How to Calm a Dog Down on a Walk

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It was the best dog walk I ever had. Strolling along with my dog, the sun on my face and a gentle breeze in the air, greeting passing dog owners while our dogs joyfully sniffed each other and tried to play. Sigh. All was right with the world. I didn’t need to know how to calm a dog down on a walk, it just happened. Naturally.

Then my alarm clock went off. . . SHOOT. Back to reality.

Because I don’t get to have calm dog walks. E-VER. The best-case scenario for me is a mostly calm dog walk solely because we got lucky and didn’t see anyone else out walking. But even those have an undercurrent of worry as you scan the horizon and around every corner, waiting for someone to come into view.

Can you relate? If you have an anxious, reactive, or just plain excitable dog, you know what I’m talking about. And you realize how important it is to know how to calm a dog down when you are out and about.

So, I thought this week I would talk about 3 dog training commands that have made my walks more enjoyable. If I’m more honest: these commands have saved my butt on numerous occasions and turn potentially yucky situations into training triumphs.

Dog Commands: Don’t Forget the Basics

This goes without saying, but just in case: before you attempt the intermediate level dog commands in this article, you need to have the basic commands mastered.

If you find training these commands takes forever, read about clicker training your dog. This method makes training so much faster and more efficient.

Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell

Essential Dog Command #1: Watch

I first read about the “Watch” command in Patricia McConnell and Karen London’s book Feisty Fido. Here’s the gist: you train your dog to walk along next to you (or sit) with his eyes glued to your face. He is focused on executing the command and receiving the high value yummy treat he knows will come if he keeps watching you instead of the scary (or exciting/distracting) person or dog off in the distance.

As he becomes better at watching he becomes more relaxed about the scary thing, and you can gradually pass scary things at closer and closer distances. Eventually said dog starts forgetting to be nervous about passing people and dogs; his emotional response changes from fear to treat anticipation.

Dog demonstrating dog command "Watch" from Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt
photo by Justin Veenem

Although most of the time I never have the storybook success with commands that you read about in books, I actually experience movie-like success with this command:

Wilson was an 8 year old golden retriever we adopted from a pound in Michigan. After a month of picture-perfect walks (I call this “the honeymoon phase”), Wilson started barking and lunging at passersby. I couldn’t figure it out, but I needed to do something because it got worse and worse.

I had read Feisty Fido for a previous dog’s issues, and I decided to give the “Watch” command a try. It was amazing. A few weeks into our training, Wilson started licking his lips and drooling (not a stressed lip lick, but a looking-at the-treat-pack-because-he-knew-what-game-we-were-going-to-play lip lick). 

Before a month was up, I could walk past oncoming people just by moving off the trail a little to give him space. By month 2, we could walk right by people on the sidewalk. If the people wanted to stop and talk, Wilson was happy as a clam to hang out and get treats – especially when the new person would drop them.

For Wilson, with his unique background and fears, this command was the perfect tool to help him relax and helped to change his emotional response to oncoming people from fear to happy anticipation.

Essential Dog Command #2: Look at That

As an owner, you don’t just need to know how to calm a dog down on a walk, you need to know how to calm YOUR dog down.

What you will find as you experiment with different dog commands on walks is that different commands work for different dogs.

Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt

“Look at That,” from Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt, is the perfect example. For some dogs, not looking at the approaching scary thing (person, dog, etc) actually increases their stress level. This is not hard to understand: if you know there is a big scary clown behind you that might sneak up and grab you, you want to keep an eye on the big scary clown, right? As long as you can keep checking to make sure it’s keeping its distance, you feel much calmer.

Some dogs feel the same way, and “Look at That” is the perfect dog training game for them.

In a nutshell, “Look at That” is a game in which you ask the dog to look at the thing that is scaring or distracting them and then look back at you for a reward. At the beginning you click (mark the correct behavior, see clicking training article) when your dog first looks at the object. As you progress, you click when the dog looks back to you after seeing the object.

Dog demonstrating "Look At That" Dog Command by Leslie McDevitt
Photo by Mircea Lancu

Pretty soon, you will be walking along, and when you see an object in the distance you will alert your dog to it and start playing the game. Meaning, you will say “Hey, Rose – where’s the dog?” and Rose will immediately scan the horizon until she sees the dog, then turn back towards you excitedly for her yummy reward.

The goal is to change their emotional response.

This game is a much better fit for my two current dogs. Trying to “Watch” me with an incoming person or dog sends their stress level through the roof. But, playing a game that lets them check on the location of the object of apprehension results in lower stress levels and few to no embarrassing barking/lunging incidents. To better illustrate what this looks like, here is a video that shows a dog playing “Look at That.”

I haven’t had textbook level responses to this game; this illustrates the important fact that success for every dog is different.

Success may not mean your dog turns into a “normal” dog that you can take anywhere. Success may mean you can exit a bad situation much more gracefully and keep your dog under threshold (i.e. keep your dog from barking like a lunatic). It may mean decreasing the distance you can successfully pass another dog from 300 yards to 50 yards.

Take my dog Rose for example:

Rose came from a hoarding situation: 50+ dogs in an abandoned house, no people, and food sporadically scattered on the floor. To survive dogs had to fight for their food; it was each for its own.

