Saturday evening, and Angus and I are heading home through the park when we see a bicyclist riding up the path toward us. We have been working on this, Angus and I — dealing with distractions. So here’s what we do: We step off the path, I tell Angus to sit, Angus sits, we wait for the bicyclist to pass by.
But the bicyclist stops. Gets off his bike. Starts talking.
Angus barks, but only once. I hold up my index finger, tell him Uh! Stay! And Angus stays.
The bicyclist is a teenage boy, and he is worried because he was supposed to meet his girlfriend but he can’t find her. As it turns out, he is in the wrong park. During our conversation, Angus sits quietly.
For the past year, Angus and I have been working on making walks calmer for him and safer for the world around us. There were times when I thought we’d never get here, but it is finally paying off.
Angus isn’t perfect yet, but we have days when he is perfect, days when he doesn’t pull, when he walks sedately, sits quietly at distractions.
Here is what I have learned over the year we’ve been struggling:
1) Hold the leash securely. The loop of the leash goes over your left wrist, and you grip the leash above it in your left hand. The leash should then drape loosely over the front of your body and you grasp it by your right hip with your right hand. If the dog bolts, you have three fail-safes.
2) Start out calmly. Angus sits and waits at the front door, even after I’ve opened it, and walks out quietly at my command. I am still amazed that he does this, but he does.
3) Bring treats. You want the dog to obey because you tell him to, not because you’re bribing him. But treats come in handy, especially in stressful situations.
4) Make it easy for the dog. Don’t take him into a chaotic situation. Don’t walk him when everyone else is walking their dog. Don’t take him into a nest of baby bunnies, or past the trees where squirrels live.
5) When he sees something that he might react to — a squirrel, a rabbit, a boy on a bicycle — make him sit. Get him to look at the squirrel and then look at you. If he does this without barking, he gets praise and a treat.
6) If he pulls, stop. Some people suggest making a U-turn, but when Angus is in a pulling mood he’ll pull in every direction. So make him sit, and then tell him to walk. If he pulls again, take one step, stop. One step, stop. Until he gets the idea.
7) Keep him aware of you. Talk to him as you walk. Chatter at him. Make him sit and stay at random times. I have a whole vocabulary of clucks and grunts that mean “pay attention” or “slow down” or “don’t you dare try it, Mister.” Angus understands them all.
8) Be confident. Give commands with assurance. Tone of voice, hand gesture, eye contact — dogs pay attention to these things. If you’re timid, it’s easier for him to ignore you.
9) Give the dog a break. If you’re somewhere safe, let out the leash a bit. Let him sniff things, roll in the grass. This is his walk, too.
10) Be patient. Be consistent. Don’t give up. He will get it.
Good comes out of this — a closer bond, perhaps. A better understanding of your dog. A more attentive dog. When you’ve been through the fire, as Angus and I have been, you have to come out at least somewhat tempered, right?
At long last, Angus is handling most stresses with confidence. He is gaining impulse control. He is a match for many situations, including frisky squirrels, annoyingly bouncy bunnies, and a despondent boy on a bicycle. Eventually, I am certain, he will be a match for everything.