Did you ever dream how much fun a walk with your dog would be before you actually parented a pup? You may have imagined a calm worry free stroll around the block with your pup gently sniffing the grass while you lost yourself in the beauty of the natural world. In this dream, your dog only urinated so you never had to bend over and pick up feces and your dog interacted well with each person or dog that it encountered.
In the real world, once we actually have a dog as a member of the family, we quickly realize that a walk around the block is not nearly enough and can be fraught with complications. Your dog sees a squirrel and darts towards the road, lunges at other dogs, barks and shows her teeth at oncoming people, stops to defecate huge piles on the neighbor’s lawn of perfection, tromps through gardens, entangles you and other folks in the leash. Your dreamlike walk in nature has morphed into a tense battle with your pup.
Keep in mind that a good dog is a tired dog. For a dog, the walk around the block is an easy warm-up for the one to ten miles they need depending on breed and size. We could walk for a mile while pup ran 5-mile circles around us and many dogs would happily run another 5 miles after the walk is finished. Dogs have muscle fibers that are very different than ours because they can function at top capacity for a long time. We tire out a long time before they do while running. Dog parks are a good solution as well as woods or beaches where dogs are allowed to run off leash. The ’round the block walk for your dog is like a warm-up exercise for an athlete.
Proper behavior on a leash must be established before letting your dog off leash. A leash should not have any pressure being exerted on it by your dog or you. It is merely a safety mechanism to keep your dog attached to you. Use a six to an eight-foot leash that is not retractable. Never wrap the leash around your wrist. If a dog sees a squirrel it can take off like a shot on a retractable leash before you can press the lock mechanism. Labrador Retrievers have been known to dislocate owners’ shoulders with a sudden charge towards prey.
The first thing a dog must learn is to pay attention only to you the owner at the other end of the leash. Training is best started when a pup is eight to ten weeks old. Older dogs certainly should be trained as well. Get the puppy on your left sitting. Say “Let’s walk” and keep the puppy’s eyes on you as you dole out treats almost at every step. The treats can be crumbs of kibble, broken up dog treats, or baked chicken livers. Treat less often and at irregular intervals as your pup learns to keep eye on you over multiple weeks. You can say, “watch me” and treat when they make eye contact. The reinforcement needs to go on for the rest of the dog’s life. They need reinforcement with food, clicks with a clicker or your reward word “good” the click or word “ good” are given instantaneously as the dog complies. This is the signal to the dog that the reward is coming. Rewards can be ear rubs or a friendly pat as well as food. You and the dog need not have trained under the tutelage of a trainer to establish good on-leash behavior. We call it dog training but mostly the humans are trained to communicate with the dog in these classes.
The book “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell is a must read for any person who wants to understand how dogs think and why they behave the way they do. In this book, she recounts a time she saved her own dog’s life with voice behavior commands when it had made it’s way to the opposite side of a very busy street. Proper training saves dog lives every day because they are more enjoyable to live with and they are less likely to be surrendered to shelters. 80% of all dogs acquired are lost, deceased or surrendered to shelters within 2 years of their acquisition. Many people have trouble with their dog lunging and growling at other dogs. This is called being leashed reactive. Behavior training can help a lot with this issue.
There are a number of amazing trainers on the North Shore of Boston. The ones I work with are Sarah Prescott your dogcoach.com, Dan Carlson of Walk A Pup, Glenn and Judy Goldman at Petdogtraining.com, and Ann Springer at pawsforpraise.com. Call your veterinarian and see who they recommend.
Once you have enough training so your dog will come to you 100% of the time when called (recallable) you can let him off leash in a dog park or woods or beach where they are allowed to be off leash. Please do not walk on a sidewalk with your dog off leash. Please do not bike ride on the sidewalk or street with your dog off leash. Dogs will veer into the street if they are startled or distracted and get hit by a car.
Always follow the “Leave no trace “ rule. It is not appropriate to throw cigarette butts; tissues, coffee cups and empty cans where you walk the dog. It is refuse that should be packed out and put in your car for proper disposal. The same goes for dog feces. Pick up the feces and pack your bag out. Don’t throw it in the woods or leave it by the path. The plastic bag of feces will take years to disintegrate. If you don’t see it the next time you walk it’s probably because someone who wants to enjoy the outdoors without seeing bags of dog poop dotting the horizon picked it up for you and packed it out. In a perfect world, according to the Department of Public Health, the dog feces go in the toilet so the E. coli bacteria are filtered out by the sewerage processing plant and don’t leach into our water supply. If that is too much then into the trash it goes.