"How do I make my dog stay next to me?"
"Should I allow my dog to walk ahead of me? Or will he think he's in charge?"
"How do I make my dog listen to me around other dogs?!"
I spend a LOT of time fielding questions like these, and I totally get it! Loose leash walking is one of those elusive behaviors that most people really struggle to teach; with the added complication of myths around this particular behavior (i.e. your dog can't walk ahead of you or they'll think they're the alpha, your dog shouldn't be allowed to sniff, etc. etc.) it makes it even tougher to teach! But have you ever spent any time thinking about the rules YOU should abide by?
I like to say that polite leash walking is like a dance (I'm sure that's not an original thought and I read it somewhere, so thank you to whoever first came up with that!). Sure, your dog should be able to focus on you some, but there should be a little give and take. You can't possibly expect your dog to stay focused on you 100%of the time if you aren't doing the same! And so I've come up with the "Rules for Walking Your Dog: HUMAN Edition"!
1) Thou shalt PUT THE PHONE AWAY
One of my big rules for myself and my dogs is that the phone stays home when we go for a walk. If I'm going somewhere new and need the phone for safety, I keep my phone in my pocket but do not look at it. I don't talk on the phone, or listen to podcasts or music. We are a totally technologically addicted society; I am guilty of this as well. However the walk should be time for you and your dog to bond and connect. Expecting your dog to walk politely next to you while you stare like a zombie at your phone screen is completely unfair, and if you want your dogs to pay attention to you, YOU should do the same.
2) Thou shalt always bring food on walks
This one throws a lot of my clients for a loop, but I'm a pretty firm believer in ALWAYS bringing food on walks. This way, you always have something to reinforce your dog with for making good choices. It's basic behavioral science that when we reinforce a behavior the behavior strengthens or at least maintains it's current frequency; there is no good reason NOT to reinforce the stuff we like! Think of treats as being on the same level of importance as poop bags; most responsible dog owners wouldn't leave the house without poop bags, and they'd even go back to the house to get them if they did forget! Treats should be the same. Keep the treats near your leash as a reminder (or if you use treats that aren't shelf stable keep a post it near the leash as a reminder!) The other day I was wondering, was the first person who suggested bringing poop bags on walks to pick up dog waste looked at as a crazy person? I would imagine so. I can't wait for bringing treats on walks to be the rule, rather than the exception!
3) Thou shalt allow sniffing
Look, I'm gonna be frank here. For most dogs walking is THE MOST exciting part of their day. Most of our companion dogs are expected to lay around all day, not get into trouble, and wait patiently for their walks. Fortunately for us our dogs are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active during dawn and dusk and fit in well with our everyday lives! They are happy to be active in the morning and evening and sleep during most of our work days. But we should be aware of the fact that if walks are our dog's main enrichment, it's THEIR time, not ours. Sniffing is hugely important to our dogs; it's how they discover the world. Dogs have about 300 million odor receptors in their nose; for comparison, we have about 6 million. Most trainers joke about dogs reading their "pee-mail" or checking facebook when they're sniffing, and it's true! It's mentally enriching and exhausting for dogs to use their noses, and if we keep them from performing this natural behavior it can diminish the enjoyability of their walking time. I often use a "ten second rule" when my dogs seem particularly interested in a smell, and use a verbal "let's go" to teach them when we're moving; for more information on how to implement these check out this post.
4) Thou shalt listen to their dogs when greeting new people or dogs
I think we put a lot more social pressure on most of our dogs then they would like out on walks, and it's important to know how social your dog is and manage them accordingly. My two dogs are a great example of this; Phoebe, my 11 month old, LOVES meeting new people and dogs (people even more than dogs). I have to work with her on learning to ignore people and focus on me, and teach her that she only gets to say hi when she shows some self control. Regis could care less about new people, can be nervous if they're tall men, and is afraid of meeting dogs on leash. We're at the point now where Regis can say hi appropriately, but it's usually not his first choice. Yesterday we saw a man on our walk who wanted to greet Phoebe; Phoebe said hello, and Regis stayed back to sniff and look for squirrels! If I forced Regis to say hi to every person we saw, not listening to him when he said he wasn't interested in greeting, I might seriously impact how much he's enjoying his walks. As such, I usually let him sniff, and mind his business, and don't force greetings with new people. If your dog seems hesitant to say hi, or is actively avoiding/not seeking out the attention of a person or dog, LISTEN TO THEM.
5) Thou shalt be consistent in your expectations
Loose leash walking is one of the more difficult behaviors to teach your dog because people don't want to change their routine/schedule of daily walking. I totally get it, it can be really inconvenient; however, if you truly want a dog that won't pull on leash, you have to be consistent and teach them that pulling NEVER works. If pulling sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work, it isn't your dog's fault that they are continuing to pull on walks and it simply isn't fair to get upset with them. I tell my clients all the time: "If you don't care that your dog pulls and it's not a safety issue, I don't care that your dog pulls. You're the one who lives with him. However, you have to set consistent expectations and stick to them". The beautiful thing about getting rid of the "Alpha/Dominance" theory and following the new science is that we know now: your dog pulling on leash has NOTHING to do with social status, or your dog wanting to be the boss. If your dog pulls it's because humans walk slower than dogs naturally, and we walk in boring, straight lines. That's it! Nothing more serious, nothing more dire. So, set your expectations from the start, and be fair and consistent.
Again, a fair relationship with our dogs will always include some give and take. We no longer subscribe to the ideas that we need to force our dogs to comply so that they see us as their leader, and if we expect a healthy relationship with them we should be able to compromise a bit in our lives. By following these five rules and changing our habits a bit we can enrich our dogs lives and improve our relationships with them!