Dog pulling leash

My Golden Retriever is so distracted on walks — she looks at anything and everything except for me. I can’t get her to listen to anything I say! The only thing saving us from disaster is her front clip harness — if it weren’t for that, I would have no control of her at all. What can I do to get and keep her attention?

It’s understandably frustrating to feel like the only thing connecting you and your dog during walks is the leash between you. But don’t give up! It’s possible to refocus your dog’s attention on walks. The key is to create a strong foundation of communication with your pup; this can help increase her focus on you both at home and on outings.

Communication Makes All the Difference

Good communication starts with consistency. Your first step is to teach your dog what behaviors earn her rewards and what behaviors will be ignored. You want to focus specifically on teaching calm, focused behaviors. For example, when your dog greets people, reward her for keeping all four paws on the ground instead of jumping up on your visitor. Consistently reinforce the behaviors you want to see more of and ignore those you want to put a stop to.

A reward can be anything your dog values or desires. Examples include tasty treats, favorite toys, petting, praise or extra play time. Use rewards throughout the day to reinforce existing good behaviors — for example, reward her with praise or petting when she waits patiently at the door when visitors arrive. Rewards can also be used to increase her tendency to respond to requests you make of her, such as rewarding with a toy or treat when she sits on command.

If your dog doesn’t do an asked-for behavior or if her behavior is undesirable, remove your attention and wait for more acceptable behavior to naturally occur, such as a quiet rather than a barking mouth, or prompt another behavior she understands, like sit or touch. Immediately reward the acceptable behavior. Most dogs quickly learn which behaviors earn them something fun and which don’t.

You may also need to help your dog get in the right frame of mind for a walk. Golden Retrievers are bred to hunt and retrieve hidden items, and this may be what your dog is trying to do on her walks. In order to make it easier for her to focus on you, it is important that you find productive ways for her to channel her excess energy before you head out to stroll the neighborhood.

Games like “find it,” structured tug and fetch can help to fulfill your dog’s desire to work and move. Playing one of these games prior to a walk can help alleviate some of your dog’s excess tension and energy and make her more likely to listen to your commands when you’re on your walk.

Help Your Dog Manage Distractions

Once your dog is willingly and consistently following commands, gradually add distractions when you ask your dog to do a specific behavior, like sit or make eye contact. Ideally, this training should be done in low-distraction areas like your yard or driveway, an alley or parking lot or on the sidewalk in front of your home. Then try these commands on walks during less populated times, such as early morning, later evening or midday.

Once your dog can pay attention to your commands with some distractions around her, you can gradually expand her walks to include parts of your neighborhood or times of the day with more distractions.

To increase your success, start slow and keep expectations low to begin with. Reward short duration, low-effort behaviors. For instance, even though your dog may be able to stay or make eye contact for 10 seconds (or more) at home, only a second or two should be necessary to earn a reward on beginning walks.

As your dog gains confidence, these reward-worthy moments can be gradually expanded. Making requests too difficult or the reward not significant enough can cause your dog to associate following your commands with a loss of freedom and fun.

Ultimately, success largely rests on ensuring that your dog’s attention is properly and consistently rewarded. A walk is a big chain of events that allows you to reinforce and build desired behavior using things your dog appreciates. Rewards for your dog don’t just have to be tangible treats or toys — forward movement, greeting people, sniffing desired areas and walking on a loose leash can all be useful rewards for good behavior.

You may also benefit from switching from a front clip harness to a head halter. Head halters can offer additional control over harder-to-manage dogs and may help you get a better handle on your dog during walks.

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