Q: My sweet but weird Jack Russell rescue, Zig, happily walks on grass and other surfaces but has a phobia of the cracks in the sidewalk, making walk-time difficult. How can I help him overcome this odd reaction to sidewalk cracks so we can go out and about together?”—Cracked in Cambridge
A:Perhaps Zig is training for the next reality show, Dancing with Dogs!
Many charming dogs like Zig exhibit surface phobias. For some,a lack of early exposure can lead to anxieties with new sensations under paw. In other cases, just like us, some dogs simply have quirky preferences.
Whatever the cause for these jitters, we need to motivate Zig,build his confidence and help him realize the sidewalk is a place where good things happen.
Supplies: One hungry Zig, one bag of treats, one out-of-this world-fun toy, and one happy, motivated owner.
Food motivation: Many wise trainers have said, “The route to a dog’s brain is through his belly.” To increase Zig’s overall motivation and eagerness to pay attention to you, use his daily food rations(marinated in something delicious) as rewards during your sidewalk jaunts.
Toy motivation: Purchase a brand new toy that you know will send Zig orbiting. Put the toy in a drawer where he cannot access it. A few times daily for one week, turn on your happiest voice as you pull out the toy. Toss it in the air (you catch it—not him) and play with it for 30 seconds or so. Allow Zig a very brief sniff of the toy, before quickly returning it to the drawer and continuing with your routine as normal. Zig will learn that life is good when that toy is around!
Taking it to the streets: Keep your sessions short and sweet to begin, working at a level where Zig is clearly comfortable. If you do your work properly, he shouldn’t even realize he’s crossing over cracks.
Treats in hand and toy in pocket, take Zig outdoors on leash.During each session, you are going to interchange between playing mini sessions of tug and encouraging Zig to follow as you briskly walk along.
The second you hit the sidewalk, turn on your happy voice and pull out the toy. Dangle the toy, inviting Zig to a game of tug.Offer praise the entire time, as Zig tugs the toy while trotting 10-15steps over a few cracks. Keeping the forward momentum, offer Ziga treat in exchange for him to release the toy. Quickly put the toy away as you say “follow me,” and continue to jaunt along quickly. Reward Zig with treats and continued praise every few steps while crossing over cracks.
After 10-15 steps, allow Zig another tug session with the toy. Repeat bouncing back and forth between tug sessions and “follow me” during each walk.
If you are not up for tug and “follow me,”do not walk on the sidewalk. Sidewalk time is happy training time!
Gradually over the weeks, as Zig becomes more comfortable cruising over those pesky cracks, you will slowly decrease the number of rewards and tug sessions during each walk. Eventually,a tug session and reward will be earned at the end of a long and leisurely stroll.