Taking Time to “Heel”

Growing up in Southern California I’ve been used to seeing dogs on leashes at all times, unless I’m at a dog park. I knew there were other parts of the world where people were able to walk off-leash with their dogs, but I had only seen it in the movies—until I visited Austria, that is.

On my first day there, sitting in my first café, I noticed an ordinary enough man walking at a regular pace towards me. Then I saw the astonishing part…his dog was walking right next to him, calm as can be, and there was no leash in sight. I tried not to be obvious but I was staring, and watched them until they were out of sight. Neither man nor dog seemed at all surprised at the situation. It was just like an every day occurrence to them…because it was an every day occurrence.

Turns out that Austrian folk talk their dogs into restaurants (where they happily lie at their owner’s feet), on trains (where they are required to wear “cages” or muzzles), on busses, you name it. People rarely, if ever, bother with leashes.

How is this possible, you might ask? Well, it all starts with the basic “heel” training you are likely familiar with but rarely enforce. Many people these days opt for the retractable leashes (I used to use these before I knew better) because they have so little time to exercise their dog that this serves as their only form of exercise, so why not let the dog run back and forth a little?

Yes, I can see the logic in this…however, before you give your dog this kind of freedom, you need to establish some rules first. Your dog needs to know that his place when walking out in public is by your side, not in front of you and not behind you. This is important for several reasons. Dogs need to have rules in place, and feel more comfortable when they know what the rules are, what their role is, and when you expect it of them.

[pullquote]Teaching your dog that the proper place to walk in public is at your side will give you more control over your dog, and give your dog more security about where his place is supposed to be.[/pullquote]This does not mean that you can never let them wander on a longer lead…this comes later. Teaching your dog that the proper place to walk in public is at your side will give you more control over your dog, and give your dog more security about where his place is supposed to be. You may love dogs, but not everyone feels this way, and they will appreciate that you keep your dog close at hand and not have to worry about whether or not your dog will come in contact with them.

Other dog owners will appreciate it as well, because they will know that you have control of your dog and they don’t have to worry about an unwanted dog encounter. They may be training their dog, or their dog may not be friendly towards other dogs, so when you are walking down city sidewalks, especially, this is the most courteous and responsible course of action.

Your dog may respond well to your holding the leash close, or it may be a chore to keep him held back, in which case you will save yourself from a lot of arm strain by investing in an easy walk harness, which has a clasp in front of the dog’s chest rather than on the dog’s back. The same company also makes a head harness, which some people prefer, but I find the chest harness is sufficient (I’ve also had dogs pull out of the head harness). Connecting the leash at the chest causes the dog to turn himself around if he pulls too hard, so eventually he gives up trying to pull.

off-leash heelingSince your dog’s instinct after being cooped up all day long in the house will be to want to run, you may want to play a little ball with him before going out for your walk. I recommend setting a routine where you keep the dog on a fairly short leash so the dog stays beside you when you are on city sidewalks, and then when you get to a park or a grassy area, give him more leash and let him sniff around as much as he wants to. You may also let him sniff and mark bushes when he his on a short leash, but only within the constraints you have set for him.

Remember that you dog looks to you to know what is appropriate, and when he knows the “routine,” it will be both reassuring and something he looks forward to. Ideally you should walk your dog once in the morning and again in the evening, so he has something to look forward to, and you will get a bit of fresh air in the bargain.

Photo Credit: Johan Appelgren (top), redteam

Dealing with Dominance

What does “dominance” mean?

In order to understand why your dog is acting “dominant,” it’s important to know some things about canine social systems. Animals who live in social groups, including domestic dogs and wolves, establish a social structure called a dominance hierarchy within their group. This hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members.

A position within the dominance hierarchy is established by each member of the group, based on the outcomes of interactions between themselves and the other pack members. The more dominant animals can control access to valued items such as food, den sites and mates. For domestic dogs, valued items might be food, toys, sleeping or resting places, as well as attention from their owner. In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy.

Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. A dominant dog may stare, bark, growl, snap or even bite when you give him a command or ask him to give up a toy, treat or resting place. Sometimes even hugging, petting or grooming can be interpreted as gestures of dominance and, therefore, provoke a growl or snap because of the similarity of these actions to behaviors that are displayed by dominant dogs. Nevertheless, a dominant dog may still be very affectionate and may even solicit petting and attention from you.

