Walk Before You Run - Part One: 10 Secrets Your Dog Wants You to Know About Walks

Renowned dog trainer Pat Miller has joked that, “a walk is an hors d’oeuvre." She knows the high amount of exercise that many dogs require to be physically fatigued, and an average walk is often just an appetizer rather than the main course. In fact, many dogs are warmed up after the customary walk and then really ready to get moving with a vigorous romp.

So how do you teach polite walking when your pooch needs so much more during walks? Let’s take a 'real life' and practical look at the key pieces needed when approaching loose leash walking.

Eye On the Prize

Defining what you're after is the first step. Many of us imagine a perfect formal "heel." Formal heeling and loose leash walking are two distinctly different skills. Both heeling and loose leash walking require patience and practice and can be taught to any dog. However, heeling is taught using a precise set of exercises and requires much more guidance and direction from the handler.

What most of us are actually looking for is loose leash walking because it suits the time commitment we can make to training and the preferences we have for taking our dogs out and about. Practically speaking, every dog needs several walks a day and asking them to stay in formal heel position 'right out of the gate' with no introduction to and mastery of loose leash walking is certainly going to set everyone up for frustration and even failure. Not the success story we're looking for with our dogs! As it is, loose leash walking is a skill unto itself and already asking quite a bit of our fast moving, four-legged friends. Definitely the place to start!

Zoomies Before Walkies

Be honest. Is your dog’s exercise outside of walks filling their happy quotient? We’re talking real dog fun: running at a park or beach, fetching a ball, hiking, a fun game of tug, etc. If daily walks are his or her only source of physical fun, you’re setting yourselves up for a struggle. For optimum results, get your friend’s “zoomies” out before the walk, allow for a cool down period of about ten to fifteen minutes, then set out for a much more relaxed amble and sniff.

Tools of the Trade

Use the latest gear and try out a front-clip harness. It’s a tool many handlers use and see great success with for management on walks -- giving the training process a boost.

In a front-clip harness, the leash attaches to the front chest loop providing far greater control than the ones that attach the leash to the back of the harness. Back attachment harnesses often cause what is referred to as opposition reflex. When opposition reflex kicks in, the dog has the leverage to pull like a sled dog. Yikes! The front clip harness prevents this because it's much harder for the dog to pull when you're guiding from the front of his center of gravity. It's much like someone holding onto the front of your shirt and your trying to walk forward... very difficult. If the person holds onto the back of your shirt, you could pull harder and drag him forward with you. Most people think that front clip harnesses are big game changers and truly improve their everyday walks.

Last, these harnesses prevent pressure on the your dog's neck -- pressure that can increase excitability. Never a good thing on walks! Also, the health problems that come from pressure on the neck include issues related to trachea collapse, thyroid disease, and spinal misalignment.

Just remember, when using a harness, to always keep a flat buckle or snap collar on your dog for ID tags in the event that he or she becomes lost. It’s the quickest way to get your dog back safely. And be sure to remove the harness when not on a walk.

Use Your Words

“How do I get him to stop sniffing constantly and just walk?” Sound familiar? Remember, in your dog’s mind, the walk is the hors d’oeuvre (or perhaps the dessert), not the main course.

Two pieces often overlooked in training are that all behaviors can be “put on cue” and mental stimulation is just as fatiguing as physical activity. Ever had your dog take a nap after a training session and wonder why? Training is mentally tiring. How do you feel after an intense day at work? Exactly! Our brains use up energy when actively engaged and it’s the same for our pooches. Doesn’t it then make sense to work their brains while out for a walk?

By letting our dogs sniff when we occasionally cue them to do so, we allow them the much needed fun reading their “pee-mail” to see who’s been by that bush. Did a squirrel scamper up that tree recently, or is there a frog hopping around in the leaves? Now we're talking fun!

Here's the happy compromise: you can train your dog to sniff so that he or she is working with you but still having fun exploring. You're simply adding a cue to the behavior he or she naturally offers. Walking along, stop when your dog does not expect it and shuffle the ground with your foot saying, “Go Sniff.” You’ll get a look from him as if to say, “Really?!?” and then he'll begin to sniff the ground happily. Let him take it all in. Then, as your dog raises his head, cue, “Let’s Go” or “Let’s Walk” and turn your body in the direction you’d like to take. Move forward and take a step, using the foot closest to him so that he can see that you're moving away. The amazing thing is that he will follow. Success!

At first, to instill the meaning of the cues, repeat this about every 50 feet or so. Remember, new skills take repetition to be learned. If you haven’t reached that 50 foot mark, don’t stop. Keep walking until it’s time to take in more yummy smells. The beauty of the front clip harness is that you won't need to worry about putting excess pressure on his neck, and you can move forward knowing he'll come with you. Lead and he will follow.

The Other End of the Leash

Before the finesse exercises of a relaxed walk can be addressed, we need to explain to our dogs what this long rope thing is called (a leash) and what is expected of them in our boring human world when it's attached to them. Funny how we head out the door with an animal that can run 30 to 45 miles per hour, versus our 28 miles per hour, and expect them to not want to move faster than us. See the up side of daily intense physical and mental exercise beyond (or before) their walks? With this in mind, our dogs are incredible patient with our sloth-like speed. Solution: training that explains to our four-legged Jesse Owens that any soft leash pressure they feel is a signal to move with us.

As author Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the Leash states, we have to let our dogs know that there is someone at “the other end of the leash.” Take a few days in your home to practice applying slight leash pressure to your dog’s leash and rewarding them with a scrumptious treat and praise for any turn of the head or walking toward you. Once mastered, start over on the back porch where the environment is still controlled but slightly more exciting, then in the back yard until you are able to take it on the road for a walk. Be sure to phase out those treats replacing them with genuine praise and a hop in your step as your dog follows.

The 10 Secrets

  1. Walks are borrrrrring!… unless you train while walking me.
  2. Decide what you want, a precision heel or a "loose leash" walk.
  3. Get me more zoomie-time!
  4. I want to show you how smart I am. Work my brain.
  5. A leash attached to my collar hurts.
  6. Get hip with a front-clip harness.
  7. I can learn English, just teach me.
  8. You are slower than me. I am very patient.
  9. Leashes don’t exist on my planet.
  10. I love you. Let’s make this fun!

Next Up

In Part Two, we'll share the best tried and true methods for teaching your dog how to politely walk on leash. Teaser - it’s all games!

By C.C. Bourgeois

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