Written by: Melinda Benbow, Urban Uplander
Walking your dog offers several benefits: It provides physical and mental stimulation, gives your dog chances to socialize, and provides many training opportunities. Walking your dog on a regular schedule provides an essential foundation for physical and mental health, helping to release pent-up energy that can otherwise be expressed in destructive ways, like chewing and digging. Here are five tips to help anyone walk their dog more effectively.
1. Use Proper Walking Equipment
The collars, retractable leashes, and harnesses that clip on the back that many dog owners use may actually encourage pulling behavior during a walk. Pain-free solutions to this problem include front-clipping harnesses and head harnesses, and which you choose will depend on your dog’s size and strength. Front-clipping harnesses, in which the leash attaches at the dog’s chest, are great for dogs of any size. Head halters, which attach under the chin, work great for stronger dogs. These devices are effective because they provide extra control because of where they attach to the dog. These areas create pivot points that help redirect the dog from the attractive thing they’re pulling toward.
Take the time to introduce your dog, in a positive way, to the device you choose. An easy way to do this is by letting the dog wear the device inside for short periods and provide food rewards when the dog is calmly wearing it. You can also let your dog engage in supervised playtime while getting used to the harness.
2. Carry High-Value Rewards
When you’re out with your dog, you are competing with many very high-value distractions—squirrels, birds, people, other dogs, and anything your dog considers new and exciting—which make for good training opportunities. It is essential to be prepared for these moments by having food that your dog likes and enjoys. This food reward could be your everyday training treat, but the more exciting the distraction, the higher the value of the compensation should be. Ensure you are rewarding your dog for any behaviors that you like, and ignoring undesirable behaviors. Certainly you should reward your dog for not reacting to another dog, walking by your side, or politely sitting while waiting to cross the street. Deli turkey or cheese make yummy, high-value rewards, but try to limit these high-value treats to just your walks, so they don’t lose their effectiveness to motivate.
3. Stay Consistent
The key to any training is consistency, without which you’re not going to get desirable results. For example, pick which side you want your dog to walk on and reward them for staying to that side. They should be on that side on every walk. Whatever your standard is for your walk, set it and keep it. The consistency of asking your dog for the same thing every time you are out walking will condition your dog to behave this way for every walk.
We have to be consistent in what we are asking our dog to do, and we need to be just as consistent when rewarding these behaviors. Try pairing your high-value food reward with a clicker and verbal praise. The clicker will mark the exact moment the dog performs the correct behaviors, and after the click, you will deliver a food reward. It is important that your dog understands which specific behavior led to the consequence of food reward. If you provide the treat too slowly or do not have it in hand at the ready, the dog could associate the reward with the wrong behavior. For example, let’s say your dog sits at a street corner, and you let five seconds pass as you try to find a treat in your pouch. Unfortunately, the training moment is lost because you didn’t mark the moment the desirable behavior happened.
4. Learn to Handle Distractions
If your dog has a high prey drive or leash reactivity, anything that moves can quickly trigger excitement. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we will run into situations that force us to face these triggers, which may spark lunging, barking, or growling. If you find your dog in one of these predicaments, be mindful of what you are seeing so you can schedule time with a certified dog trainer to find a long-term solution. Until you get home to look up a local pet care pro, here are three defensive handling maneuvers—the Arc-By, the U-Turn, and the Call-to-Front—that will give you control immediately, reduce these behaviors, and create as little stress for you and your dog as possible.
The U-Turn: This is the easiest for most dogs and humans and can be used when you see a situation that will negatively affect your dog. Adjust your dog’s leash to your side and shorten the lead to make a 180-degree turn. This U-turn will allow you to avoid the situation altogether. Once you and your dog have completed the turn, praise and reward to keep them moving.
The Arc-By: This helps you move your dog past a trigger in close proximity. Adjust your dog to your side, keeping its nose behind your toes, place yourself between the dog and the object of interest to act as a buffer, and when you come to the object, arc around it while giving your dog the verbal cue “let’s go.” This helps give your dog the distance it needs to get by its trigger. Once you are past the object, praise and reward while continuing your walk.
The Call-to-Front: This maneuver is to avoid triggers that are too close and helps keep your dog stationary at a difficult moment. The call-to-front can come in handy indoors, such as at the vet, or in situations where there are many triggers. To do this, back up in an “L” shape, so your dog follows. Try to back up far enough to create as much distance between your dog and the trigger as possible. Keep your dog’s leash short to hold their attention. If your dog is calm in this moment, praise and reward. Once the trigger passes, say, “let’s go” and continue your walk and reward your dog.
5. Be Prepared
Poop bags: Besides your high-value rewards, you should be prepared appropriately for your dog walk. One thing you should always have handy are poop bags, and you should always pick up your dog’s poop. Pet waste can contain harmful organisms such as giardia, E. coli, roundworms, hookworms, and salmonella, which can spread to other animals and humans. When pet waste is left on the ground, those diseases, pathogens, and bacteria make their way into the soil and pollute the water supply.
Hot Weather: It is also essential to be mindful of the weather and bring the appropriate supplies. If you’re going to be walking in hot weather, bring plenty of water for your dog. If the temperature is above 90-degrees, you should not walk your dog far or at all, depending on the breed. Dogs have a more challenging time regulating their temperature than we do, and it’s easy for them to overheat. Place your hand or bare foot on the pavement for five seconds. If it’s too hot or uncomfortable for your skin, then it’s too hot for your dog’s feet.
Cold Weather: In the winter, your dog will also need proper preparation. Protect paws from salt, other irritants, and toxic chemicals by using boots made for dogs. If your dog isn’t willing to wear boots, you can coat paws with a protective wax-based cream. When temperatures start to fall below 45°F, some cold-averse breeds will get uncomfortable and will need protection. For owners of small breeds, puppies, senior dogs, or thin-haired breeds, any time the temperature outside feels at or below 32°F, pull out the sweaters or coats.
These five tips should help any dog parent progress get the most out of every dog walk. Unfortunately, there are no overnight fixes, and every dog is a unique individual. Some dogs need more help than others, and if you are finding that your leash training is not progressing positively, then it is time to call in a training professional that can assist you and your dog achieve your leash walking goals!
Melinda Benbow owns and operates Urban Uplander Pet Care in Indianapolis, Indiana, along with her husband and partner, Kyle. She has worked with animals professionally for about ten years, focused on positive-reinforcement training, animal behavior, pet safety, and pet health. Check her out on Instagram and Facebook.