“Help, my dog keeps on sniffing everything on walks and I don’t know how to stop him.” If this sounds quite familiar, rest assured you are not alone. Countless dogs love sniffing while walking and with that powerful sniffer, who can blame them? Sniffing is totally normal behavior in dogs, not sniffing is actually what is abnormal. Of course though, walking a dog who pulls to sniff every single bush, every single fire hydrant and every single lamppost can get old over time and quite frustrating. Since stopping your dog from sniffing altogether is unrealistic and you don’t want to end up with your arm coming out of its socket, the best way to deal with this problem is to find a compromise.
Sniffing is Rewarding
Before approaching the problem of dogs who pull to sniff when they are walking on leash, it’s important to realize how rewarding it is for a dog to sniff. When we go out on a walk, we mostly pay attention to the world around us by looking around. We may notice our neighbor’s new flowers, a home being remodeled or a person working on a car. Dogs instead tend to live in an olfactory world. It’s natural for dogs to want to investigate their surroundings and the best way to do this is through their almighty nose. Asking a dog to never stop to sniff on walks is somewhat comparable to asking a person to go for a stroll blindfolded.
Dogs who urine mark on car tires, bushes and lampposts are leaving their pee-mail, basically special social “tweets” under the form of chemical messages known as “pheromones” which are purposely left behind for other dogs to sniff. When your dog goes to sniff these areas, he is using his Jacobson organ, a special pouch-like structure found between the dog’s vomer and nasal bones equipped with a special duct at the top of the dog’s roof of the mouth. A dog’s Jacobson organ is lined up with special olfactory receptor cells responsible for detecting chemical messages which are then relayed to important parts of the dog’s brain capable of generating emotional and behavioral responses. So this explains why dogs are so obsessed in sniffing and marking…
“While we’re walking we spend a lot of energy looking around—enjoying the view and noting what has changed in the neighborhood. Dogs, on the other hand, primarily want to learn about the environment through olfaction.” ~Patricia McConnell
Tense Leash Means Stop
Dogs who pull on walks to sniff everything do so because it’s rewarding. If every time your dog pulls, he gets to sniff something, what has he learned? That pulling leads to rewards. It’s just as simple as that (hint, opposition reflex plays a role here too). If every time you insert a coin into a vending machine you get a snack, your coin inserting behavior will persist. So getting acquainted with these dynamics is key to solving the pulling behavior. Starting today, the moment you notice your dog is starting to walk ahead of you to reach a bush he always sniffs, start slowing down, and then when your dog reaches the end of the leash, stop walking in your tracks. Turn into a statue cemented to the ground.
The first time you do this, your dog will likely be surprised. “Hey, what happened? Usually, every time I reach the end of the leash, I drag my owner a couple of steps and then get to sniff the bush.” Your dog may at this point, try pulling even harder, a phenomenon known as an”extinction burst. ” This is normal, just as you would try shaking a vending machine that doesn’t deliver your snack after inserting your coin, your dog may try pulling harder since it’s no longer working. Be patient, keep still and expect the first walks to take longer than usual, but don’t worry all your training will pay off soon!
Loose Leash Means Go
While stopping in your tracks teaches your dog that pulling no longer works, you want to train your dog what he needs to do instead. When you stop, call your dog to your side and reward him with some tasty food rewards. Then start walking and reward your dog for staying by your side every 3 steps, then, as your dog gets good at this, you can try every 6, and then at some point, you can start rewarding randomly (eg, every 3 steps, every 8, every 5, every 6).
Since you are passing by areas that have a strong history of reinforcement (fire hydrants, lamppost, bushes and other areas where pee-mail is often deposited) it’s important to make sticking by your side extra rewarding by investing in high-value treats. Make sure to make the area next to your leg your official “reward zone.” As your dog learns that on walks you are granting him his fair share of opportunities to sniff, you can then start fading the treats but keep giving them every now especially when you need to help him make good choices around distractions.
“Tight leash = brakes or red light, slack leash = accelerator or green light” ~ Jean Donaldson
Use the Premack Principle
We often think about food as a way to reward dogs for performing behavior we like, but sometimes other types of rewards are right in front of our noses (and our dog’s noses too). Premack’s Principle states “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” Also known as “Grandma’s Law,” it’s as if we were telling a child “you can have apple pie if you eat your broccoli first.”
What does this mean to our dogs? It means that, every now and then, we can reward a dog for walking nicely on the leash (broccoli) by allowing him to “go sniff” (apple pie). After all, when we walk our dogs, don’t we do it for them mostly? Don’t they deserve a bit of sniffing time? By demanding them to never stop to sniff, or worse, correcting them every time they want to sniff by delivering a leash correction, makes dogs perceive us as a source of punishment and an obstacle preventing them from having a bit of innocent, free fun.
“Booooo.. who wants to stick by a person who delivers corrections and ends all the fun, what party poopers humans are!”
Teaching “Go Sniff”
Here’s when we can incorporate a “go sniff” cue and find a compromise on walks so that we both get to enjoy the perks that come along with all the stimuli associated with the great outdoors. Since dogs benefit from sniffing from time to time,(hey, sniffing is a tiring activity too, win-win!) here’s where the Premack Principle comes handy. Every now and then, when your dog is walking nicely by your side, walk towards an area that you’ll be using for your dog’s sniffing pleasure. Practice walking to this area on a loose leash. Make it a habit to say “go sniff” so that your dog understands that you are giving him permission to go on a sniffing adventure. This is one of the easiest training cues you will ever train as most dogs know what to do when you let them approach a “pee-mail” area.
Make sure you give him a bit time and when he seems to be losing interest, say “let’s go” praise, and continue on your walk. Or even better, if you have access to a fenced area where your dog can safely stay off leash and sniff to his heart’s content, walk towards this area, and when that leash is dangling in a nice slack “U” snap off the leash and say “go sniff.” Most dogs at some point get tired of sniffing, so once the novelty is gone, this is a good time to call your dog and reward him.
“The walk plus sniffing will help tire out the dog and make the walk more productive, but it will also allow the dog to check “pee-mail.”Use sniffing as a reward on the walk. “Walk politely on a leash to the fire hydrant and you’ll get to sniff it!”~Amber Walker
Tip: for some dogs, the outdoors is very stimulating and if might be too difficult to implement this training in face of all the olfactory distractions. You may therefore want to start training loose leash walking in your home and yard first. Simply, put a leash on your dog and place a toy or a couple of kibble on the floor and practice walking by these temptations on a loose leash. Praise and reward, making sure you use treats that are higher in value that the item on the floor.
- Clicker Training, Go Ahead, Let Your Dog Sniff, retrieved from the web on August 7th, 2016
- The Other End of the Leash, Take Your Dog on a Sniff, retrieved from the web on August 7th, 2016