There’s this giant mistake I see my clients making all the time. It’s such a simple fix and yet so few of them know about it. It’s weird though, because every dog trainer I know would make this one of the first things they train. So what is this big mistake? What’s the secret we’ve all been hiding?
We teach our dogs a check in.
What is a check in?
Well, it simply means we teach our dogs to regularly and reliably look at us on walks and ‘check in’ with what we want from them. It’s that simple. But, you see, it can solve a whole host of problems.
Why should you teach one?
When you take off your dog’s lead, do they go haring off into the distance and become completely oblivious to your existence? Do they run up to every single dog or person they see? Do you feel like they aren’t even on a walk with you most of the time?
You see, teaching your dog to check-in is actually about teaching them that you are where all the fun stuff happens, so being near you is the most fun place to be. If you become the centre of their whole universe when their lead comes off, you’ll find it much easier to avoid your dog getting into bother.
How do you teach a check in?
My dogs look at me roughly once every 10 - 15 seconds on a walk, just to see what I’m up to and whether I want anything from them.
Step One: Get Ready
Prepare your dog’s all time favourite snacks. I recommend chunks of chicken or JR Pet Products Pate. You’ll need lots of it. No seriously, however much you just pictured: double it. In fact, triple it. There you go. You might be tempted to use your dog's kibble or store bought biscuits for this training, but I promise you'll be more effective if you invest in good quality treats.
Now you’ll also probably want a decent treat pouch because you are going to want to access all of that yummy food nice and quickly. Lots of people put a little sandwich bag in their pocket and say ‘that will do’. I promise, you don’t want to be one of those people. It’s fiddly and you’ll struggle to get to the treats and end up muttering: ‘Damn it! I should have listened and bought a treat pouch’. The Doggone Good one is great, but even better is The Trainer’s Pouch because it is easier to wash up.
Step Two: Location. Location. Location
You’ll need to head out for a walk with your dog to start this training, but the ‘where?’ is very important. You want to pick somewhere quiet, with minimal distractions. Ideally, this place should also be somewhere your dog is already familiar with. The Facebook group Dog Walks In & Around Somerset has some great ideas to get you started if you don't know any quiet walks. I also love the apps All Trails and OS Maps for finding new walks.
I can promise you one thing: the beach on a sunny Saturday afternoon is absolutely not the place to start this training.
Step Three: Reward Everything
Head out on your walk with your pup. Every time your dog looks at you, I want you to throw one of those very tasty treats at them. Yes, you read that right. Every. Single. Time. I told you that you’d need lots of treats, didn’t I? You want to build a really strong association that looking at you = good things. Don’t worry, you won’t be throwing treats out like Oprah forever; this is just the starting point.
Now, I want to highlight a very important word: throw. I want you to be throwing the treats at your dog. If every time they look at you, you expect them to come right back to you and sit politely to wait for the treat, they’ll start looking at you less, not more. You’ll have turned yourself into the fun police. Remember, the game here is to be exciting. So, when they look your way, give your pup an excited ‘nice one’ and then throw a big chunk of yummy at them. Even better, scatter five pieces in some long grass and hunt for it together. Honestly, sometimes I shout ‘BINGO’ and throw ten treats in the air, letting them scatter all over the place for my dog to excitedly hunt out.
Step Four: Your Shadow
Before you do this step, I want your dog to be annoyingly clingy. You aren’t ready for the next part of the training until you have had more than five walks in different locations where your dog is so obsessed with this new game that they are all but walking backwards, staring at you.
Okay, so your dog is now your shadow and they are ignoring everyone and everything but you. Great work! Now we can gradually reduce how many treats you are feeding them.
Hold up. Don’t put the treat pouch on Facebook Marketplace and make yourself a leftover chicken salad just yet. We can’t go from treating our pup every time to nothing overnight. Honestly, this is the part where your training is most fragile, so please don’t rush.
I want you to start throwing out the treat every other time, instead of every time. Do that for at least five walks. Then go down to treating your dog one third of the times they look at you. Are you getting it here? Over several weeks you will reduce your rewards down to one in ten times. Once you get there, you may also want to switch things up and sometimes reward your pup with a ball throw or short game of tug too. You can get amazing and engaging toys from Tug-e-Nuff and you can even use our code KITCANINE for 10% off at the checkout.
Step Five: Maintenance
You’ve put in all this lovely work, and now your dog looks at you frequently, hoping that they might just get some extra fun for their efforts. They are ignoring other dogs more easily and they no longer greet every person you pass. Look at what you did! Now please, don’t break it.
The fastest way to undo all of this incredible work is to stop rewarding your dog. It’s great to reduce how often you pay your dog for checking in with you, but if you go down too far, it will stop being rewarding for them and they’ll remember how great it is to ignore you and wander off.
When do I need a trainer?
Sometimes, despite you following the training plan to the letter, your pup might not be making any progress with their check-in. That could be a for a few key reasons.
If your dog is hyper-focused on their environment, constantly scanning the horizon, you will probably need to do some work on calming them down and making them feel more comfortable before you can address the check-in. The same thing goes if your dog is incredibly fearful, unable to take food at all, or reacting to other dogs.
If your dog is struggling, it’s a good idea to book in with a professional trainer who can help get to the bottom of why and then work with you to resolve it.