It’s that time of year in New England: daylight is limited, snow is plentiful, visibility is sometimes poor, and hunters are out. It’s a good time to take a few safety precautions on behalf of yourself and your dog. (And if you’re reading this in the summer, it’s a good time to make preparations for the winter!)
It’s the middle of winter: snow blocks the sidewalks or narrows roads where there are no sidewalks. It’s dark in the morning or the evening when you walk your dog. And some of the motorists driving past might be driving to or from holiday parties or the mall, where they might be a little tipsy or extra distracted and stressed out. And if you’re in a rural area, people are out hunting deer.
It’s a good time of year for visibility gear for you and your dog!
Blaze Orange or Hunter Orange Vests are my favorite dog gear.
– Hunters look for blaze orange (also called hunter orange) before they shoot. If your dog is wearing blaze orange, he is a lot less likely to be mistaken for a bear or deer and accidentally shot. (I mention bears because my last three dogs have been Bouviers des Flandres, which are often mistaken for black bears by the general public!)
– Most blaze orange vests also include reflective strips that catch the light from headlights. This alerts drivers that there is something there they need to watch for!
– Dogs come to associate their blaze orange vest with walks. So even a dog who doesn’t start out liking wearing a vest will eventually view it as a signal that fun is on the way.
– Wardrobe flexibility. There are fleece or flannel visibility vests for winter wear, mesh or lightweight nylon for summer wear. You can even find blaze orange dog raincoats or snuggies!
– Vests provide more coverage than a blaze orange collar, leash, strobe, or bandanna, making them easier to see. This is especially important for big dogs, dark dogs, and very hairy dogs whose fur might cover a visibility collar.
– Vests or coats last a long time. After a few years, the fabric fades and needs to be replaced, but one or two blaze orange vests often last for the lifetime of my dog. It’s worth the investment!
Check out these pictures of my dogs, below, which were taken in the daylight and with good visibility. How much harder would they be to see in poor light without these vests?
Sure, when it’s a black dog on a light background, as in this picture of Barnum on the frozen pond, he’s very easy to see….
But what how much more visible is Gadget in his blaze orange winter-weight fleece vest among the trees? (Readers of After Gadget, might recognize this picture from the blog header.)
Here’s Barnum on the same day and just a short distance away from that picture of running on the ice….
Dog Lights and Strobes
My second-favorite visibility item for dogs is a flashing light. A flashing light really stands out in the dark in the country. Just be aware that if your dog is very furry or shaggy, a light might not show up as well because it can be “muffled” by their fur. On the downside, a light eventually either runs out of battery power or breaks. A vest lasts much longer.
Here are a random assortment of pet lights:
Other visibility gear for dogs
That being said, if a vest or coat isn’t right for your dog, there are also bandannas, collars and leashes, and a host of other visibility gear for dogs. Here’s a variety of handmade blaze orange dog gear on etsy. If you have a hard-to-fit dog, there are great custom dog gear resources.
Safety for the OTHER End of the Leash (YOU!)
People need to be safe in the low light, too. Especially if your dog is off leash, you won’t be visible even if your dog is. I often call my dog over to me if a car is coming. I want us both to be visible!
My favorite safety items for me are
- A high-visibility mesh vest that I can fit over even my bulkiest winter parka or my summer T-shirt. Something like one of these. There are a slew of visibility vests for humans online.
- A small LED flashlight that has a wrist strap. I keep it clipped to my keys. If I think it might get dark during my walk, I slip it into my pocket or around my wrist. When a car is coming, I turn it on and let it swing from my hand. (I like to buy several at once and give them to my friends.)
Train for Safety!
You cannot control what other people do. You can control what your dog does. The tips below will help you and your dog build communication skills to keep your dog safer on walks. The one I spend the most time on is the recall because that’s the most important thing for your dog to know to be safe on a walk.
