Trainer Annie Grossman of School for the Dogs, one of NYC’s most respected dog training centers, has plenty of wisdom to share with dog people. She covers common dog behavior questions and training tips in her weekly podcast. We’ll be sharing some of those responses right here in a regular feature!
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Today, Annie advises a pet owner whose dog refuses to walk with anyone but her.
Help! My Dog Won’t Walk with Anyone but Me If I’m Home
I have a seven-year-old mixed breed, Tilly, who has begun to refuse to go out for a walk with anyone else when I am home. I have a walker come in the evening around 9 p.m. because I am a single mother and have a one-year-old daughter who I can’t leave alone. However, recently, I have been forced to leave the dog walker home with my sleeping daughter and walk the dog myself.
I know that this specific dog walker is not the cause of this problem, because she has been walking Tilly since last year and the problem only began a couple of months ago. I also have a housekeeper who usually walks Tilly during the day, but if there’s a day when I stay home from work, Tilly now refuses to go out with her, too. If I am not home, Stacy will go out with both the walker and the housekeeper without fussing.
Tilly is a former stray who was badly abused before being rescued, so I’m aware that she has a lot of anxieties and fears. She is very affectionate, but she can be stubborn, and it seems to me that she’s simply decided that, if I am home, I am the one who should be taking her out. How can I make her understand that sometimes it’s just not feasible or practical for me to be the one walking her?
Lena of New York, NY
I can certainly appreciate how frustrating this situation must be! I wouldn’t invest too much time figuring out how to make her understand what’s reasonable. There is no set of magic words or hand signals you’re going to give Tilly to make her see things from your point of view. Likewise, we can’t know exactly why she has suddenly decided that she only wants to go with walks with you when you’re around. We might guess it has something to do with the normal vicissitudes of family life that come with a new baby, but who knows.
When we call someone “stubborn,” be it a human or a dog, it really just means that they’re acting in a way that makes it clear that what they want is more valuable to them than anything we have to offer. We tend to use the word “stubborn” in a demeaning way, but it’s really kind of cool that Tilly is able to communicate her preferences so clearly without language, isn’t it?
Since we’re thinking in terms of what she values, let’s try assigning points to things based on what we think she likes, on a scale from one to ten. Right now, when she is going out with the walker or housekeeper, she is getting the opportunity to relieve herself. That probably rates at least a 4 on the scale of things she enjoys. But she also really enjoys being with you, it seems, especially if you’re gone much of the day. So we’ll score that at around a 10.
10 is greater than 4… so staying inside with you wins.
Of course, since you know Tilly quite well, you can probably fill in numbers that may seem more accurate here. There are certainly other things that might affect the point values, like the weather, or how much she likes the person who is taking her out, but I bet the takeaway will be the same with whatever digits seem appropriate: when you’re not around, the point value involved with staying outside is probably less than 4, so she has some motivation to go outside.
When you’re around, it’s worth more to her to stay inside, which is why she is making it quite clear that she isn’t going to go out. I’m guessing that when she doesn’t go out when you want her to, she probably gets lectured and pulled to the door, and this probably only adds to more numbers in this equation being subtracted.
How to retrain your pet to walk with others
So how can we add positive numbers to this equation to help get the outcome we want? Like so many dog training conundrums, I think this comes down to figuring out how we can create some new and excellent associations that will help her become more enthusiastic about being outside with people other than you. The good news is that I think we can do this without a major disruption to anyone’s routine.
What I’d like you to do is to simply start having her take her meals outside.
Now, I don’t know what you’re currently feeding her, but to encourage the chances that this intervention will be quick and successful, I’d suggest you switch to something she is incredibly excited about, whether that’s something she’s had before or a new brand of food. If you’re feeding her a canned or dry food, switching to a fresher, less-processed food (be it something raw, frozen, dehydrated or homemade), will probably be enough of a change to rock her palate. Simply switching to anything new might be enough to get her excited– many dog owners are in the habit of feeding their dogs the same thing every day, and that can lead to boredom. On our negative ten point scale, I want you to think about how you’d currently rate her interest in her mealtimes, and then figure out how you can push that number towards the big ten.
Feeding her outside is going to be as simple as putting her food in a bowl, walking her to the closest corner, and putting the bowl down. (If you live on a busy street, make sure to find a tucked away spot where she can eat without any other dogs interrupting her, like between two parked cars or on a stoop). She should be excited about this new food, so I am going to guess she will eat it quickly, so you won’t be standing on the corner for ages.
For this training experiment, we don’t want to just feed her outside some of the time — we want her to eat as many of her meals as possible outside. For this reason, I’d suggest giving her three meals a day during this period. Eating a midday meal will probably also help her wait to eat until her walker comes in the late evening. These “meal walks” should be done, as much as possible, with people other than you. In fact, if you can rope in a neighbor to do a walk a day for a few weeks, or have your walker come for some extra visits, that’d be wise. However, you should do the “meal walks” too, as if you are serving her meals inside, it is only going to raise the point value of being inside with you, which is something we’re trying to devalue. But, you might consider giving her her old, more boring food when she’s on walks with you… this may help reduce the points associated with being outside with you.
The simple goal is to work to associate good things with being outside — especially with being outside with people other than you.
Mathematically, we had:
- Going outside with others: 4 (for joy of peeing/pooping)
- Going outside with others when you’re around: 4 – 10 (being away from you) = -6 (aka, stubbornness!)
- Going outside with you: 4 (for joy of peeing/pooping) + 10 (being with you) = 14
What we are going for is something more along the lines of:
- Going outside with others: 4 (for joy of peeing/pooping) + 10 (getting an excellent meal) = 14
By upping the instances of connection between other people walking her and food delivery, we are increasing their point value in an attempt to bring outings with others closer to a point value normally only associated with outings with you. By pairing you with the same-old-same-old food, we’re working to bring you closer down to the point level of outings as they are now with other people.
After a couple of weeks of this, you might be able to phase out some of the outside meals, once you’ve forged a strong enough association you may be able to just give meals outside occasionally. Or you may decide to stick with the routine if it hasn’t proven to be too much trouble.
Of course, there’s also another solution: Perhaps you just need a babysitter to come by instead, so you can walk the dog.