Friday, July 8, 2016

"Walkin' the Dog" - a Totally Human Invention

During training (usually just after we've taught our clients how to teach their dogs to heel), we often get the questions:

  • "When can we go back to taking real walks?"
  • "When can we take regular walks again?"
  • "Will my dog always have to heel when we're on a walk?"

For years, I've been stunned by these questions - because to me, the answers are obvious.

But, the fact that so many folks ask these questions; and the fact that we see so many dogs who have been trained to walk nicely (by us, or by other trainers) dragging their humans around behind them says that the answer is NOT so clear to the general dog owning public.

Today, I decided to answer the questions about walks as thoroughly as possible, since a favorite client asked about walks this morning.  (Side note:  You know who you are, favorite client....)

Ok, first off, let's look at the 'walk' - as a human invention!  Yes, you read that right.  WE - the big hairless monkeys - invented the walk.  Just like we invented dog parks; doggie daycares, and retractable leashes (but don't get me started...a post about these 3 problem-causing inventions is a whole other subject).

Does that mean I don't think you should take your dog for a walk?  Of course not!  But let me explain:

When dogs in the wild leave their dens, they never just mentally zone out and 'go for a walk' - mindlessly wandering the same route day after day.  That type of walk was invented by us - for human convenience.

When dogs leave the safety and comfort of home, they always do so with a reason or purpose.  The most common reasons for leaving the den are:

1.  Potty Duty.  Dogs tend to be very clean animals, so they prefer not to pee and poop close to where they sleep.  They tend to move as far away as possible (and reasonable) to 'do their business.'  I'd say this is a pretty specific purpose.

2.  Border Patrol.  They may not want to build a giant wall, but they DO want to enforce the boundaries of 'their' property - generally by scent marking (peeing) at specific spots to let everyone else in the neighborhood know that this is their turf.  Again - a pretty specific purpose.  And anyone who's been dragged down the street from tree to tree can see just how serious their dog is about this job.

3.  The All-Important Hunt.  Yep - dogs of course have to leave home to find food.  Just because we happen to provide 2 or 3 square meals a day doesn't change this instinct for them.  The hunt drive may be the strongest of all.

So, how does this apply to you and your dog?

Well, when you and your dog go out into our sometimes-dangerous, stimulating, incredibly interesting world, your dog sees the adventure not just as 'let's get me some much-needed physical exercise.'   Your dog sees you as a pack, leaving to take care of some or all of the business purposes listed above.

When you zone out, (or talk on your phone), or just stroll aimlessly along without any clear purpose, or visit with other human walking partners, are leaving the purpose of the walk open to your dog's interpretation.

And I guarantee you, if YOU don't pick the purpose, your dog will.  He or she will kick into gear - dragging you from tree to tree, marking up the neighborhood.

Or hunting and sniffing, and chasing after every leaf, stick, piece of paper, rabbit, bird, squirrel, cyclist, jogger, etc.

Or refusing to move until he/she finds 'the perfect' place to poop - usually right on the finicky neighbor's lawn, and you've forgotten to bring a collection bag.

Or refusing to do his/her potty business (for those who live in apartments - I know you're familiar with this one); 'holding it' for longer and longer periods of time to train you to extend the walk time.  If you think THAT dog isn't concentrating on a very specific purpose, well, then the rest of this post will be lost on you.

Or charging at every dog/person on the street in a territorial display - telling them (even from blocks and blocks away) that this is THEIR turf.  (They have the peed-on trees and bushes to prove it, don't they?)

Or turning into a social greeting committee - engaging every other person or dog they see in an overly-friendly, overly-excited, overly-extreme display of affection (yes - just like in the human world - there is such a thing as being too familiar with strangers)!

Ok - so we've determined that when your dog is out in the world with you, he or she needs a job.

Great.  What else?

Well, remember what started this post?   It was the question:  "When can we take 'normal' walks again?"

So let's take a closer look at the definition of a 'normal' walk.

