6 Tips For a Better Walk
There’s no doubt that having dogs enriches our lives in ways those without dogs couldn’t even imagine. But, owning a dog comes with a lot of responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is taking our dogs for daily walks. Taking your dog for walks is one of the best ways to bond with your dog while also getting some fresh air and exercise. It’s also a great way to meet your neighbors and explore new places. If I had never dived into the dog life I would never have gotten into hiking, and I wouldn’t have met some of the most amazing people in my life.
However, as a dog trainer, the most common issue people come to me for is for leash walking. I get asked multiple times a week, if not every day, “How do I get my dog to stop pulling on the leash?”
While walking our dogs can be one of the best parts of owning a dog, it can also be embarrassing and frustrating if your dog is pulling you down the street like a sled or barking at everyone you pass.
Speaking from experience, teaching your dog to walk politely with you is one of the most rewarding things you can teach your dog. Actually, it’s what got me into dog training. After adopting my first dog, Max, I quickly learned that he had horrendous leash manners. He’d pull until my shoulder hurt and react to any dog he saw. It didn’t take long for me to decide that this was not how we were going to live our lives. I dreamed of being able to take him anywhere and to be able to enjoy spending time with him, instead of worrying about what everyone else must have thought watching us struggle or worrying that he’d rip the leash from my hand and chase a squirrel into traffic.
If you’ve ever dreaded taking your dog for a walk, this post is for you. I won’t lie and say teaching your dog not to pull is an easy-fix. But, it’s absolutely doable.
Here are 6 tips to help you and your dog start your journey to a better walk.
Tip #1: Make sure you’re using the right tools.
The pet industry is booming, and making more of a profit than ever before. If you go into any pet store you’re likely to be bombarded with an overwhelming amount of leashes, harnesses, collars and other gimmicks that are marketed to “help your dog stop pulling.” If I could insert an emoji into a blog post, the eye-roll emoji would be right here.
Of all the dog training tools out there, the one that’s the most misunderstood, and mis-marketed, is the harness. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say they bought a harness to help stop their dog from pulling. And it's not their fault. There's no governing body to fact check the packaging of dog supplies, and no one to say a company can't put totally bad advice on the front of the packaging. The pet industry is designed to sell, and they'll say whatever you want to hear to do just that.
Dog harnesses were not created to stop pulling - in fact, they were created to encourage it.
Way back in the day, when dogs were used as working animals rather than just family pets, harnesses were used as a tool for dogs to safely pull sleds and carts. In the modern world, you’ll see harnesses used in bite sports to safely hold a dog back while being encouraged to pull and lunge. Unfortunately, the pet industry of today has found a way to tug on the strings of human sympathy by tricking us into thinking a harness is a more comfortable and better option because it's what we would want to wear if we were dogs. But, we need to remember our dogs are animals that feel things much differently than we do.
Without getting too scientific, dogs have something called an opposition reflex. This is basically a reflex where the dog naturally resists pressure. Essentially, when your dog feels tension on the leash, it's their nature to pull against it, rather than give into it. Giving into the pressure is something we need to teach them to do, as it goes against their instinctual reflex.
When you attach a leash to a harness, your dog feels the tension and naturally wants to pull. And, with a harness on, your dog has much more strength in their shoulders to pull you with, and it's much more comfortable for them to do so.
Throw your harness in the trashcan, and switch it out for a well fitted slip lead. Fit the slip lead properly, it should sit right behind your dogs ears and jaw. This is not only a safer position, as its less likely to cause damage to your dogs trachea if they do pull, but your dog also has much less strength in this part of their neck to pull you with.
Tip #2: Stop hyping your dog up before a walk.
Most of us have a habit of asking our dogs, “Dooooo youuuuu wanna go for a walk?”. Usually when we ask this, our voice gets unusually high pitched, and our dogs do a dramatic head tilt and then become so incredibly excited.
We seem to love this. However, if you start your walk off with a dog who’s over-excited, you’re probably going to have a rough start.
The more excited you get your dog, the more likely they are to pull you right out the door in anticipation of getting started. We all love seeing our dogs excited, but is seeing your dog excited worth a stressful walk? Wouldn’t it be more worth it to see how happy and content they can be enjoying a nice, peaceful stroll through the park? Which bring us to ...
