Does your dog’s reaction toward bunnies or other animals appears so over-the-top that getting it under control seems about as possible as your one day walking on Mars? When I tell clients that it truly is possible to help our dogs learn to use self control and respond to us despite these monstrous distractions, some people look at me as if I have lost touch with reality. I understand that this possibility is difficult to imagine.

For anyone who has met Romeo and seen his reaction to bunnies and squirrels, they might have thought the same thing about him. Keeping control of him when he spotted a bunny used to take all my strength and focus! I had a few bruises and scratches along the way and a near mud bath spa treatment compliments of Romeo. Fortunately, no major injuries, like my client who ended up with a broken collar bone when her three on-leash dogs decided to pursue a fox who crossed their path.

It has taken a lot of effort, training and patience to get where we are now. (July 2012) Where is that?  Let me walk you through some of our experiences on our walks within the last week.

Experience #1:  Romeo spots a bunny 10-20 feet away. Bunny takes off. Romeo stands and  watches. When I say, “let’s go” and walk away in the other direction, Romeo goes with me. Romeo was off leash.

Experience #2:  Romeo is off leash and up ahead of me. A bunny takes off and Romeo takes off in hot pursuit before I realize the bunny is there. I call to Romeo to “check in” and he discontinues his pursuit, sniffs the bunny scent trail for a few seconds, and returns to me to check in.

Experience #3:  He has seen deer before, but has either been on leash or much farther away. So this was a big test we had not encountered before.

Romeo is off leash and ahead of me. We are walking through thick scrub oak. I look up and realize there is a deer standing no more than 20-30 feet away from Romeo, and they both are looking at each other. The buck takes off running. Romeo does not pursue, but rather waits for me to catch up and we continue our walk.

Experience #4: This was an even bigger test than the deer, and one I was hoping we would not have to test. Although we have coyotes in the area, Romeo has never seen them. Until now. Romeo is off leash ahead of me. Romeo barks. I look up and see a coyote not more than 30 feet away from Romeo. The coyote takes off, and Romeo takes off in hot pursuit. Yikes! I yell, “Wait!” and “Romeo, check in!” Romeo comes off his pursuit and returns to me. After I take a moment to recuperate from a near heart-attack, we continue on our walk.

Any of these situations could have had a very different outcome in the past. With the combination of greater maturity (at 3 years old) and training (lots and lots of it!) Romeo is getting better and better at responding to his training cues more and more reliably despite major distractions. He’s also making better choices on his own – as was the case with the deer, when he made the choice to wait without me saying anything.

Although I hope that you never encounter some of these real-life tests, if you do, I hope you have prepared your dog for them. S/he can’t do it on her/his own and can’t be expected to respond the way you want without having had plenty of your help preparing for them.