a great solution. Basically, start your walk as usual, with your dog in a “heel” position. Then allow them to move into a loose leash walk where they are able to smell and take their time learning from their environment without a set agenda or route. Dogs learn through smell and allowing them to feel relaxed during their walk has numerous benefits to their overall well-being and disposition. Most importantly, you as their owner resume your position as their key source of positive enrichment.
It is essential during your walks that you do what you can to focus on your dog so that they in turn focus on you… ie. try and leave the phone on silent and in your pocket if you can, and bring treats, or a special toy that your dog enjoys. While on one of these walks, start with your dog in a “Heel” position by your side, but use a 6-foot leash that will allow them to have some freedom to move around when you release them from the “Heel” command. You need to be ready to regain their attention as needed – using a focus word such as “look” or “wait” and rewarding with positive reinforcement to condition eye contact or to have them immediately pause on command. It was very interesting to study the dogs and their owners that we met during our travels in Scotland. Not only were the dogs completely focused on their owners, their owners were completely focused on them. All while they had the bonding experience of enjoying exercise and fresh air together.
Secondly, it is important to recognize that dog breeds are not just what we see on the surface. Each breed was originally bred with a specific purpose in mind. That is not to say that you should never get a Border Collie unless you plan on having them herd sheep – it just means that every dog breed has certain personality traits, and it’s important for you as their owner to help them adapt to their environment in a way that allows them to be their best self.
Lastly, always remember the end goal. To have a well-adjusted dog who you can put into any environment – rural or urban – and he or she can feel comfortable. (That means more fun vacations together, yay!) It’s not impossible, it just takes work. So, as the saying goes, take the time to go out and smell the roses – your dog will thank you!