Recall (Coming When Called)
If you walk your dog off leash, the most important skill you can teach is a strong recall (coming when called). If your dog does not always come eagerly and consistently when you call, you will want to pick a new word or phrase as your recall cue.
There is more than one way to train a great recall, but the sure-fire ways to ruin a strong recall are universal.
What not to do…
These are the four things you must never do if you want your dog to have a strong recall on a walk, or anywhere else. The first is the most important.
- Never make the dog sorry she came. This means never call the dog and do something she dislikes. Don’t call her and then yell at her for coming too slowly or put the medication in her ear she hates or give her a bath or put her in her crate so you can go to work.(If you need to crate your dog, bathe her, put medicine in her ear, etc., go to her and lead her to the tub or crate. Do not call her over. Or, if you must call her in from the yard, first reward her heavily and then wait at least five or ten minutes, ignoring her, before you go and get her — don’t call her — and do the unpleasant thing.)
- Don’t call her unless you are 99 percent certain she will come! Training is built on successes. You practice calling her over and over so she learns to always come. This is training for the eventual day when she is running into the street and you need to call her. If you call her, and she doesn’t come, you have just done one training session teaching her to ignore your recall cue.
- Don’t repeat your recall cue in the hope that it will get her to come the third or eighth time. Say your recall cue is “Maggie, come!” If you end up saying, “Maggie come. Come! Come here, dammit!” Eventually you will have to say “Maggie come. Come! Come here, dammit!” every time to get her to come.
- Never make your dog sorry he came — from the dog’s point of view! This means not only don’t do things you know your dog doesn’t like when you call him, but also don’t do things he doesn’t LOVE, especially when calling him away from things he does love.For example, often people praise their dog and pat them on the head when they come. A lot of dogs don’t care that much about praise. Sure, they like it OK, but will they leave a squirrel or a pile of horse poop or another dog for praise? Probably not. Also, most dogs don’t like being petted on the head. You think you are doing something the dog should enjoy, but your dog doesn’t agree. You have to make coming to you worthwhile from your dog’s perspective. When you call your dog, you want their perspective to be that they have just won the doggy lottery.
Make Your Recall Word Marvelous
I like to use classical conditioning for recalls. This means that you make a positive association for the dog between a really happy event and their recall word. For most dogs, the most exciting part of the day is their meal. If there is anything else your dog is overjoyed about (such as going for a ride in the car), you can pair it with that, too.
For the first three weeks, every time you are about to feed your dog, say his recall word right before you put his food bowl down. Remember that if your dog already has a lackluster recall word, you want to pick a brand new cue that he has no associations with for this training. (With my second service dog, Gadget, his new recall word was “porcupine.” I wanted a word I could think of easily if he was racing toward a porcupine!)
For example, if your lackluster recall word has been “come,” instead of saying “Peppy, come!” when you put down Peppy’s food bowl, you will be using “here,” as in “Peppy, here!”
So, every day for three weeks, you will ONLY say, “Peppy, here!” when you are putting Peppy’s bowl down. If you feed twice a day, you will be doing two repetitions a day. It doesn’t matter if Peppy is standing right there next to you, about to dive into his bowl, before you say it. You are not actually calling him right now. Right now you are teaching Peppy that Marvelous Things Happen for Peppy When I Say the Magic Word.
For these three weeks, DON’T say, “Peppy, here” when you’re calling him to come. Keep using your old lackluster come cue for now. Peppy doesn’t know that what “Here” means yet.
If there is something else Peppy is completely wild about, such as getting a nightly Greenie or bully stick or going for a ride in the car, you can say, “Peppy, here!” right before you hand over the bully stick or as you open the car door. Don’t pair it with anything that is not like Christmas morning for your dog.
Start Using Your New Recall Word in the House Only
Now you are going to teach Peppy that coming when you say this word makes the Doggy Lottery pay off. To do this, get 30 small pieces of Peppy’s favorite food. Not dog food. Not kibble. Use hot dogs, cheese, hamburger, liverwurst, roasted chicken. Stuff your dog does not normally get to eat. It should be moist people food that is equivalent to $100 bills for him. They can be the size of an M&M or smaller.
