In the article “Walk or Sniff? How You and Your Dog Can Have a Meeting of the Minds” I explained how enrichment walks are important for dogs. Dogs live the world through their noses. Giving them a chance to sniff and enjoy some “shenanigans” is healthy for them. It’s not going to be fun for you, however, if your dog drags you to every piece of dirt worth sniffing along the way.
Teaching the Name Game
Before you can let all heck break loose at the end of the leash, teach your dog to check in with you when you call his name. Have treats. Say his name one time. If he looks at you, click or use a marker word (such as “Yes”) the second your eyes meet. Hold the treat up to your eye to sustain the eye contact for a few seconds, then give him the treat. Deliver it close to you. We want your dog to come to you for the cookie. If he doesn’t look at you, take the treat and gently touch his nose with it, then draw it up to your eye. As his eyes follow the treat and your eyes meet, mark “Yes,” then give him the treat.
When your dog is really good at this game in a quiet area, start taking the show on the road. Practice in the yard, your neighborhood, at a friend’s house. Keep him on leash so you can easily reach him if he doesn’t look at you right away. Practice until he looks at you quickly when you call his name, in a variety of places.
Teaching your dog the Name Game will help him check in with you while he’s wandering. It’s also the foundation for all your obedience training. If your dog isn’t paying attention to you, you can’t get him to do anything. He won’t sit, he won’t leave something alone, he certainly won’t come when called. Teach him to look at you when you call his name and now you’ve got Fido’s full attention.
Important note: You will completely undo this training if you use your dog’s name all the time. “Is Muffins hungry? Does Muffins want his toy? Are you my little Muffins?” If you use your dog’s name casually like this when you don’t expect him to look at you, he won’t understand when you use his name to get his attention. Instead, come up with nicknames for your pet for casual conversation. When I’m casually interacting with my clients’ dogs, you’ll hear me say, “Hi, sweetheart. Hey, handsome! Okay, fluffypants.” When I call the dogs’ names, though, they know to look at me.
It’s Okay to Go Sniffing
Now that your dog knows how to check in with you, he has earned some holiday time to follow his nose. Pick a cue to use that will consistently mean “go sniff and have fun.” This needs to be a different cue from your walk nicely cue. For example, if you use “Let’s Go!” to tell your dog you want him to walk politely by your side, don’t use “Go!” to mean go sniff. You might try something like, “Sniff time!” instead.
Walk with your dog, with him by your side. Stop and call his name so he looks at you. When he does, say “Yes” and give him the treat. Then use your new cue, “Sniff time!” Point to the grass, phone pole or other sniffable spot, and encourage your dog to explore. When he does, praise him. Give him some time to enjoy himself and wander at the end of the leash. If he pulls you, stop. Call his name. When he looks at you, “Yes” and give him the treat, but make sure he comes all the way back to you to get his treat. When you’re ready to move on, give your walking cue, “Let’s Go,” and continue your stroll.
Repeat this throughout your walk. With practice, your dog will learn to check in with you regularly as he enjoys following his nose. You really can have the best of both worlds – a polite walk sprinkled with a few shenanigans.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.