TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We have a 4-year-old mixed breed dog named Buster. Even though my wife and I share responsibility for feeding and walking him, he loves her more. The only real difference in the time we spend with him is she is a runner and takes him with her. He will hang out with me when she is gone, but as soon as he hears the garage door open he pops up and waits for her. My problem is when Buster and I are out for a walk he doesn’t always come when I call. If my wife is with us, he always comes and checks in. I feel like Buster isn’t very bonded to me. What can I do?
Many dogs will pick a favorite person in a household and sometimes it isn’t the person who feeds them. It kind of shoots down the whole “leader of the pack” line of thinking. If we must go down that path, I think for most dogs the leader is the person who is the most fun! You mentioned that Buster goes running with your wife and for an energetic dog, running off leash is great fun. Also, when a dog accompanies a runner he must pay constant attention or he’ll get left behind.
Here is a game plan for the next time you take Buster out for an off-leash walk.
Carry great treats. Before starting your walk, do some name association exercises by saying “Buster” in a happy, high pitched voice and follow it with a great treat. This will let him know that when he hears his name a wonderful reward will follow.
Once you begin the walk, call him back to you and give him a treat. Repeat this a few times so he will know that paying attention to you will pay off. If he does happen to check in during your walk without being called, reward him with a treat or verbal praise. Checking-in is an important recall skill.
If you call his name and he doesn’t look up, don’t bother saying another word because he isn’t hearing you. At this point, your only option is to walk over to him, calmly leash him up and continue your walk together. Once you are a safe distance away, let him off leash.
During the course of your walk play a hide-and-seek game by hiding behind a tree and then calling his name. When he finds you, reward him. This ups the “fun factor” and increases the probability that he will keep an eye out for you during the walk.
When he is paying attention to you, act playful, say his name and then run away from him. Dogs love to chase things, so act like prey and run!
Above all, focus on having fun and don’t get frustrated. Playing with your dog is a wonderful way to bond and strengthen your relationship.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.