Experiments in Dog Walking

In lieu of all my recent reading I have been experimenting with how I walk my dogs. Which seems like a silly statement but it is what I’ve been up to. For the past several years I’ve thought that when one is walking a dog, that dog must be at one’s side.

It took one good yank when Dane was trying to be killer dog to get him to learn to walk obediently at my side. For the record, I was walking him on a harness not a collar. I would not yank a dog that is on a collar. Anyway, when I used that method I had recently learned to match a correction to a dog’s intensity. Well, it worked. After that, Dane was the perfect gentleman on walks. Anyone who has had a chihuahua knows how proudly they prance on walks.

When I adopted Frankie, a very petite five pound chihuahua I knew he didn’t have much leash experience. He was from a shelter (an amazing one), but had come from a hoarding/breeding situation and had lived most of his life in a cage. At first he didn’t seem to know what to do on walks. He would lag behind sniffing everything. Again, using the same thought processes I had with Dane, I wanted Frankie to walk at my side.

I would use verbal encouragement and gentle tugs to guide Frankie to my side and after several walks he caught on. If anything, he’d lag behind rather than be pulling up ahead. However, Frankie didn’t seem to enjoy walks. If we stopped for any reason he would  try to climb up my legs to be held and carried. Last fall when I attempted a long walk with him, like Dane and I would usually do, Frankie started crying. Apparently he injured himself or he was very good at faking things and I carried him most of the walk.

Along came Milo. As the biggest dog in my home and strongest at twenty one pounds of pure muscle, he tried to pull on walks. I bought a harness that clips in the front to train him not to pull. I had to correct him every couple of steps to get him back at my side. Our walks were not that enjoyable as he needed so much correction. Not to mention, when we’d get home, he would still have loads of energy while I was tired and a little sore.

Enter the epiphany. While reading Victoria Stilwell’s book, “Train Your Dog Positively,” she mentioned the walk, dogs that pull, and dogs that walk ahead. Somehow, with her words, a lightbulb went off. I started to let Milo and Dane walk ahead of me on the walks. I let them sniff and yes Milo does tend to keep tension on the leash. I’ve started letting them mark on walks (a previous no-no). I let them wander a bit.

Guess what? Our walks are MUCH more enjoyable. Milo is tired when we get back. The boys are more relaxed. I suspect it is because I am letting them explore the world around them. They spend a good portion of their day crated while my sister and I are at work. I think by letting them explore on walks they are using their noses, minds, and muscles more.

With this new approach they seem to bark a little less at home and listen better too. While I do let them walk ahead and sniff and mark, they have some boundaries too. Milo has learned that while he may sniff or mark, when I say, “walk,” it means get moving again. Initially I had to accompany the word with a few gentle tugs to coax him into forward movement. He has quickly learned that when I say walk, he needs to start moving. As a result I am tugging less and less. Most times just saying “walk,” is sufficient to get him moving again unless it is a really good smell.

The new approach to walks has been great for Dane and Milo. Frankie tends to stay home, snuggled with my sister. Recently though, I opted to walk the boys when my sister was at work. I debated what to do with Frankie. Did I take him along? Did I leave him home? I didn’t want to have to carry him the whole way (or even half the way). I decided to have Frankie come too. He seems to enjoy walks a lot more now that he has some freedom. In fact, today, he got his leash tangled and when I bent down to fix it, he moved away like, “Don’t pick me up, I’m having fun.”

While I used to think a dog walking ahead of it’s owner was sign of poorly trained dog I’ve realized that may not be the case at all. When I walk my dogs people are impressed with how they walk on a leash, even as they explore with their noses. It’s a well rehearsed dance at this point and their leashes rarely get tangled. To my delight, a woman that we encountered today actually thought I was a dog walker and wanted to know if I wanted three more dogs to walk. She was surprised to learn they were my dogs, they were walking so nicely she assumed I was a professional.

Despite our successes we still have some work to do. I’m trying to teach the boys to “heel,” when there are other people or dogs around. I’ve learned that if I let them walk ahead when crossing paths with other dogs, runners, or people on bikes they are too reactive. The same thing with simply pulling off to the side to let the other person/dog pass. While I can initially get them into a sit or down they become reactive when the other person goes by. The win so far seems to be getting them into a heel. Then we can pass by, keeping a respectful distance, and not having them boys be reactive to the stimulus. The learning curve? Teaching them “heel” as a command. Currently it requires me pulling them in until they are at my side, then proceeding. Lucky for them, I enjoy walks as much as they do which means we will have plenty of opportunity for practice.

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