Before you ask, no, I haven’t completely lost my mind – my sanity is no more in question than it’s ever been. There really are right and wrong ways to walk your dog, and most of them hinge on who is in control of the walk. Now, I have talked about things like letting your dog make decisions as to which direction you’ll go on your walk (see Giving Your Dog the Power of Choice), and there’s nothing wrong with deferring to your dog’s wants from time to time. That said, though, because of the different conditions you can encounter when walking your dog, it’s important that you’re always in control of what’s going on. So, with that in mind, following are 7 steps to follow if you want to walk your dog the right way.
I often see people out with their dogs, and the dog is strutting happily in front of the person. This isn’t a good idea. In the first place, it makes it more difficult for you to move your body in front of your dog if you need to in order to avert undesirable contact with other people and animals. In the second place, if you you’re your dog this way, you’re not really walking the dog – the dog is walking you. When you allow this, you’re giving your dog the idea that he can be the alpha in your relationship, and if you’re already working through some behavioral issues, this is just going to make matters worse.
The other thing that happens when you allow your dog to take the lead is that you’re depriving your dog of the relaxing aspect of his walk – you’re putting him in the position of having to “lead the pack.” He’s going to figure that he’s responsible for looking after you instead of the other way around and if this goes on day after day, you can end up with a very stressed dog.
Walking your dog the right way means a good deal more than just having your dog walking behind you or at heel. If he’s walking where you want him to just because you’ve been at it long enough that he’s tired, you’re not really in charge. If he charges out the door ahead of you as soon as you snap on the leash, you’re not in charge. Of course you want your dog at heel or a bit behind you, but you want him there because you’ve made the decision. If your dog is pulling on the leash and only coming into the “heel” position because you’re yanking him back, then he’s essentially trying to be the decision-maker in your relationship. And as I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with allowing your dog to make some decisions, but you have to always be in the position of overruling.
Walking in front is never a choice you should allow your dog because, if you do, you’re putting him in the position of being the pack leader, and that’s unfair – he should be able to rely on you to lead the pack. It’s what he needs to feel safe and secure.
Sometimes, a pack can consist of just one human and one dog. My pack consists of me, Janice and Leroy. I don’t walk them individually – we go out together, the whole pack. In the beginning, though, I had to start off with individual walks, because Janice has a pretty dominant streak. I had to get her to the point where she accepted me as the leader before I could walk her along with Leroy, since our first few forays into group walks resulted in Leroy being bullied. Finally, with a bit of effort, we got to the point where the structure was me being in the lead, followed by Janice, and Leroy hanging just a little bit behind. The thing was, Janice had to understand that I was always going to be number one.
So, why is this so important? It’s because if you’re out for a walk and you encounter other dogs, all it takes is one really strong alpha for you to end up in a tangle of leashes, teeth and blood. By working with Janice individually, I finally convinced her that she was always going to have to submit to me. That doesn’t mean that I bullied her or yanked her around or alpha rolled her (much), but it does mean that I never let her get away with anything – never let her lead me, never let her pull on the leash, and never let her think that she was the boss.
Remember, if you’re pack walking, every single dog in the pack has to know that the human is always the boss. Janice had to learn that it wasn’t a matter of, “Okay, I defer to the human, but Leroy defers to me.” Sometimes that meant that I had to pick up my pace a bit in order to distract her from her natural desire to keep Leroy in his place – I kept her focused on me, not on Leroy, and I corrected her every time she showed the slightest sign of aggression toward him. This is what you need to do no matter how many dogs are in your pack. She feels my authority at work, and she doesn’t fear me, but she knows that my word is law.
Even if you’ve had problems in the past walking multiple dogs, those problems can be corrected. Work one on one with the problem dog, and once the issues are ironed out, introduce the next-lowest one in the hierarchy into the mix. Even if you’re working with half a dozen dogs, this approach will work – it’s kind of like the concept that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So you be the strongest link. Be the alpha. And then show everyone else that you’ve decided to be the one in charge.