You may have a dominance issue with your dog if:

  • He resists obeying commands that he knows well.
  • He won’t move out of your way when required.
  • He nudges your hand, takes you’re arm in his mouth or insists on being petted or played with (in other words, ordering you to obey him).
  • He defends his food bowl, toys or other objects from you.
  • He growls or bares his teeth at you under any circumstances.
  • He won’t let anyone (you, the vet, the groomer) give him medication or handle him.
  • He gets up on furniture without permission and won’t get down.
  • He snaps at you.

What to do if you recognize signs of dominance in your dog:

If you recognize the beginning signs of dominance aggression in your dog, you should immediately consult an animal behavior specialist. No physical punishment should be used. Getting physical with a dominant dog may cause the dog to intensify his aggression, posing the risk of injury to you. With a dog that has shown signs of dominance aggression, you should always take precautions to ensure the safety of your family and others who may encounter your dog by:

Avoiding situations that elicit the aggressive behavior.

  • During the times your dog is acting aggressively, back off and use “happy talk” to relieve the tenseness of the situation.
  • Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog’s activities as necessary, especially when children or other pets are present.
  • When you’re outdoors with your dog, use a “Gentle Leader” or muzzle.


Nothing in Life is Free

Does your dog: Get on the furniture and refuse to get off? Nudge your hand, insisting on being petted or played with? Refuse to come when called? Defend its food bowl or toys from you? “Nothing in life is free” can help. “Nothing in life is free” is not a magic pill that will solve a specific behavior problem; rather it’s a way of living with your dog that will help it behave better because it trusts and accepts you as its leader and is confident knowing its place in your family.

How To Practice “Nothing In Life Is Free”

Using positive reinforcement methods, teach your dog a few commands and/or tricks. “Sit,” “Down” and “Stay” are useful commands and “Shake” “Speak” and “Rollover” are fun tricks to teach your dog.
Once your dog knows a few commands, you can begin to practice “nothing in life is free.” Before you give your dog anything (food, a treat, a walk, a pat on the head) it must first perform one of the commands it has learned.

For example, You Your Dog

  • Put your dog’s leash on to go for a walk Must sit until you’ve put the leash on
  • Feed your dog Must lie down and stay until you’ve put the bowl down
  • Play a game of fetch after work Must sit and shake hands each time you throw the toy
  • Rub your dog’s belly while watching TV Must lie down and rollover before being petted
  • Once you’ve given the command, don’t give your dog what it wants until it does what you want. If it refuses to perform the command, walk away, come back a few minutes later and start again. If your dog refuses to obey the command, be patient and remember that eventually it will have to obey your command in order to get what it wants.
  • Make sure your dog knows the command well and understands what you want before you begin practicing “nothing in life is free.”

The Benefits of This Technique

Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. Requiring a dominant dog to work for everything it wants is a safe and non-confrontational way to establish control.

Dogs who may never display aggressive behavior such as growling, snarling, or snapping, may still manage to manipulate you. These dogs may display affectionate, though “pushy” behavior, such as nudging your hand to be petted or “worming” its way on to the furniture in order to be close to you. This technique gently reminds the “pushy” dog that it must abide by your rules. Obeying commands helps build a fearful dog’s confidence; having a strong leader and knowing its place in the hierarchy helps to make the submissive dog feel more secure.

Why This Technique Works

Animals that live in groups, like dogs, establish a social structure within the group called a dominance hierarchy. This dominance hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among pack members. In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy. Practicing “nothing in life is free” effectively and gently communicates to your dog that its position in the hierarchy is subordinate to yours. From your dog’s point of view, children also have a place in this hierarchy. Because children are small and can get down on the dog’s level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates, rather than superiors. With the supervision of an adult, it’s a good idea to encourage children in the household (aged eight and over) to also practice “nothing in life is free” with your dog.

Photo Credit: tudor

Problem Barking

Some canine behavior problems, such as house soiling, affect only a dog’s owners. However, problems such as escaping and excessive barking can result in neighborhood disputes and violations of animal control ordinances. Therefore, barking dogs can become “people problems.” If your dog’s barking has created neighborhood tension, it’s a good idea to discuss the problem with your neighbors.

