Picture this: You and your closest friend are walking in your favorite downtown area on a beautiful fall day, taking in the sights and the sounds. You couldn’t ask for better weather, and you don’t have a care in the world. You decide to stop at one of the store windows to read a poster for a local band, and your friend yanks impatiently on your arm. “Come on, let’s go!” You’re mildly annoyed, but you were just checking something out, no big, so you keep moving right along.
The next time you stop they do the same thing. “Can you please just wait one second?” you say. Nope, YANK. Next time, the SAME thing. Then, you see a poster with your favorite author on it, and you immediately put the brakes on. You NEED to read this poster! Are they coming to town?!
Your friend says “Come on, let’s go!” and tugs on your arm when you stop to read the poster. You plant your feet. This is important! Then they say “Seriously, hurry UP.” And pull harder. Ouuuuuch! What would you do? Put yourself in these shoes, and really imagine just how tolerant you would be of this behavior from someone you consider your closest friend. I know I wouldn’t tolerate this kind of behavior from someone, no matter how much they meant to me.
And yet I see this behavior ALL the time, just not between two people. I see this behavior all the time when people are out walking with their dogs. Dog stops to sniff, human keeps walking, gets to the end of the leash, and YANKS. Sometimes the dog is on a harness if they’re lucky, but many times (unfortunately), the dog is on a choke chain or prong collar.
In a dog’s life their walk is one of the most mentally and physically enriching activities they get. They spend an awful lot of time indoors, biding their time until we decide to interact with them again. Shouldn’t we, as owners and guardians of our dogs, respect their walks then?
The fact is, dogs see the world with their nose, and every time they stop to sniff, they’re learning tons about their environment. What other dogs were here before? Any other critters? Ooooh, someone had a hamburger wrapper here a few hours ago… It’s similar to how we would stop to read a sign or poster, or even how we stop to talk to our neighbors.
I know what some of you are thinking: “If I let my dog sniff everything they wanted to sniff for as long as they wanted to, my walks would all last five and a half hours!” And that’s fair. I’m not asking you to always let your dog fully investigate every tree they come across, but I am asking you to compromise with the canine companion you chose to bring into your home by making the walks as much about their enjoyment as it is about yours.
So, what can you do? Here are some tips and ideas:
1. PUT THE PHONE AWAY. The fact of the matter is that, in the digital age, it’s hard to unplug from our texts, emails, and facebook. But when we’re out walking our dogs, we are walking with our friends, and having a phone in our face the entire time definitely takes away from that. It’s not really fair that we expect our dogs to stay engaged and focused on us, but we don’t reciprocate, is it? Plus, it’s probably good for you to take a break from the web (take it from someone who is addicted to the internet! It’s nice to have a long walk totally unplugged).
2. Give a cue to let your dog know you’re moving! It’s amazing how often we forget that we have trained our dogs to certain cues that can work in this context. Call their name, if they respond, praise them and reinforce them (if you have treats, use them! Dog trainer confession: I always have treats.) and then keep going. You can ask your dog for their recall cue, or ask for a nose target “touch!” to your hand. I don’t like overusing my dog’s recall cue, so I decided to train an entirely separate cue called “let’s go” that tells him that we’re getting ready to move. Think about what your dog already knows, and instead of pulling or yanking on your dog at the end of leash, give your dog a cue so they have an idea of what you’d like from them, and then praise them for their response.
3. Buy a harness. The simple fact of the matter is that we’re humans, and humans make mistakes. As primates, it’s very natural for us to swing our arms as we walk, and yank or pull simply as a knee-jerk reaction to a taut leash. Because of this, I urge all of my clients to use body harnesses on their dogs (front clip harness for the pullers), simply because that way, when we do accidentally pull on the leash, we’re not yanking on the most delicate part of our dog’s body (their throat houses their esophagus, windpipe, and thyroid gland!) Click here for a great review of harnesses available.
4. Practice the 10 second rule. If I use my “let’s go” cue and my dog is still hesitant to move along, it tends to be a sign that he’s smelling something REALLY interesting and he would like to investigate a little longer. It’s my own personal rule that I let my dogs sniff at least ten more seconds after that. I have found that usually after that extra time, the dog keeps moving easily, eliminating the need to have to pull him away from the smell, and the next time he needs to sniff it’s not for quite as long of a time.
5. Sniff at the beginning and end of each walk. This one works with my beagle mix really well. We start the beginning of each walk and he’s allowed to sniff whatever he’d like for as long as he’d like. I like to think that he has a “sniffy” reservoir that he needs to fill, and that it helps him to get a head start at the beginning of the walk. Then, once we get moving, he sniffs at a quicker pace, and then we end the walk with some leisurely sniffing as well. This is all purely anecdotal, but I swear it works!
6. Allow more time. A lot of people get frustrated with their dogs on walks because they have to get to work, get to school, etc. and the dog’s sniffing is taking too much time. If you find this is often the problem on your walks, the answer is simple. Make more time for your walks. A little extra walking never hurt anyone, and this will make your walks less stressful. It may also help to keep all walking equipment (treat pouches, poop bags, leashes, gym shoes) in one central area so that you can get yourself and Fido ready and out the door in record time!
7. Long-line sniffy walks. Go out, buy a 50 foot long line, and find a big park or forest preserve (far away from any traffic!) to have leisurely sniffy walks at. This way, you can keep moving while your dog is sniffing, and then when you get to the end of the long line, call your dog to you to keep moving. You’d be amazed at how exhausted your dog can get with a combination of running on a long line and getting to sniff as much as he’d like.
Using these tips and positively training your dog for loose leash walking can make your walks together one of your greatest joys. I think one of the best gifts we can give our dogs is being more mindful on our walks, so put the phone down, take a deep breath, and enjoy.