The Pet People of Los Gatos asked me to write an article on how to properly walk your dog. I did so, and I’ll re-print it here for your edification!
Many people think that taking Fido out for his daily walk means he’s going to drag you down the street, pausing to sniff and pee, taking a look at the world and everything in it as it goes by — and that this is good for him.
The truth is, this kind of walk will only wind him up without giving him enough exercise, and teach him that the world is over-exciting and the person on the other end of the leash — you — can be ignored.
Pet People would be happy to put you in touch with trainers who can teach you and Fido how to walk together, but in case that’s not an option or you’d like to give it a go yourself, here’s a guide toward proper dog walking that will exercise your dog’s body and mind.
When walking a dog, there are certain things you want to accomplish.
- You want your dog to walk on a loose leash beside you.
- You want your dog to continue to walk on without stopping to sniff or go potty, until you tell them it’s okay.
- You want your dog to walk politely past other dogs, people, and frightening things.
- You want your dog to walk calmly and happily.
A dog doing those things is tuned into her owner, she’s paying attention and learning what the appropriate reaction is from you, and she’s working as part of a pack, all of which exercise her mind and help her be calm, happy, and stable. The following are steps you can take to help accomplish this goal.
Please note that if you are having severe problems or problems with aggression, I strongly suggest you hire a knowledgeable dog trainer to help you.
Your walk starts before you even leave the house. Your dog should sit quietly while you put a leash on him, and then wait for you to open the door. If your dog is running all over the house, first bring him by taking his collar to where you want him to sit, then give him his ‘sit’ command. If he doesn’t know his sit command, pull up on his collar while pushing down on his hips. When he sits, praise him quietly but happily.
A note on praise: if you are excited, your dog will be excited, too. We want clear thinking, not mania, so when you praise your dog be sure to remain calm. Give him loving energy and petting while not getting riled up! If he gets over excited, stop praising him. If he can’t have praise without getting over excited, then try calmly giving him a treat, instead.
Now, while your dog is sitting, put his leash on. Praise him again. If he gets up, just ask him to sit like you did before, each time telling him he’s a good dog even if you have to make him sit.
Note: This step sounds easy, but if it takes you twenty minutes, don’t be discouraged: that happens! Stick with it, and very soon you’ll be down to two minutes.
2. Walking out the Door
The next step is to open the door without her pulling you out. If you are not already at the door, tell your dog to come and start toward it. If your dog races past you, turn sharply and walk away from the door. Your dog will come with you; she has to, since she’s on the other end of your leash! When she catches up to you again, turn and walk back toward the door. If she runs past you, walk the other way. You are teaching your dog that dragging you toward the door will result in the opposite of what she wants, and is uncomfortable in the process.
When you reach the door, stop, ask her to sit again, and then open it. If she runs out, bring her back and ask her to sit. Ask her to look at you. You can use a treat, call her name, or make a funny noise to gain her attention — as long as her eyes come to you. When that happens, tell her she’s good and step outside.
As you walk, remember to keep your chin up and shoulders back. Be confident and courageous. If you don’t feel it, fake it! Your dog will respond better if you seem like you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t!).
2. Loose leash walking and keeping him beside you.
An important technique to know is the “pop.” This is most effective with any kind of training collar. Doing this with a flat collar (the one that your dog’s ID goes on) can hurt their neck and, on a small dog, windpipe.
To use a pop, first make sure your leash is loose. When your dog begins to surge forward (as soon as their shoulder is past your hip), give your leash a sharp sideways tug. This will pull your dog sideways, off balance, checking their stride and letting them know that running forward is not acceptable behavior. Note, though, that means you must pull hard enough to pull them off their stride! Once you have popped, do not keep pulling. As soon as you’ve tugged, relax your arm and make sure the leash is loose again. If you continuing pulling, then your dog will simply pull back — and your dog will probably win! What you’re trying to do is surprise your dog with a sharp tug, not drag him back into position. Also keep in mind that you need to pop before your dog is too far ahead of you. You can’t pop if your dog is already at the end of his leash. The time to pop is just when he’s starting to pull ahead, when his ribs are at your hip.
Your dog has had months or years of practice pulling you around; don’t expect him to give in on the first tug! Be vigilant, and especially in the first walk be prepared to tug quite often! If you find that your dog is too fast, and you can’t tug before he’s all the way ahead of you and pulling, then when he races past you turn and walk the other way just like you did in the house. You might not get very far on your walk the first time, but he’ll learn quickly and then you can enjoy him without being dragged around!
Optional: If you like, you can take a pocket full of treats and when your dog is walking in the correct position — that’s his shoulder to your hip — you can tell him “good dog!” and give him a treat. If you don’t want your pants to smell like dog treats, there are travel pouches for carrying treats while you walk.
