When you take your dog for a walk, who is that walk for?
Both of you?
Here are some profiles of dog walks that I often see occurring in my neighborhood.
Stop That Sniffing!
Dogs experience the world largely through olfaction (smell). Compared to our six million olfactory receptors in the human nose, dogs have an astounding 300 million olfactory receptors to pick up odors in the environment. Furthermore, dogs allocate approximately 40 times as much space in their brain to analyzing smells as humans do. So, while humans primarily survey their surroundings with their eyes, it’s not an exaggeration to say that dogs primarily see the world through smells.
This explains why your dog may be so excited to smell everything on your walk! I like to call it “reading the pee-mail” (not all that different from how you check your email). Your dog is gathering information about the environment: who was here, and how long ago? How old are they? Are they sick or healthy? Neutered or intact? These are all things your dog can tell by smelling the environment.
Interestingly, I see a lot of people who immediately drag their dog forward on leash as soon as they begin to sniff something on a walk. No sniffs allowed! This walk is for walking only!
While I understand that dog owners cannot allow their dog to sniff forever (lest they never make it home), I would encourage owners to allow their dogs some time to sniff. Sniffing provides enrichment for your dog, both mentally and emotionally. Sniffing can help calm your dog and relieve stress. I recommend that owners teach a dog a cue, such as “Let’s go!” to indicate that it is time to stop sniffing and walk forward. This way, you can allow your dog to sniff the environment, but cue them “Let’s go!” when you need to get moving so you can get to work on time!
The Perfect Heeler
Having a dog with nice leash manners is fantastic! However, sometimes I see owners take this to the extreme, demanding their dog stay in a perfect heel at their side for the entire walk, and harshly correcting the dog should the dog step out of heel position.
While heeling is an excellent skill to have, it is not reasonable or prudent to demand your dog remain in a heel for the entire walk. It is reasonable to expect your dog to walk on a loose leash without pulling your arm out of its socket, but expecting your dog to maintain a formal heel is very restricting.
Firstly, your dog cannot access all of those important smells mentioned in the previous section when your dog is heeling. Secondly, a very restrictive walk in this manner may add to your dog’s stress and build frustration, which is likely the opposite of what you were trying to achieve with a walk. Third, for dogs who have been taught to look up at their owner while heeling, this position is physiologically difficult for a dog to maintain over long periods of time (imagine the neck ache you would get if you had to constantly look up at a fixed point while walking everywhere!) Finally, it is simply unrealistic for most dogs to constantly remain in a heel position for the entire walk, every walk, regardless of the distraction level present. An owner might actually be degrading the quality of their cue by setting the bar far too high and constantly setting the dog up for failure.
If you have taught your dog to heel, feel free to practice it several times over the course of your walks, but don’t expect Fido to maintain this position indefinitely.
This is the dog lunging, barking, and frothing at the mouth at the end of his leash whenever he sees another dog (or man with a beard, or bicycle, etc.) go by.
One inclination that many people have is to try to exercise a Reactive Rover more with the hope that tiring the dog out will reduce reactivity. While this can sometimes be true, for many dogs, having the opportunity to practice being reactive over and over again can actually make the behavior worse. In addition, if a Reactive Rover is getting to practice all that barking and lunging, science shows us that this kind of stress can elevate their cortisol levels, and that it can take multiple days for cortisol levels to return to baseline. In other words, for some Reactive Rovers, playing a game of fetch in the backyard may actually be better for them physically and mentally than going for a walk where they spend much of the time being reactive.
Another common feeling among owners of reactive dogs is embarrassment. Some people don’t even want to walk their dogs because they feel ashamed by the way their dog acts, and feel like other people are judging them. This is also unfortunate, because the dog is not getting the exercise and enrichment it could be on walks, and if it isn’t getting exercise somehow, often the dog’s needs aren’t being met, and the dog can grow increasingly frustrated.