Take nine pieces of this fabulous food when Peppy is in the house, and you’re sure he will come. Say, “Peppy, here!” And praise as he runs to you. When he gets to you, praise him to the heavens and give him the nine treats one after the other, praising him the whole time.
Then you’ll need to get him away from you so you can call again. Toss one treat a few feet from you and as he finishes slurping it up, say, “Peppy, here!” again. Praise him like wild again and give him nine treats in a row again.
Do that one more time and end. Do not repeat it until he gets full or bored or distracted. You want to end when he is thinking, “This is the best game EVER. I want to play this ALL DAY.”
Repeat this in different parts of the house at least once a day for the next week. Sometimes do three repetitions. Sometimes do one. Sometimes do four. Dogs can keep count, so you don’t want it to be the same every time. Just keep it short and make sure the treats are fabulous and plentiful.
Start Adding Low-Level Distractions
Now make it just a tiny bit harder. For example, if you take Peppy for an off-leash run at the park everyday, do not try to call him when you first let him off leash and he’s super excited to run off. Instead, do almost your whole run and then, when he’s tired and not terribly interested in anything else that’s happening, call him with your new recall word. When he gets to you, SHOWER HIM WITH PRAISE AND FANTASTIC TREATS. You did bring your 10 pieces of hot dog or cheese with you, right?
Then, release him to go run around some more. This is important. You do not want coming to you to mean, “The fun’s over. We’re leaving now.”
Over time, continue to practice coming when called, following these steps:
- Call your dog only when you are sure she’ll come.
- Praise her the moment she looks at you or starts running to you.
- When she gets to you, give her really fantastic food.
- If you called her away from something she enjoys, release her back to doing that thing some more.
Continue this for the lifetime of your dog! You will have a very strong recall!
If you don’t want to always carry hot dogs or cheese around with you, you can reward your dog with other good things when you call. Throw the ball if he’s a fetch enthusiast. Pull out the tug rope if he loves to tug. But keep in mind that to keep the recall strong, you need to make it pay off really well, so use it sparingly and pay off really big one way or another. One day, when you absolutely need the recall, you want your dog to have lots and lots of experiences of knowing that coming when you call is the best choice he can possibly make.
Sit on a Walk or at a Distance
Another behavior I use a lot for walks is “sit.” I usually train my dogs to come to me and sit if a car is coming. I live in a rural area with few cars, so this usually only happens two or three times during an hour-long walk. A dog who is sitting can’t also be chasing cars or eating garbage. This gives you some control over the dog until things are safe again.
A lot of dogs know what “sit” means when they’re in the house, but they don’t know the game is the same outside. Bring some really tasty treats (hot dogs, cheese, roast beef, broken up pizza crust) on your walk. When your dog is already paying attention to you and is nearby, ask her to sit. If she does, praise and give her a piece of delicious food. If she doesn’t, don’t repeat the cue. Instead, lure her into a sit by holding the food right above her nose and pulling it back toward her eyes. Her nose will follow it up, and her butt will go down. Praise and give her the food. Do this twice more and then switch to asking for the sit and then praising and giving the treats.
Ask for a sit two or three times each time you go for a walk. Always pay up with something delicious.
Over time, you can start asking for a sit when she’s looking at you and is a foot away. Praise quietly, walk toward her, pop the treat in her mouth, and release her to run around some more. When she’s good at that, increase your distance little by little — two feet, then three feet. Eventually, you can ask her to sit when she’s 20 feet away, praise quietly as you walk to her, feed her, and release her. This is a really useful safety tool if you need her to stay put while a car or bear goes by!
Enjoy your winter walks!
There’s lots more you can train on walks to make them more interesting, safer, and more enriching for you and your dog. These are important first steps. How about you? What skills do you think are essential for winter walks — in the country, the suburbs, or the city?