Usually when people bring a new dog in to their lives the first thing they teach is ‘sit’, while sit is a valuable skill there is another skill that is easier to teach. Teaching your dog to check in with you could be the best thing you do for your partnership. The check in simply means ‘look my way’ and be aware that we are walking together, it means your dog has to learn impulse control and turns walks in to thinking walks rather than mindless, uncontrollable behaviour.
When your dog checks in with you he should periodically stop what he is doing and look towards you, he does not have to ‘come’, sit or do anything else apart from glance your way, he does not even have to look at your face, dogs read the whole body when they need information, so a glance to your hands or legs is acceptable, especially if you use hand signals to communicate with your dog. Checking in should be taught on lead and off lead and can also be paired with distractions such as other dogs.
Teaching your dog to check in with you while off lead is vital to his safety and the safety of other park users. If you can establish a routine of having your dog check in with you while off lead walking them becomes so much easier because your level of control is far higher if your dog is mindful of where you are. Teaching an off lead check in is easy, start in a fenced or very safe and quiet area and either have your dog off lead or on a long line and simply toss some food at him every time he looks at you. As your dog improves you will only need to reward the check in every now and again. Be careful that you are not tossing food around while there are other dogs close by to prevent any fights. You should also feed your dog (from your hand) if he comes directly to you for a check in.
Teaching your dog on lead check in is done in just the same way as above, feed your dog when he turns to look at you. On lead check ins will help with pulling and helps with dogs who seem to be completely distracted by everything without thinking they are on lead with you on the other end. You can also play a check in game on lead by tossing some food on the ground, then as soon as your dog looks back to you toss another bit for him to find, repeat as many times as you like. This game is wonderful for dogs who are easily distracted, you can play this game anytime your dog is beginning to lose control of his impulses and you need to bring him back to a thinking frame of mind. It has the added bonus of encouraging nose work and dogs just love to find things to eat off the ground.
As your dog becomes better with check in’s in easy places you can begin to extend this out to more difficult scenarios such as approaching another dog. Set yourself and your dog up near an on lead walking track and as soon as your dog sees another dog in the distance take the food to their mouth and feed. At first your dog will not need to check in but what you should do after a few sessions is set him up to see a dog in the distance and without saying or doing anything simply wait for him to offer a check in and reward it when it happens. If the check in does not happen on its own you will need to move further away from the distraction.
With enough repetitions your dog will see another dog and automatically look at you anticipating food, you will then be able to get closer and closer to other dogs (or other distractions) in a calm and controlled way. Another nifty way of rewarding a check in is to release your dog off lead to interact with other dogs as soon as he checks in with you.
A complimentary skill to the check in is teaching a release word, please read my article on learning how to release your dog for more information on this.
When a check in has been learned it looks like magic, it’s an easy skill to teach and learn and holds an amazing amount of benefit. Get started on it today!