Do you think your dog pulls when you go for a walk? When she was only eight months old, my 35 pound Belgian Shepherd, Tiramisu, snapped a leather leash on a walk. Imagine my surprise when I realized that my attempts to teach her to walk on a loose leash had set up the situation for her to pull off this feat.
As with “reliable recall”, getting your dog to walk on a loose leash is a behaviour that is widely considered a critical skill that owners must teach their dogs. I have always been puzzled by the importance many people place on this skill. That said, I have certainly felt the frustration (sometimes anger) at being yanked to and fro by an exuberant puppy. No one wants to risk a dislocated shoulder while walking their young Great Dane!
We walk our dogs for lots of reasons. It gives the dog a chance to take care of bodily functions, it’s good exercise, it’s a chance to get out and socialize a bit, it’s a healthy and fun activity for both dog and owner. In doing some reading on the web about dog walking, I was somewhat surprised to find any number of suggestions about making the walk more pleasant and convenient for the human. There are lots of ways to walk your dog. Which one is the right way?
A Dog’s Walk
We know why we take our dogs for a walk, but do we really understand what dogs look forward to on those walks? Dogs don’t get out to see the world as much as we do. Their walks are probably one of the most interesting things they do with us. I wonder how surprised we might be if our dogs could tell us what they would like to do on our walks.
Alexandra Horowitz, in her book Inside of a Dog, describes the dog as a “creature of the nose”. And all of the science we have on dogs would back her up. While humans approach the world with our eyes, a dog comes at the world nose first. And why not? A dog’s sense of smell is hundreds of times more acute and complex than our human sense. And that presents a challenge.
We humans can stand on a hilltop on our walk and drink in the vast panorama of shapes and colors whether they be next to your head or hundreds of meters away. Our dogs, on the other hand, have a habit of striding confidently up to a new object and sticking their nose only millimeters away to soak up all the delicious smells. They just can’t take it all in from a distance. With all the wonderful smells in the big wide world, is it any wonder they want to stop every six feet?
Most dog owners (especially owners of large dogs) have been irritated by that unexpected yank on the leash that pulls painfully at your shoulder while on a walk. There is a dilemma when we walk our dogs. We want a nice pleasant walk and they want to stick their nose into anything and everything that wafts past their sniffer. Sometimes their enthusiasm catches us by surprise.
Those sudden pulls can hurt your shoulder and your pride, and it’s a very natural reaction to grab the leash with both hands and haul back as if to say, “How do you like it?!” to the dog. While our dogs might actually get the message on some level, they pull on our arms while we tend to yank back on the part of their anatomy that they need to breathe and eat. NOTE: I NEVER recommend yanking back on the dog regardless of your training plan or the equipment you are using. It is dangerous and never leads anywhere good in my experience.
So there’s a good and humane reason to teach our dog to walk on a loose leash. But then there is that question of exploring their world. Can our dogs have some freedom sniff and explore? Well, that depends on the trainer. Sometimes there isn’t time to dawdle. Other times we just don’t pay attention. And still other times we’re just not in the mood for them moving from leaf to blade of grass at a snail’s pace.
For our dogs, going out on a walk can be like going to the movies for us. Lots of new and exciting things to smell and see and smell. Did I mention smell? The challenge then is to find a way to make the walk pleasant for us (no yanking and pulling) and interesting for our dog without asking them to “fast forward” through too much of their entertainment.
Like most things with our dogs, our solutions generally involve a mixture of training behaviour and managing our dogs and their environment. There are some things we can teach our dog like cues to manage their pulling or moving on during a walk but we also need to be willing to create opportunities for them to sniff and take care of bodily functions while maintaining a pace we like.
Let’s go back to Tiramisu, my leash-snapping dog. I knew from a young age that Tira was likely to be a pulling dog. So to save my arm, I made it a habit to attach her leash to my belt instead of holding it in my hand. This little management technique allowed me to significantly reduce my irritation on walks. It also makes it harder to yank back, potentially harming my dog.
How did loose leash training set her up to snap a leather leash? The technique I used (which works PERFECTLY for many owners and their dogs) was to stop when she pulled and reward her when she returned to my side. Unfortunately for me, Tira saw this as a wonderful game. Get to the end, run back and collect a treat, run to the end, go back, rinse and repeat. One day, just after she had got a treat by my side, she saw a squirrel dart into the bushes. She had six feet to get up to full speed and SNAP! went the leash. Fortunately, since she was tied to my waist, no shoulders were dislocated.
I’m happy to report that, for the most part, maturity has solved the problem. Once the energy of youth began to wane, Tira became easier to walk. I can now walk her with only one finger on the leash unless a rabbit should engage her in a chase.
