Quite often, when I’m out walking my dogs, I see numerous other dog/handler teams out for a stroll in the neighborhood.
I see all kinds of things I don’t particularly like that compromise dogs’ physical or mental health –- dogs getting yanked around on leashes, yelled at, and constantly scolded. I also see training concerns, and people reinforcing correct behavior. I can’t recall a single time I’ve seen a dog in my neighborhood get a treat for doing the right thing when out on a walk.
But of all the things I see on walks, one of the most frustrating for me is seeing dogs being punished, incessantly, for being dogs. This is National Walk Your Dog Week, so it’s a good time to consider what a walk is all about — and who should benefit more from it. Read on for some observations, advice, and tips on dog walking.
Sometimes it seems as though owners take their dogs for walks and forget what a walk is all about — for their dog. For dogs, a walk is about sights, sounds, and experiences. It’s about checking “p-mail,” sniffing hydrants and trees to find out where the neighbor’s dog or cat last peed. It’s about shoving their faces down a groundhog hole and sniffing until they finally pull their faces out, dirty, blissful, their nostrils full of the smell of wild animals. It’s about munching a particularly tender blade of grass, saying “hello” to a friendly stranger they’d like to greet, lifting a leg on every fire utility pole or tree you pass, splashing in a puddle or creek, or chewing a stick for a brief moment.
This is what walks mean to dogs. It’s a chance to investigate and interact with their environment. It’s mental and physical stimulation.
Many owners approach a walk with the mentality that, “We’re going to walk X route in Y amount of minutes whatever that takes. It will be your exercise for the day and you’d better well like it.” It’s a “Let’s just get this over with” mentality, a “You’re an imposition to me and I’m doing this because I have to, not because I like to,” mentality. For these people and their dogs, walking is a chore. For me, Cuba, and Mokie, more often than not, it’s a game.
Let’s face facts. For many dogs, a daily 30-minute leash walk barely begins to address their true exercise needs. Mokie, my Chow mix, is a very active dog and for her, a walk is certainly more about mental stimulation than it is about physical stimulation. A 30-minute walk is only the beginning for her. If I want to really tire her out, we need to go hiking, backpacking, swimming, or have a long and adventurous romp with some of her favorite doggy pals.
When we go on a walk, I’m walking for my dogs. It’s their chance to just get out there and be dogs, to sniff and explore. If I want to go on a brisk, no-nonsense, let’s-not-stop-for-anything power walk (which happens rarely, I just can’t see the point in walking without at least one dog and would feel utterly naked), I would go without the dogs.
Despite the fact that I’m a trainer, I also don’t insist on perfect obedience from my dogs when we walk. A colleague once said, “Well, my dogs would NEVER pull on the leash because I’m a dog trainer.” Well, la-dee-dah. Dogs are dogs. They move faster than we do and think poop is fascinating. I’m not saying I let my dogs pull me around, but sometimes the leash does go tight. So what? I just stop, wait for the tension to come off the leash, and we start walking again. No biggie.
I do use equipment as a cue for the type of walk we’re having. If I’m going on a training walk, where we’ll work on heeling or obedience, my dogs can wear their collars and six-foot leashes. If we’re going for fun, a “for the dogs” walk, they get to wear front-clip harnesses and a long-line or flexi leash. (For dogs — and owners of dogs -– who are not already trained to walk politely on a regular leash, a flexi leash can be a safety risk and inhibit the learning of appropriate leash manners.) When they have those “clothes” on, they know they’re off the hook. It’s dog time –- do whatever you want. Sure, I’ll still call them back and reinforce the behavior for coming, ask for a few steps in heel and reward with a chance to shove their face in a hole dug by a woodchuck, or ask for a few hand targets and reward with a stick tossed into the creek for retrieving.
But my dogs aren’t always “on.” They’re not always performing, I’m not always rigid. I don’t spend every second we’re together thinking of criteria, reinforcement schedules, and so on. I think of behaviors I like, and I look for ways to make it fun for them to offer those behaviors by giving them the things they want and need. Yes, dogs do NEED to sniff things and interact with their environment.
Sometimes, I’m not even a dog trainer, I’m just She Who Likes to Have Fun With Dogs.
I don’t want robots, I want canines. Yes, I find their good behavior rewarding and fulfilling. It makes me proud to know how wonderful my dogs are. But at the same time, I want them to have plenty of opportunities to just do the things that they like to do, even if means that they’re sniffing for 30 minutes out of a 45-minute walk, and we make it around only four or five blocks instead of a few miles. Sometimes, I let the dogs pick the route we take on our walk. Something smells good on Fairview Avenue? Let’s go that way instead of taking Riverside today!
Next time you leash your dog up for a walk, ask yourself, “Whose walk is it, anyway?” Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
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