Here I hope to explore how to make the most of our relationship with our dogs, on both a training and philosophical level. Now that the weather is turning, it is a wonderful time to stay active by exercising our dogs, when we otherwise might not feel like going outside on a cold and rainy day. In fact, for some dogs with heavy coats, this is the best time of the year for them, and in this weather, our dogs' enthusiasm for the walk can make all the difference. So let's discuss how we walk our dogs.
One of the most important aspects of life with your dog is walking together. So what's to know about walking a dog? It seems pretty basic, but actually it's highly revealing of what your relationship with your dog is like. The best place to start is by becoming more aware of what is going on with your dog walk. Take the time to observe how other people are walking their dogs, and you will become more attuned to your own practices, and more conscious of the dynamics going on with the other dogs that you encounter. An article in the current issue of Harvard Magazine called "The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention" talks about the benefits of deep observation, in the context of looking at paintings, and this approach seems useful and valid generally in our busy, distracted lives.
Now that you are thinking about what your and other people's dog walks look like, let's talk about a couple of general principles about life with our dogs.
First, dogs need structure and leadership, or if it is lacking, they will create their own way of doing things. There are different schools of thought on how to provide this guidance, which we will discuss in the future, such as the "positive reinforcement" model of behavioral conditioning and the "pack leader" or dominance model of calm-assertive energy. In my experience, positive reinforcement goes a long way, while at the same time you have to be aware of your body language and what vibe you project when you work with a dog. Without getting into it here, let me suggest that the key factor is gaining the trust and respect of your dog, so that your dog's attention will be focused on you as the center of his world.
Second, dogs derive fulfillment by serving us in the special ways that only dogs can. Simply put, they are happiest when they earn our praise by doing something useful for us. While sometimes we anthropomorphize and pamper them because we think it should make them happy, in fact we are mostly just indulging ourselves and doing them a bit of a disservice by not honoring them as canines. Dogs have lived with people as domesticated animals for around the last 15,000 years, and the special bond between dogs and people is deeply based upon their productive role as hunter, herder, guardian, scout, finder, helper, etc. Today, we still keep dogs even when we don't really need them to do a job for us (which is something to ponder in itself), so we can lose sight of this fundamental component of the human/canine social compact. See, e.g., the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics 2011 Symposium on Dog/Human Co-Evolution.
Based on these principles, it should be apparent that how you walk your dog is an essential part of the leadership and purpose that you provide him. Hence, let me suggest a few things to consider about the dog walk:
1. Is my dog on a walk with me, or is he actually out on his own walk, with his own agenda?
If he's not walking by your side or following next to you, then from his perspective you're extraneous and he's on his own mission for the walk. Sometimes we think that we are being nice to our dog by letting him roam wherever the leash will allow, but actually we're abdicating our role and leaving him without purpose to develop bad habits like marking, crittering, etc. Instead, we could be developing and building upon the bond between us by walking together as a team. And if your dog is walking there by your side, you might as well teach him to heel and follow you when you change direction, and to sit when you stop. A good benchmark is the following: can I walk my dog by my side with no tension, such that I can hold the leash in the palm of my hand or in the circle of my fingers without him pulling it out? Before you know it, you will have a well-behaved dog who is quite proud of himself there beside you.
2. How does my dog relate to other dogs and people that we encounter on our walk?
If he is under your control and well socialized, he will generally be fine with meeting other dogs and people, as well as seeing them from afar. If he has issues with other dogs, this is something to work on once you start practicing how you do the walk. Unfortunately, often we avoid the walk or other dogs when there is a problem, so it becomes a vicious cycle. If instead we work on it with our dog, we can give him a distraction or new association (e.g., a mild correction or a treat incentive) to refocus him before his behavior starts to escalate around other dogs. This way he can learn to pass by another dog without getting excited, lunging or barking. Having your dog meet another dog is a bit more complicated, because it depends on whether your dog is in an aggressive mode or just overly eager and excited, and also what type of vibe the other dog is giving out on its end.
So try working on exposure and indifference to other dogs in order to ratchet your dog's excitement level down first. It takes practice, and it means you actually need to seek out repetitions with other dogs around, not avoid them, in order to make progress. Sometimes it can be embarrassing if our dog has a behavior issue (oh no, you're not perfect!), but you will find that if you get out there and actually let people know that you are working on your dog's excitement and intensity, you will get encouragement, support, and advice, nine times out of ten. Remember people are generally nice, and most people love dogs. And for the one person out of ten who is not sympathetic, perhaps they are in the wrong mood or just don't like imperfect dogs, so you learn to let that go and not deter you from your training work.
3. What tools and rules am I using to have a good walk?
With dogs, a good axiom is that what you allow you encourage, so you need to ask yourself what tools and rules will help you achieve your goals. For example, with a "flexi-leash," its design precludes you from providing any meaningful structure for your dog, since it's made to allow the dog out in front of you to roam around at his own initiative. You can make it shorter obviously, but usually it's not used that way. Often you will see small dogs on a flexi-leash, so it may not seem like an issue, but sometimes these dogs can exhibit behavioral issues that reflect the lack of structure in their lives, like aggressive or fearful barking that can actually upset other dogs. It's a training moment for the other dogs, but it's not good manners for the dog on the flexi-leash to set other dogs off. If you prefer the flexi-leash, at least be aware of how you are choosing to structure your relationship with your dog, and how this may impact your control of your dog at home or in other situations.
A better approach if you want to remake your walk is to use a six foot or shorter leash, such as what is called a "traffic lead" for taller dogs, with some kind of a "slip collar," "martingale collar," or a "gentle leader" halter, or a basic "flat collar" if you don't have any pulling. Try different tools and see what works best for you. In this way, you can control your dog and give him subtle guidance as to what you want from him. Your dog will be happy because he's getting praised, now that he knows what you want from him.
Harnesses are also popular these days, I think because they look stylish, but the issue with them is that are designed to leverage a dog's strength and freedom of movement when they're out in front of you. So that's ideal if they are doing a job for you like pulling a sled or a cart, or sniffing out a trail for search and rescue. But if you want to control them on a walk, this is probably not the best tool. If you think about it, how do we control larger animals like a horse, goat, or sheep? Not with a flexi-leash or a harness, but with headgear like a bridle or halter around the neck and face. The same goes for a dog -- the neck and face area is the most sensitive and thus the is the best way to communicate what you want from your dog in the most direct and subtle manner.
We have a couple of pet stores here in town, Pet Food Express on Middlefield at Charleston and Pet Food Depot on Portage over by Fry's. Also Pet Smart on Charleston in Mountain View by REI has a good selection. Why not try a few different training tools and see what works best for you? By the way, when we mention third-party products or web sites, we are not expressing or implying a commercial arrangement or endorsement relationship between us, nor do we receive any consideration for doing so. We retain our editorial independence and intend to keep it that way.
So what is your experience like in walking your dog, and what kind of dog do you have? Besides the walk, how else do you provide your dog with purpose and structure?
Also, if you work as a dog walker or trainer in our community, please send me an email with your contact info, as I would like to compile a list of local resources for a future blog post.