Note: If your dog starts to cough or choke, make sure you’re either using a prong collar (which look evil, but will protect their windpipe) or your collar is high up under their chin. Do not continue if your dog is coughing or choking!
Next note: NEVER do this with a face harness. You can seriously injure your dog’s neck.
3. Walking without stopping to sniff or pee.
Often, people use walks for potty breaks. Great! Just make sure that your dog potties when you tell her to, not every ten feet! Like a human, a dog can hold their bladder for hours at a time. If your dog is stopping to pee every few feet, it is not because they need to go potty, but rather because they’re marking where other dogs have marked. Both male and female dogs do this, and they can do it both with urine and feces.
When your dog stops to sniff, give her a tug and continue walking. Don’t pause and look down to see what she’s doing or to ask if she’s all right; just keep going. She will quickly learn that when you are out, it’s time to walk — not pee! If you want her to go potty while you’re out then pick her favorite place and when you get there, stop and tell her “Go potty” (or your usual command), then wait. She will learn quickly when it’s time to go! If she decides she’s going to pee even without permission, keep walking. It’s not comfortable to pee and walk at the same time — she won’t want to do that again! (If she poops, make sure you circle back to pick it up!)
If you would like your dog to have a chance to sniff and explore the world, then take her somewhere she might like to sniff, and stop walking. Giving her a command (such as “relax” or “break time!”) will let her know that this is her chance to look around. Remember: just walking with you, she’s getting hundreds of new scents! She doesn’t need to stop and check every single one out!
4. Walking past other people and dogs.
Congratulations, your dog is learning to walk nicely when there are no distractions! Give yourself a pat on the back, because this is the first step toward walking nicely all the time.
Now, your dog might be behaving perfectly — and then they see a friend they really want to greet! There go the manners, right out the window. Don’t despair; it only takes practice. When you see your dog get excited or start staring, pop then or ask him to focus on you. Call his name and praise him when he looks at you. Don’t wait until he’s already pulling to do either of these. We know he’s excited, but he needs to remember to listen to you. If he pulls anyway, bring him back to where he belongs and keep going.
If this is someone you would like to stop and talk to, then ask your dog to sit and look at you. Reward him for looking at you with praise, petting, or treats. If he would then like to greet the friendly new person or dog, you can give him the same release command he already knows — “relax” or “take a break” or whatever is easy for you to remember. (Since “Okay” is used in our everyday conversation, I would not recommend using that as a release word. You may end up releasing your dog when you don’t mean to!) Alternately, if it’s better for him to remain sitting with you, then simply remind him to sit every time he stands up and he’ll learn.
If this is not a friend or someone you wish to greet, then when you see your dog begin to stare give him a pop. Staring is not a friendly gesture among dogs! They are telling each other — and any humans they’re staring at — that they’re ready to take on a fight. Ask your dog to focus on you, instead, even while you’re walking. Again, when they focus on you praise them, pet them, or give them a treat.
Simply stopping your dog from staring will also stop the inclination to rush toward other dogs; it will remind him before he goes too far that he needs to behave!
5. Walking past frightening objects.
Sometimes you’ll see things that are new and scary. When this happens, stop walking, ask your dog to sit, and let them look at whatever is frightening them. Praise them lavishly for sitting even when they’re scared! When they’ve calmed down, step confidently forward and begin walking again. Remember: your confidence will give your dog confidence!
If she panics and refuses to sit, simply stand calmly and confidently. If you need to, put some more space between you and the scary object, then give her a chance to realize it’s not chasing or hurting her and let her become calm. Do not try to soothe her. She will only see that you’re distressed, and think it’s because you’re afraid, too! Give her some time and as soon as she stops panicking, praise her lavishly and joyously for being brave. When she’s calm enough to sit, you know she’s ready to walk by. She will probably still avoid the scary thing, but remember that now she’s seen it. Keep walking straight, pull her to where she belongs beside you, and tell her she’s just being silly. Keep walking! Once you’re past, you can praise her again for bravely, successfully, walking past the scary thing.
If the scary thing is a person and they’re willing to help, you can walk up to them and ask her to sit. While you talk to them, she can see that they aren’t going to hurt her and get a sniff. If you have a treat, they can give her one. Do not let them pet her until she’s happy to walk up to people. We want her to know you won’t force her into a stressful situation, that she can trust you when you tell her scary things won’t hurt her. Having a stranger’s hands on her might be more frightening than enjoyable, so be her champion and let her wait until she’s happy to see people before those people pet her.
Congratulations on walking your dog!