It is perfectly normal and reasonable for dogs to bark from time to time, just as children make noise when they play outside. However, continual barking for long periods of time is a sign that your dog has a problem that needs to be addressed. The first thing you need to do is determine when and for how long your dog barks, and what is causing him to bark.

You may need to do some detective work to obtain this information, especially if the barking occurs when you’re not home. Ask your neighbors, drive or walk around the block and watch and listen for a while, or start a tape recorder or video camera when you leave for work. Hopefully, you will be able to discover which of the common problems discussed below is the cause of your dog’s barking.

Social Isolation/Frustration/Attention Seeking

Your dog may be barking because he’s bored and lonely if:

  • He’s left alone for long periods of time without opportunities for interaction with you.
  • His environment is relatively barren, without playmates or toys.
  • He’s a puppy or adolescent (under 3 years old) and does not have other outlets for his energy.
  • He’s a particularly active type of dog (like the herding or sporting breeds) who needs a “job” to be happy.


Expand your dog’s world and increase his “people time” in the following ways:

  • Walk your dog daily – it’s good exercise for both of you.
  • Teach your dog to fetch a ball or Frisbee and practice with him as often as possible.
  • Teach your dog a few commands and/or tricks and practice them every day for five to 10 minutes.
  • Take an obedience class with your dog.
  • Provide interesting toys to keep your dog busy when you’re not home (Kong -type toys filled with treats or busy-box toys). Rotating the toys makes them seem new and interesting (see our handout, “Dog Toys and How to Use Them”).
  • If your dog is barking to get your attention, make sure he has sufficient time with you on a daily basis (petting, grooming, playing, exercising), so he doesn’t have to resort to misbehaving to get your attention.
  • Keep your dog inside when you’re unable to supervise him.
  • Take your dog to work with you every now and then, if possible.
  • If you work very long hours, take him to a doggie day care or have a friend or neighbor walk and/or play with him.

Territorial/Protective Behavior

Your dog may be barking to guard his territory if:

  • The barking occurs in the presence of “intruders,” which may include the mail carrier, children walking to school and other dogs or neighbors in adjacent yards.
  • Your dog’s posture while he’s barking appears threatening – tail held high and ears up and forward.
  • You’ve encouraged your dog to be responsive to people and noises outside.


Teach your dog a “quiet” command. When he begins to bark at a passer-by, allow two or three barks, then say “quiet” and interrupt his barking by shaking a can filled with pennies or squirting water at his mouth with a spray bottle or squirt gun. This will cause him to stop barking momentarily. While he’s quiet, say “good quiet” and pop a tasty treat into his mouth. Remember, the loud noise or squirt isn’t meant to punish him; rather it is to startle him into being quiet so you can quickly reward him. If your dog is frightened by the noise or squirt bottle, find an alternative method of interrupting his barking (throw a toy or ball toward him).

Desensitize your dog to the stimulus that triggers the barking. Teach him that the people he views as intruders are actually friends and that good things happen to him when these people are around. Ask someone to walk by your yard, starting far enough away so that your dog is not barking, then reward him for quiet behavior as he obeys a “sit” or “down” command. Use a very special food reward such as little pieces of cheese or meat.

If you dog’s barking is triggered by sounds like people knocking on the door or a doorbell, you may want to try one of the newer mp3 programmable doorbells, that let you record the sound of your own voice or play another other sound you have saved as an mp3 file. If your dog is barking from boredom, try putting in a DVD created specifically to keep dogs interested. Typically they feature nature sounds, animal noises and even ultrasonic sounds that dogs can hear but we cannot. The DVD we have listed on this page in the lefthand column has come highly recommended.

For the dog who persists in barking, you may want to try either a motion-activated water sprayer (if there is one particular area your dog is fixed on) or a citronella collar, which emits a fine citrus-scented mist just under the dog’s muzzle when it detects a bark. The citronella collars are both humane and effective if you cannot always be around to give your dog an immediate correction.

If you are able to give your dog an immediate correction, I have found a plain old water sprayer works quite well. Just make sure you have it handy in areas where your dog is prone to bark, and set the nozzle for a long distance spray. It’s harmless and gets their attention long enough to distract them from their focus.