Techniques and Success
Many dog owners insist on a loose leash while walking their dogs. And if that suits your lifestyle, then by all means find a training method that can work for you and your dog. You should have some idea of the tendencies of your particular breed before starting though. My Belgian Shepherds were bred specifically to guard livestock by running at the perimeter of the pasture all day long. Their focus is outward, not toward me. So teaching them loose lease walking will be more difficult than a different breed such as a Golden Retriever. It can be done, it will just take a different approach to work against the instinctive tendency to be “out there” that was bred into them.
There are lots of reward-based techniques on the internet and in books for teaching loose-leash walking. Many training classes will also offer such techniques. But a loose leash is not the only tool you may need on your walks.
My Tiramisu can get particularly sniffy on walks. Sometimes I want to move on. So I installed the “Let’s Go” cue for her to let her know that I was moving on. Quite simply I just said “let’s go” and counted to three before walking on. That way she knew that if she didn’t come with me, she was likely to get tugged as the room on the leash came to an end. To this day “let’s go” remains one of the most useful things I’ve ever taught my dog.
Standard “manners” behaviours can be useful as well. We frequently ask our dogs to “sit” by our side as strange dogs pass on paths at the park. Other times we tell them to “leave it” if they approach a questionable bit of something along the way on a walk. And “stay” or “wait” can always come in handy to interrupt any unwanted behaviour.
Different Tools, Different Styles
There is a lot of talk these days about dominance and pack hierarchy in dogs. Most of it is outright wrong according to actual research and animal science. But it persists. Some of that sentiment splashes over into the strangest places. Does allowing your dog walk ahead of you at the end of the leash make them dominant or “alpha” in the pack? That’s ridiculous. In a breed like a Belgian Shepherd, they would be defective if they didn’t put themselves out there on point to warn me of oncoming danger. It’s what they were bred to do.
We all need to find a way to enjoy with our dogs, and today there are any number of solutions to the “Dog Walk Conundrum”. They range from various training techniques to get the kind of walk you want from your dog to different equipment such as head halters and no-pull harnesses to manage the dog.
If you can’t, or would prefer not to, pursue training measures with your dog, using different equipment to walk your dog can help immensely. For example, we never use the Flexi-leads with our dogs for a simple reason: Our dogs should know what the maximum distance is and we keep it consistent. Flexi-leads just don’t work for us. We just don’t find we can have the kind of control and consistency we want with them. The recoil mechanism in a Flexi-lead means there is constant pressure on the dog’s neck and they may not know when they are at the end.
Different collars or harnesses can help too. There are a variety of head halters that you can try. Most of these work by attaching the leash to a loop over the muzzle rather than the neck. So when the dog reaches the end, any additional pulling will result in their head being turned. And it usually turns away from the thing they want.
Harnesses come in different varieties. Some will allow the dog to pull comfortably without risking injury to the dog’s neck. Others are called “no-pull” harnesses and will turn the dog as pulling pressure increases making the pulling counter productive.
You can also buy waist-leashes designed to be worn around the waist. Or, like I do, you can just loop a standard leash through your belt so that you have both hands free.
In fairness, I will mention two other tools some owners use for managing walks. Choke chain collars work but tightening around the dogs neck as pulling pressure increases. A prong or “pinch” collar has dull-topped barbs that lever into the dogs neck as pulling pressure is applied. I have heard this described as simulating a mother’s teeth around the dog’s neck. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. It must be uncomfortable and the dog will stop pulling when their discomfort becomes great enough. I cannot stress enough the importance of NEVER PULLING BACK on these types of collars. They are intended to be managed BY THE DOG so they learn that their own pulling controls how loose or tight the collar remains.
The Right Way to Walk With Your Dog
I’m afraid I can’t tell you what the right way to walk your dog might be. That’s entirely up to you and your preferences. I would hope that you also take the personality of your dog into account when you decide how to approach this question. Some dogs enjoy pulling for the exercise. Other dogs are compulsive sniffers. Still others are happy to trot along beside you.
The important thing is to understand that there are lots of options both in training and using behaviours and in the kinds of equipment you use when out for a walk. You are free to train and manage in any combination to find a solution that works for you and your dog. And you don’t have to find one and stick with it forever. If you find your preferences change, or your dog changes over time, you are free to explore other options and combinations.
There are other questions about dog outings. Like how often should you go for a walk? How long should walks be? What should you be doing on walks? Should you allow off leash time? Do you bring treats or toys on your walk with your dog? But we’ll tackle that another day.
Let me leave you with this thought. Ask yourself this: are you taking your dog for a walk for him or for you? If you are like most of us, the answer is probably “both” although none of our answers will be exactly the same. Try to make room on your walk for your dog to be a dog while teaching him how to make the experience enjoyable for you too.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Personal note: My thanks to Robyn Weisman for suggesting this topic. If you have any suggestions for future columns, please feel free to leave it in a comment below.
On Walkabout – Oakley Originals 2010 from Flickr
Pull! – Cogdogblog 2008 from Flickr
Head Halter – Paul J. Everett 2009 from Flickr
Walking Harness – Greenkozi 2009 from Flickr