No, that’s not counter-intuitive. Note that I said “what he needs,” not “what he wants.” I know so many people (and believe me, it’s hard to keep my mouth shut about this) who think that because they have a big back yard, all they need to do is toss their dog outside a couple of times a day and he’ll somehow exercise himself. Well, he won’t. If you could imagine the only exercise you ever got taking place on something like a 4×4 piece of carpet, that’s pretty much how your dog feels in even the biggest back yard. You need to get out there and walk, run, bike or rollerblade with your dog. It’s vital not just to his physical health, but to his emotional wellbeing. A dog that is not properly exercised can become hyperactive, neurotic, and generally mentally unstable.
Now, if that sounds like too much work and you’re just not going to do it, then I’m sorry, but you probably shouldn’t have a dog in the first place. And if you think hyperactivity = excitement = happiness, then you’re wrong. A hyperactive dog is not happy; it’s a dog who has way too much energy, both physical and mental, built up. You need to get out and give your dog the exercise he needs to blow off that excess energy.
If you need further convincing, think about this – the more exercise you get, the happier and healthier you will be, too. So go out and do something with your dog.
Bring your dog to you to have his collar and leash put on – don’t take the collar and leash to him. Once your dog has come to you, slip the collar on (if he’s not already wearing the collar) and attach the leash. Then make him move around behind you. Lead him out the door – don’t let him pull you outside. If he’s too excited, and trying to pull you along, then make him sit again and wait for him to calm down.
Don’t use a harness to walk your dog. A harness is a very useful tool, but it’s only for pulling. That’s why the harness fits around the dog’s shoulders – the strongest point on his body. If you have a large breed, you’re giving your dog the physical advantage when you use a harness. Your best choice for walking is a nylon or fine link choke collar – and no, they’re not cruel unless you actually use them to pull your dog up and hang him. Properly used, they just offer a gentle level of correction, and are far better than band-type collars that can cut into your dog’s neck when you try to pull him into position.
Keep the collar far up on the dog’s neck in order to maintain proper control.If you’ve ever watched a dog show, then you’ll see the perfect position for the collar. Now, make sure that you’re not pulling on the lead – it should be hanging loose so that if the dog does start to pull, a tug will bring him back to your side. If he begins to pull, give a quick tug, just enough to take him a bit off balance, and then relax the lead again.
If the dog is very excited and determined to pull on the leash, put him into a sit until he calms down a bit, and then resume the walk, again holding the lead loosely but being prepared to tug if he tries to take control. Don’t call him back to you – just keep walking. As pack leader, you shouldn’t have to tell your dog verbally that he has to follow you – you should lead by action. And, odd as this might sound, don’t offer praise when the dog walks calmly beside you. He’s just doing what he’s supposed to do, so treat it as “business as usual.”
When you’re out walking your dog, it’s inevitable that you’re going to run into some distractions. One thing that a lot of people find particularly difficult is practically having their shoulder dislocated when a male dog decides that he has to leave “pee mail.” So you’re going to have to determine whether your dog really needs to go potty, or whether he’s determined to mark his territory. This is another situation where you have to be in control.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t allow your dog to mark once in a while, but you should make sure that he’s very receptive to being pulled back. Otherwise, you’re just going to be allowing him to control the walk. The same thing goes for meeting other dogs on the walk – distractions should be allowed or prohibited according to your discretion. You’ll probably notice pretty early on if your dog is about to become distracted, so start with a firm touch on his neck to get his attention, and if that doesn’t work you can move to a quick jerk on the leash. Make sure, though, that the intensity of your correction matches the intensity of the action. It’s unfair to yank a dog back harshly just because he’s moved a little bit away from you, and besides, if you overreact, your dog may come to the conclusion that you lack confidence – as in “Geeze, Mom, I sniffed a hydrant and you’re yanking me into next week; what’s wrong with you?”
The main thing when it comes to walking your dog the right way is to make sure that your dog responds to you consistently. It’s fine to let him explore a bit as long as he knows that when you want him back at your side, that’s where he’s supposed to be.Your dog just needs to know that the final call is yours, and that he has to walk the way you want him to. Pee mail shouldn’t be an event. Passing another dog or human shouldn’t be an event. And your dog should always be able to rely on you to lead the pack, because that’s your job.