Fundamentals of Walking a Dog
(This article is in memory of Koa, who passed away on August 31 at 11.5 years old. His legacy, and ability to be a role model for dogs and people, was nearly unmatched. He is the reason that Kamp K-9 Jax Bch exists, and the major reason I have the knowledge I have from a dog's perspective. I am forever indebted to you, buddy!)
The most common complaint I hear is that my clients’ dogs don’t walk well (or “They’re fine” until they come across dogs, people, lizards, squirrels, etc.). They pull. They lunge. They wander. Often with the wrong tool and ALWAYS because of the human misunderstanding what a walk represents to the dog.
Walks are Revisiting the Migration Ritual
Dogs move every day. In the wild, no one wakes up and has food brought to them. There is moving, hunting, waiting, and less excitement. All of which is almost never practiced by humans. The walk is NOT PHYSICAL EXERCISE! It is primarily a mental exercise. Following rules/boundaries/limitations. Leadership must lead for the followers to be able to follow, so our job starts the second you decide to get the leash. Once leadership in the wild starts moving, followers follow. No one is “exploring” or playing without continuing in a follow state of mind. My clients describe their walks as “I want him/her to be a dog” while not understanding what that means. I love dogs and I want to nurture who they really are, but that means leading them in the direction – physically and psychologically – the pack needs to go.
Follow/play/explore are the three states of mind in a dog’s day. When the pack is moving, they are following. When leadership creates a rest period, THEN they can rest/play/explore. And when it’s time to leave, everyone leaves. If you are left behind, you will become food for a predator. And the pack is not waiting or coming back. So the dog does not explore to be a dog. They follow.
Start the Walk with the Correct Tools
Simply put, harnesses are for pulling efficiently. Sled dogs, wagon dogs, draft horses – even strong men pulling semi-trucks – wear harnesses to pull better. I don’t care what any marketer (who markets and doesn’t use the tool) says, there is no such thing as a “no pull harness”. YOU are still doing the physical work to keep your dog under physical control. I often tell clients that it will do the job the same way you can hammer a screw into something… it’s the wrong tool but it will suffice in a pinch. If the human and the dog can communicate without the tension and excitement, then anything will work just fine, but harnesses are an advanced tool.
A basic tool is the slip leash (placed high behind the ears and skull) and is the best and most versatile tool to learn control (the next section will explain this in more detail). A six-foot leash does not mean the dog gets six feet. Leadership decides what length sends the best and most efficient message for the task at hand. Other tools work as well, but you must understand the meaning of those particular tools.
And, by the way, tools do not “choke the dog” … the fool behind the tool chokes the dog.
Sending Clear Messages
This is a simple tutorial: Dogs have an “opposition reflex”. They pull in the opposite direction of constant pressure. Therefore, when your dog is in front and you pull back to “make them stop pulling”, you are telling the dog to forge forward. If they stop walking and you pull them forward, they will anchor in even more. If you want to put brakes on the dog, they have to be more beside you and the tug (not a pull) needs to be to the side or up for brakes, back is accelerate. Tugs are the equivalent of taps on the shoulder to gain attention but SIMULTANEOUS MOVEMENT or your part is the direction. Circling is fine as is stopping. But that will be the only thing you do on a walk if the basic misunderstanding still exists, and you’ll never get anywhere. It is not like our dogs can never be out in front of us, but if they are not directable in all circumstances, then that’s not where they belong.
How Many Walks and How Far?
You can’t really physically outlast your dog. The walk is YOUR walk and they get to go with us. And if they are not walking with you then no one is going to get better. Remember, walking is a mental exercise and not a physical one. The key is to challenge and fatigue their brain and this can be done in a short period of time. If your dog is acting crazy, they need that brain exercised. Ten to fifteen minutes can be plenty of time to help your dog be comfortable, stable, and challenged. Inside of the house or your own yard is just as good as anywhere. Other places create the distractions that can also be part of the exercise, but it’s unnecessary for accomplishing your goals.
Younger dogs require more walks, but they can be short. As the dog ages, and you get better and more comfortable with your skills, those walks can evolve to less often. A mentally tired dog is more comfortable than a tense dog. So, what can we do to mentally challenge our pups?
The Five Things
Every walk should include these five activities and they aren’t weird. Walking normal speed, walking extremely slow, stopping (with the dog stopping alongside of you), changing direction to the right, and changing direction to the left all while the dog stays beside you and there is no tension on the leash. Don’t switch hands with the leash; if the dog doesn’t understand then you aren’t being clear. There are two positions in the pack world: leaders and followers. If your dog is leading, YOU ARE A FOLLOWER. But, if you are pulling your dog in every direction you want them to go, then you are not being clear and – once again – YOU are doing all of the work. Movement is direction, so move and have the dogs’ follow state of mind connected with you.
Start Off Correctly
Doorways are extremely important to the dog. Whomever leads through a doorway gets to set the rules for the other side. Leaving and returning. Stores have doors, your car has doors, dog park gates are doors. Also, your dog doesn’t understand who controls the empty air space if you allow them to go directly to the door (they will also do this whenever a door opens, or guests come into your house). If your dog’s nose is at the doorjamb when you open it, they will walk through the door. Because you are the door man. Dogs are to wait behind you while you operate the door and are calm before the exit. The pack doesn’t move unless we are mentally and physically in sync.
Energy and Excitement is Everything
What is the easiest way to remember what to do in which order? “Calm before excitement”. Outside is exciting; create calm first. Meeting people/dogs is exciting; create calm first. But if YOU aren’t calm and in control of your emotions and energy, you will not be an effective or clear leader. If your dog is affecting your state of mind, you are a follower. Create the pack you want. DECIDE what kind of pack you want. Clear your mind of minutia and be like a dog… what is your dog thinking on the walk? “I’m outside with my pack, this is awesome!” That is where YOUR brain needs to be. The rest of your day can be the crazy part; this is the calm, fulfilling part! So, get out and walk!