If you are a reactive dog owner reading this, don’t give up! Check out positive methods based Reactive Rover classes in your community and/or work with a private trainer to help your reactive rover. Many dogs can improve and become less reactive with time, patience, and training.
If you are watching a rover be reactive, try not to be too judgmental of that other dog owner. Don’t immediately assume that it is the owner’s fault. Perhaps they recently adopted a dog that has behavior issues, and they are already working on the problem. There can also be a strong heritable component to reactivity, with many anxious and fearful dogs acting reactive to increase distance between themselves and a stimulus that they find to be scary. Know that they are likely already very aware of their dog’s behavior, and they are likely doing the very best that they can.
Along for the Ride
While the main reason that most people take their dogs for a walk is for the dog’s well-being, it’s reasonable for the human at the other end of the leash to have a safe and comfortable experience, too! When I see dogs dragging their owners down the sidewalk, it makes me cringe, both for the dog, and for the owner. This is unpleasant for the owner, and it can also be bad for the dog: pulling can cause physiological stress on the dog’s body, and can cause harm over long periods of time.
Why do some dogs pull? In a nutshell, dogs find exploring their environment very reinforcing: they really like it! Pulling is the fastest way for them to get there. If a puppy or dog notices that if she pulls strongly towards an object (hello, fire hydrant!) and that allows her to get their faster, this has reinforced the pulling behavior, and taught the dog that pulling is a great way to get to those fascinating things in the environment faster!
The good news is, you don’t have to resign yourself to having dreadful walks with your dog!
I don’t recommend walking most dogs on a typical buckle collar or martingale. Many dogs pull at least to some extent, and these collars can damage structures in a dog’s throat and neck over time. Needless to say, despite what some trainers and websites will tell you, devices such as “choke collars” and “prong collars” can absolutely cause damage to dogs, and are not humane training tools. There are better tools and techniques out there to teach your friend not to pull!
First of all, there are some wonderful humane training tools out there that can help you with a pulling dog. There are several types of front-attach harnesses available, such as the Wonder Walker or Easy Walk harness. The Perfect Fit harness is another tool gaining traction, and can be custom ordered to fit almost any shape of dog. While harnesses that connect to a leash in the back engage the dog’s opposition reflex and actually encourage pulling, a front-attach harness makes pulling more difficult.
For dogs who are exceptionally strong or large, head halters such as the Gentle Leader, Halti, or Snoot Loop are a humane way to control the dog. These are not the same as a muzzle, which prevent a dog from biting. Instead, head halters work with the same philosophy as a halter on a horse: a dog’s body tends to follow its head, so if the owner has a tool to gently control the head, the body will follow. However, head halters typically require extra conditioning to teach your dog that these are good things to wear!
These tools are not infallible. I have walked dogs who still pull despite the front-attach harnesses. There have been some recent concerns that have come out with the front-attach harnesses in terms of how they may affect dogs’ shoulder locomotion, particularly in developing puppies. For head halters, they must be used correctly. They should never be yanked suddenly. Some dogs find head halters aversive and will persistently try to remove them (though this can often be resolved by using effective counterconditioning when first introducing the dog to the head halter).
For these reasons, training should accompany these tools. You can either find a positive methods class near you, or consider working with a private trainer to work on your dog’s loose leash walking skills. Polite leash manners don’t happen overnight, but it is possible to teach a dog of any age to stop pulling on the leash!
In conclusion, the best kind of walk is one that both the dog and the handler are able to enjoy! A great walk provides physical exercise as well as mental enrichment for our furry friends. With the exception of dogs with exceptional health or behavioral issues, I recommend two walks a day for most dogs. The length of the walk depends on the breed, age, and exercise needs of the dog. Of course, walks also provide exercise and time outdoors for humans, too! Walks can be a great way to bond with your dog, and a great opportunity to practice training and manners that is automatically built into your daily schedule!
Thanks for reading! Happy trails!
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to provide professional dog training advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this website is to promote understanding and knowledge of various pet-related topics.
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