Many (if not most) clients who seek our services have trouble with their dogs not walking well with them - either on leash, or off.  Complaints range from general leash-pulling to all-out aggression and reactivity.

So when I hear the 'when can I take normal walks' again question, I am puzzled.  If I'm not mistaken, the 'normal' walks clients were taking with their dogs prior to training were not all that wonderful.

In some cases, the struggle with walks was what prompted them to seek help with their dog in the first place.

So perhaps the problem is with the definition of a normal walk.  We established above that when you are out in the world with your dog, he or she needs purpose and a job.  Your 'job' on a walk is to establish what the purpose of the walk is.

For your dog, a 'normal' walk is one involving a purpose for leaving the house; and that purpose is generally laid out and enforced by the head honcho in charge (you).

To illustrate this point:

Countless times a month, we hear stories of dogs who jog or run with their owners perfectly well.  But if the owner is just taking the dog for a walk, the same dog is leash reactive, pulling, and/or is a general pain in the you-know-what.

Why is this?  The answer is simple!

How many joggers/runners do you see who look as if they have no purpose for being out there jogging?  Yep.  Zero.  Dogs pick up on this shift in energy from the human (the shift into working or goal-driven outings, as opposed to aimless wandering) - to dogs, jogging looks and feels like purposeful, goal-driven work!

So, if you're not a jogger, and Fido or FiFi still needs mental & physical exercise (which dogs most certainly need) - what should you do?

Again, the answer is SIMPLE - give your dog a job, a purpose, a reason for working on walks!  This can be anything from teaching, practicing, proofing, and enforcing the heel position, to working more specific or difficult training skills.

This takes the emphasis off of your dog to figure out (or make up) a job during walks, and puts you - the owner - back in charge.

Taking potty breaks, (and appropriate hunting breaks) is fine, if these breaks from working are done right on your walks.

But aimlessly zoning out is not the way to a happier walk - for you, or your dog.

Very often, when I break the above news - that your dog should be working, if only at heeling - for about 90% of your 'walking' time, this is met by owner protests.  "But when can we just relax and have fun?"

My answer:

Silly humans, pay attention!  When the average dog in the wild leaves the den, they are successful on the hunt only about 5% of the time.  That means they have 8 to 10 hours a day of hard mental and physical labor - resulting in only a 5% return on their efforts.  And yet, they go out again, and they work/hunt the next day.  And the next.

YOUR DOG is genetically programmed to work/hunt for survival.  8 to 10 hours a day (with the exception of the sighthound sprinting breeds, who work in much shorter bursts).

Unless you are actively working at hunting, herding, guarding, or other intense activities with your dog, you cannot tell me that making your dog work at heel for an entire walk with you is a hardship.

In fact, I challenge you to give it a try - make all of your walks working walks.

Embrace the working walk as your 'new normal.'  

I can guarantee that you will see 2 things happen for the better:

1.  If you keep at it, it will become less about work (the dog is learning to hold the heel and be responsible to you naturally, through habit), and will be easier and easier for both you and the dog.

2.  Not only will your dog's 'problem' walking behavior decrease or disappear, your dog's overall behaviors - at home, out in the world, etc. - will dramatically improve; if only because you are meeting a small fraction of their mental need to work, when they're walking with you.

A dog at work, with a clear goal in mind and a predictable world around it is naturally more well-behaved than a dog trying to make sense of our human world, without our input or support.

I call this second phenomenon 'good multi-tasking.'  You and your dog are getting mental and physical exercise, communication with each other, and increased bonding.  To me, that beats the 'wondering after a pulling dog while you try to talk on the phone' type of multi-tasking any day of the week.

That's it from this end of the leash.

Jennifer Hime is the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be reached through her website, at

1 comment:

Susan Smith said...

This is an awesome article and a must read for all dog owners.

I walk and do rally signs through the park. Imaginary figure eights, whatever I can dream up to keep the focus and connection.