Tip # 3: Start with a calm mindset.
The energy of your walk is going to match the energy you walk out the door with. If you dog bolts out the door, you can bet they’ll be lunging for the end of the leash the entire way.
Your dog’s mindset is important. If you have an excited dog, you’re going to have an exciting walk. If your dog is calm, you’re going to have a calm walk. Your walk starts before you even leave the house.
Most dogs will get excited when you put their leash on because they know the leash means they’re going somewhere, and that’s exciting! Once you put that leash on, make sure to bring them back down to a calm mindset before walking out the door.
If your dog knows a place command, you can use it by the entryway to have them place and calm down before walking out the door. If your dog doesn’t know a place command, that’s ok. Ask them to sit or lay down, and wait until they calm themselves. The first few times this may take a while, and you’re going to need your patience. Remember, if walks have always been exciting up until now, they’re conditioned to be in an excited state of mind, and teaching a different state of mind may take a little time.
Once your dog is calm, open the door and have them hold their position until you calmly ask them to follow you through the door. You can also practice this randomly throughout the day, even if you aren't actually going for a walk. If you have a few spare minutes, put your dogs leash on and practice your door manners. It will pay off.
Tip #4: Practice first.
Once you walk outside, spend a few minutes setting the tone for your walk by practicing. Have your dog walk attentively in the driveway before setting off.
Do some figure 8’s. Practice walking and turning away from your dog to go in the opposite direction. Then, practice turning in towards your dog and going the opposite direction. Practice stopping abruptly and asking them to sit. Once you can change directions and your dog follows you without reaching the end of the leash, you’re ready to venture out into the world with an attentive dog.
Tip #5: Be careful not to reinforce bad habits.
Dogs pull to get somewhere. And they do what works. If your dog reaches the end of the leash and pulls, and you walk forward with them, what they learn is that if they pull they get what they want.
Most of us have busy lives, and we usually give into the pulling because we don’t know how to fix it and we just want to finish the walk and move onto the next part of our day. Remember though, if you’re accidentally reinforcing the the pulling by giving them what they want (moving in that direction) you’re making the behavior stronger.
There are many ways to train a dog to walk next to you rather than pulling on the leash. Working with a trainer will help find the method that works best for your particular dog. However, here is a fairly common way that works for most.
Anytime your dog pulls on the leash, you should immediately turn and walk in the opposite direction. The key is here is to turn around quickly and confidently start walking. Make sure you don’t stop and wait for your dog to pay attention, just turn and walk. Remember, your dog pulls in the direction they want to go, so your goal is to go the complete opposite direction any time they do pull. This helps teach them that pulling doesn’t work to get them what they want, in fact, it will take them farther away from where they want to go. Dogs do what works, so we need to make the pulling stop working. Since pulling has worked for them in the past, they’re going to try to continue it for a while because of its successful history. That’s ok, stay consistent and they’ll figure it out.
In the beginning, you may find yourself seemingly walking back and forth on the same section of the sidewalk, you may not even make it past your mailbox. That’s ok. Don’t feel pressured to finish your usual route. The mental workout your dog gets from learning something new will tire them out the same way a long walk would. You may also find your neighbors staring and wondering what on earth you are doing. Ignore them, they’ll be jealous in a few weeks when your dog has a beautiful walk.
Tip #6: Be present and reward your dog for engagement with you.
It's so easy for us to get lost in our own world when on a walk. Whether we're listening to music on our headphones, or scrolling through our phone, our lives are busy and we get caught up in our phones way too easily.
While you may see your walk as a quick way to exercise your dog, your dog is so incredibly happy to be spending time with you. The problem is, if we aren't encouraging our dogs to engage with us, then we're encouraging them to engage with everything else. Why would your dog want to interact with you if you don't want to look up from your phone? If you aren't interesting, something else will be.
Put your phone away, and engage with your dog. Praise them when they check in with you to encourage that behavior in the future. For example, if your dog is a step ahead and turns to look at you, reward with praise or a treat to let them know you appreciate that. Every now and then, stop and let them sniff the grass. If you find a bench, take a break and sit with your dog to watch the world go by. Be present with your dog. They'll appreciate it, and you'll find your walks to be much more meaningful.