About 3 months after we began fostering her (yep, honeymoon period again), Rose started barking and lunging at other dogs. I tried a variety of training tools, including the “Watch” command, but Rose was too worried about the dogs she could see to successfully execute the commands I was trying.

Then I read about the “Look at That” game in Leslie McDevitt’s book Control Unleashed. My daughter and I taught it to Rose, and started seeing positive results. My daughter was doing agility with Rose, and used the command when sitting on the sidelines while other dogs ran the course. I used it on walks and saw the distance I could successfully be from other dogs decrease dramatically.

At a certain point, however, progress slowed then stopped. It became obvious that there was a limit to the progress Rose could make.

And I began to understand that as an owner, sometimes instead of looking for ways to make my dog fit my vision of successful training, I needed to change my vision of what success was for Rose.

Rose won’t ever be able to walk past other dogs on the walking trail. But we don’t have to be very far away (5 to 10 feet), and if we’re surprised most of the time our training games help us successfully do an about turn and get out of the situation before she makes a big scene.

Still a training success. And I need to remember that.

Essential Dog Command #3: U-turn

The U-turn is another training tool from Feisty Fido. As the name implies, you choose a cue word and teach your dog that hearing it means “Quick! We’re going to play the turn-around-really-fast-and-go-the-other-way-game!” (this is a direct quote from Feisty Fido that makes me smile every time I read it)

surprised dog

Before I talk about the command, I want to emphasize how important your attitude/energy is for this one. When you are on a walk, turn a corner, and someone is right there, your gut reaction is “Oh @@@@!” So if you say your cue word with that energy behind it, your dog will hear “oh @@@@!,” think “oh @@@@!,” and explode into a barking maniac.  Trust me – I know this because I’ve done it.

So step one (which isn’t necessarily covered in the book) is to make sure even though deep down you’re thinking “I am SO sunk” you are going to do an Emmy nominated performance in which your energy says “Oh BOY! We get to play this fun GAME again! Woo-hooooo let’s do it!”

Now that we have that covered, the next step is to choose your cue word. Suggestions in the book include “This Way!,” “Let’s Go!,” “Now!,” and “Turn!”

Over time (and with steps detailed in the book), you will teach your dog to turn and head the other way on a dime, at which point you will give him a treat making it totally worth his while as well as praising him for doing such a great job.

Don’t forget: If you only use it when you need it, it won’t work!

Now, here is the really really important part. Once you teach your dog this command, use it on every walk, multiple times, when there are NO dogs/people around the corner. I call this “crying wolf.”

Why? When I first taught my dog this command, after mastering it we only used it when needed. So, 100% of the time I used this command there was a scary dog or person nearby. The result? Eventually, if I saw an impending person or dog and told my dog to turn, he would start scanning around because he knew that command meant there was something scary nearby. Oops.

Now I use the command on every walk. Multiple times. Especially near corners where once in a while we might have a surprise encounter. And my dog has stopped scanning when he hears it, because he has learned by a LOT of crying wolf sessions that the command just means we’re changing direction and there are high value treats if he comes my way.

dog running to owner
photo by Russell Bande

A Little Food For the Dog Owner’s Soul

Don't Dump the Dog by Randy Grim

I want to include a bonus tip, but it is not a dog command or dog walking tip. It’s a book recommendation, meant to fill your reserve back up at night so you are ready to try your hardest at tips #1-3 the next day.

The book, called Don’t Dump the Dog, is written by Randy Grim, founder of Stray Rescue in St. Louis, MO. Grim has a dry sense of humor that frequently had me laughing out loud as I read the book.

I stumbled onto the book after working with someone from Stray Rescue to coordinate a rescue dog transport, and spent the next week laughing and crying every evening as I read this book.

The stories in the book not only lightened my mood but gave me perspective at the end of the day. Some of the dog issues Grim deals with were sobering enough that my dog’s issues didn’t seem so overwhelming anymore, and the humor through which he could reframe each situation reminded me of the importance of finding ways to laugh at your situation.

Now That I Know How to Calm a Dog Down on a Walk, Will My Walks Be Less Stressful?

Definitely! But you need to be willing to put in the time and work.

Grab your clicker and train like crazy– dog commands only work if the dog understands them.

Choose the right command for the right dog and the right situation. Observe your dog. If you try the “Watch” command and it’s not working well, maybe your dog is one of those dogs that needs to know where the scary object is and will be more successful with the “Look at That” game.

Know what distance you need for your dog to be successful, and when you need to abort and use the “U-turn” retreat.

You choosing the correct command & distance = success for your dog = calmer dog walks. 

Calm dog walk
photo by Sven Lachmann

What Dog Commands Have Worked For You?

These three dog commands are only a smattering of the training tools out there that can help facilitate calm dog walks.

Tell us what has worked for you in the comments below. Reference the website or book if you can, so the rest of us can learn about it. The more dog training tools we have, the better.

Here’s to calm dog walks, happy natural dogs, and content dog owners!



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Karen Pedersen Written by:

Karen is an independent copywriter who loves dogs and everything about them. She is married to Scott, has 4 kids, and likes to take a natural and holistic approach to living and pet ownership.

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