Sunny is a shepherd rescued from the Toronto Animal Services. When his owners decided to adopt him the staff asked, “Are you sure you want this dog – he’s crazy”. Pre-adoption, Sunny already had a reputation for being challenging, reactive, and difficult. I met Sunny’s owners at training school when I worked at It’s a Dog’s Life. They were relieved when they discovered that they lived in my dog walking service area and I would be willing to have him join our group. I’m not the biggest fan of Shepherds- they are large powerful and intense dogs, but Sunny’s single floppy ear made him appear less intimidating than most, and we bonded instantly. Like a lot of Shepherds, Sunny has incredible prey drive and is easily aroused. He’s had incidences with nipping both joggers and children that have left his owner in tears. When dogs in our group play too rough, he starts to bully them. He’s worse on leash. When I began working with Sunny I always used treats. I worked on teaching him to ‘Look at Me’ when he saw something on his long list of triggers. We had some success but not to the point of real reliability. His first day back from 6-wk holiday in the winter, I was walking him along a ravine and found myself behind a pack of 6 off-leash dogs. I realized that unless we passed them, Sunny was NEVER going to be ok with walking behind them. I was running out of treats fast and getting frustrated. Then I decided that I needed a new strategy. It was an aha moment when I realized that my reinforcement was simply not good enough.
The next time we found ourselves in a similar scenario I brought out a tug toy. I pretended that it was the most amazing thing and that Sunny couldn’t have it. For good behaviour, I rewarded him with a tug session. Sometimes I let him walk with it, and every once in a while I grab at it and steal it. When the reinforcement was right, it was beautiful how all the other training fell into place. Sunny loves carrying his toy at the park and it keeps him out of trouble. His favourite past-time is to press the toy into my butt enticing me to tug. It’s a bit intrusive but at least I know he’s always close by and staying out of trouble. All I have to do is provide Sunny with novel toys and play LOTS OF TUG.
I couldn’t imagine dog walking and not having training experience. How could I possibly bring out the best in the dogs I walk if I didn’t know how to modify their behaviour? Training and walking going hand-in-hand. Finding the right reinforcement made Sunny a safer and happier canine camper. He’s gone from being one of the most challenging dogs to being a a real K9 wingman.