Originally published March 2013
I have a lot of students who struggle with leash manners with their dogs. They expect to be able to walk along and never connect with their dogs in any kind of meaningful way. They seem to think that marching around a city block at what amounts to a slow shuffle will fulfill their dog’s needs for exercise and mental stimulation. Most dogs don’t agree that this is a desirable activity. It beats sitting in the house, but it doesn’t meet the dog’s needs either for mental stimulation or for exercise.
Let’s start out by looking at an on leash dog walk from the dog’s perspective. To begin with, the two leggers go far too slow and far too consistently. They go one methodical step at a time, piece by piece around the neighbourhood. They never break out into a joyous bound, or stop suddenly to sniff the important stuff. I imagine that if the dog were to operate the walk, you would leave your front door like a freight train running free down a mountain and then you would come to a crashing halt about two driveways down. After a brief pause to check the pee mail, the dog would choose to zig and zag through the obstacles of the local yards, vaulting over obstacles and changing directions on a whim. Imagine for a moment the most whimsical tour of your neighbourhood, where you are permitted the joy of looking into your neighbour’s trash bins, of hurdling the decorative fences and of stopping suddenly when the need arises. You would pee at least four times, and you might defecate too. Probably on the least weedy lawn along your route. In short, a dog walk would be a dog “bounce, change direction, explore, go to the toilet, bounce again, run around, see things major event”.
I think most dogs start out every walk in the hope that we, the dog walking people, will someday “get it”. Instead, every day, the people try and fit this free joyous spirit into a slow march of straight lines, scheduled stops and complete lack of interaction with the environment. Walking the dog becomes a chore that we have to convince ourselves to do, for several reasons. Firstly, few dogs naturally match our pace and few people are any good at matching their dog’s pace. Secondly, people rarely do a good job of teaching the dog what we expect. We are still delighted when the dog learns to sit at corners, but forget that corners and street crossing only makes up a very small part of the walk. When the rest of the walk is made up of a constant tug of war between you and the dog, fighting over the pace and direction, this is not a pleasant recreational activity and it is no wonder that few people enjoy walking their dogs even though most folks feel they must for some reason do so.
In order to meet your dog’s needs for exercise and mental stimulation there is nothing that will beat an off leash walk in a country setting. I well recognize that my friends in downtown Toronto and New York City do not have this luxury, but if I were to develop the optimal situation for my canine friends, it would be to give each and every one of them a half an hour to an hour off leash, walking with me, in a safe rural setting. This does not mean that the dog will go out and run sheep or chase horses either; this means that you and your dog will travel for an hour or so, on foot, together or in the company of other people and dogs, and the dogs are permitted to bolt ahead and fall back, to sniff and to leap and return and check in with you. To do this means that you must start early-preferably before sixteen weeks when the dog begins to be more independent and it means that you must teach the dog to check in regularly with you. There are rare exceptions, but the majority of dogs can learn to do this and it is very mentally good for them to do so.
Dogs do need to learn to walk nicely on leash, and I teach that there are three rules for leash walking.
- Putting the leash on is a commitment from the human to pay attention to what they are doing. This includes paying attention to the dog, to the environment, to the world around you, to the dogs in your environment and being present at all times. This does not happen if you walk and talk on your cell. Or if you stop and engage with the neighbours.
- A tight leash is a brake. If the leash goes tight, then you must stop. The difference between good brakes and bad brakes is how much tension you must feel before you stop. In general, if the leash is not hanging directly below your hand, then it is too tight.
- Walk with direction and purpose. There is nothing more annoying than accompanying someone who is wandering around and the dog knows this. If you are walking purposefully, and you have a direction to go and a reason for going there, the dog will go with you quite happily. On the other hand if you wander along, with no particular reason for going where you are going, the dog is going to go somewhere meaningful for him. For most dogs, this means that going around the block is annoying. You start out, you turn right, you turn right, you turn right, you turn right and you are back home again. What fun is that? There is no point for most dogs! If on the other hand, you go out to the potty place, allow your dog to toilet, and then walk purposefully to the corner, stop, check in with your dog and then cross the street to the park where he can go off leash, then your dog is likely going to be willing to do that politely and in a controlled connected manner.
When you walk your dog on leash, you have to have some sort of system to come to an agreement about what that walk will look like. If you follow the rules above, and provide some appropriate off leash walking opportunities, then you can have pleasant outings together. There ARE other systems, but the bottom line remains the same; you must commit to something if you are going to walk on a loose leash with your dog.
If you have been battling a pulling or lunging dog, you should know that it will take time to teach him to walk nicely on leash, and obliterating 100% of errors is unrealistic. Saying that your dog will never ever pull on leash or lunge is like saying that you will never take a wrong turn in traffic or make a spelling mistake. We are not perfect, but if we can be present with our dogs when we walk with them, then we can achieve great things together.