Humans generally lump “dog walks” into one main category with the following parameters: Pay attention and don’t pull. But from a dog’s perspective, what he wants -and needs – from a walk is much more nuanced, and varies depending on the dog. Instead of focusing on general “leash manners” or a strict view of walking where the dog remains at heel position the entire time, I encourage my students to think first and foremost about what their dogs need from a walk. I call this exercise, “Walk with me.”
Most of us take our dogs for walks because we’ve heard somewhere along the way that walks are a good thing for dogs to do. Which is true – walks are an excellent source of enrichment and exercise. But “going for a walk” involves so much more than simply ambulating around the neighborhood. The key to a quality walk is attending to a dog’s emotional as well as physical needs. Examples of these needs include:
- Exploring new environments
- Interacting with the walker
- Training games and play
Note that I listed exercise as last on the list not because it’s the least important, but because it easily overshadows the other benefits of walks – and can get in the way of understanding what each individual dog enjoys and needs. For example, if a dog goes for three long walks a day in an environment that he finds stressful and scary, those long walks aren’t improving his quality of life despite the exercise they provide.
When putting on your dog’s leash and harness, imagine your dog saying, “Walk with me.” What would that look like?
Some dogs may love scent tracking and exploring their environment. For these dogs, “walk with me” means allowing them to sniff and explore even if it means going at a slower pace or taking the occasional pit stop at a particularly fragrant row of hedges. Other dogs enjoy interacting with their human on walks, engaging in either play or training games along the way. For these dogs, “walk with me” means doing some urban agility tricks, engaging in some simple training games, and providing lots of happy talk and feedback along the way. If their human is distracted, on the phone or checked out, they’re not going to receive the enrichment and engagement they need for an enjoyable walk. Still other dogs may need the physical exercise that comes with walking . While leash walks aren’t as physically tiring as off-leash play, “walk with me” to these dogs involves helping them achieve the brisk pace they need plus engaging their brain in training games. After all, one of the reasons an athletic dog may be pulling ahead is simply because he’s excited to move.
If you work in tandem with your dog’s physical and emotional needs, things like loose leash walking and leash manners will seem more achievable and, ultimately, less frustrating to train. If you meet your dog’s physical and emotional needs, your dog will have more mental real estate to train with you, and will be less likely to resort to “nuisance” behaviors like leash chewing, pulling, and jumping – which are symptoms of a dog’s needs not being met.
Remember, “Walk with me,” isn’t what you’re telling the dog – it’s what the dog is asking of you.
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.