Why is Walking so Important?
Aside from giving a dog exercise and the opportunity to go potty, the act of walking your dog is at the very foundation of the human / dog relationship. Additionally, a well structured walking regiment will help avoid any unwanted dog behavior problems such as leash pulling, lunging, chasing, leash aggression, and anxiety. Whenever I begin a training program with a new client the first goal we set out to do is to master the walks. This provide the leadership, structure, and exercise required to provide a secure foundation for any further training goals we may have for their dog. Here in Los Angeles and any other city there is too much going on all the time to have a dog who is out of control on the leash or is constantly reacting to everything going on around them. By understanding the importance of the walk in the human dog relationship and applying the techniques I will teach, you will learn how to walk your dog in a controlled and relaxed way that will help foster a deep connection with your dog and avoid problems associated with walking and the leash.
It’s in our Genetics:
Other than the occasional sloth. Most animal species are meant to migrate through their natural habitats in search of resources to survive. We as humans have evolved to the point that “hunting” means hopping in our hybrid SUV to go to the supermarket to get some food. Dogs however are seeing the world through the same set of eyes they always have been! They are looking to navigate rough terrain alongside their human guides in search of the next food supply or shelter to keep moving forward for the sake of survival. Sounds a lot different than a day at the office and running errands around suburbia, doesn’t it? Studies have even shown that a daily walking routine for humans creates a deep feeling of satisfaction. As if the brain and body are saying, “Thank you for doing what nature intended us to do…” Imagine how the guidance and structure of simulated “hunting and gathering” could benefit your dog since they are driven by even purer instincts than we are!
Let’s Get Started:
Depending on your dog’s previous walking experience and abilities it may be helpful to create structure on your walks via a “Heel” or similar type of walking command. What this command does is designate one specific place for your dog to stroll alongside of you. This helps them stay in the moment by focusing on their task at hand and their pack vs. the extraneous stimuli you would encounter or the urge to pull ahead to quickly. What this also does is demonstrate to your dog that you are acting more dog-like in terms of recognizing the need to preventatively lead your pack instead of always reacting to the problems after the fact. What I have learned long ago is that dogs actually understand how to walk in this fashion without having to give them a command if you communicate clearly that you understand the protocol and rules of how to walk them properly. Since this is rarely the case with most people who are just getting started. I find that giving both the dog and owner a clear command to default to when walking or navigating life, it helps both parties come to a common ground and obtain a better grasp of what each expects from one another. If you are reading this and your dog has a tendency to pull, lunge, or react to dogs / people when on a leash, I would strongly suggest using a command like “Heel” to guide your dog through walks. This should be the mainstay initially until you are able to demonstrate the confidence and control that will keep your dog calm and non-reactive as the norm. After consistently creating this new way of walking, you can begin to walk in a more casual fashion that does not require as much structure and focus.
How to Teach Your Dog the Heel Command:
As I mentioned, dogs instinctively understand certain implications you make to them if you are speaking their language of energy, body language, and pressure. We are going to use these principles of communication to teach your dog how to perform this command. Therefore, treats will be used to reinforce certain expectations of performance we place on them as a dog who understands this and not as a means to bribe or manipulate them to perform and action. Treats can also be used to help lure dogs who are so stubborn they are willing to throw their bodies down in protest in their attempt at regaining control of the walks. Since we of course do not want to drag our dogs, treats can be a good way to distract a dog to resume walking so you may reengage the command.
Step 1) Begin walking with the command word:
This can be “heel”, “let’s go”, “walk”, or whatever word you feel comfortable using. Just remember that this command will be associated with movement and you must be moving while teaching it.
Step 2) Do not trigger the opposition reflex:
If you observe dogs at play they are constantly nipping one another behind the ears back and forth or as they run next to each other. I call this behavior “herding”. The reason I call it this is because it is the same instinct we tap into when we want a dog to herd sheep or moving alongside an object. When we are communicating a walk that does not promote leash pulling or reactions to extraneous stimuli, we are in essence “herding” our dogs in way they complete understand. There is a technique to this. We must keep the leash and collar very high and snug behind a dog’s ears to project pressure and energy into the precise location another dog would project theirs to guide them as they migrated through an environment. You may have seen show dogs walked this way. Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer even invented a special illusion collar that is meant to stay behind a dog’s ears instead of falling low on their neck and shoulders, triggering what I call the Opposition reflex. The opposition reflex is the tendency for energy to pull against itself. It is that sensation you feel with a harness (why sled dogs are so good at pulling!) or even a collar than falls too low on a dogs neck. Your dog begins to pull even more and can even begin to choke themselves! This is why we must always take the time to make sure the collar is always positioned properly, even if you have to stop and slide it up every now and then. Remember, the goal is to project energy through a tense line as efficiently as another dog would “herd” one another naturally. This can be done with a number of different training collars and leashes available all over Los Angeles and worldwide. My article titled, “Dog Training Equipment” gives a full overview of everything you need to know in regards to all the dog training equipment and tools that are available.
Step 3) Pump and Turn:
As you can see, we are trying to simulate the same mechanism that makes dogs flow so effortless when physically engaging one another naturally. Once we become comfortable with collar placement, we then must use it to send a signal of sorts to draw a dog to the moment as we take each step. We do this by keeping the leash snug behind the ears and gently pulsate the leash to send waves of energy to draw their attention to you and the command as another dog would guide them through and environment. We do this because many dogs have a tendency to cast themselves ahead of their bodies mentally to create what I explain as a mental rubber band effect. I call it this because dogs are experts at projecting their intentions way too ahead of themselves for the sake of forging ahead and surviving. What happens because of this instinct is that a walk around the neighborhood feels like a slingshot from being pulled forward unconsciously (the root of pretty much every behavior problem). Your goal as their guide and pack leader is to give them the opposite effect of the mental rubber band. By using the leash, our voice, and other means of tapping into their highly sensitive existence we are able to draw their energy and intent back to the moment of the pack. This keeps their mind and body connected naturally as we would give them guidance and direction as we are hunting and gathering together instinctively.
If you find your dog continues to pull or is distracted despite your pumping efforts it is now time to be clearer in our ability to guide them more proficiently than they can us. Once it is clear your dog is not responding allow them to drift ahead as you swiftly turn in the opposite direction away from them. This about-face maneuver should have you briefly going in opposite directions. Once this disconnect happens, give the leash a pump or two to send energy through the leash to the pressure points behind their ears I spoke of earlier and continue to walk in the opposite direction until they are once again alongside you walking properly. (Caution: do not jerk or yank on leash in a corrective way or put prolonged pressure on their throat). You may have to finesse the collar a little to obtain proper positioning high on their neck since this is an admittedly awkward move to make while walking your dog…With practice it becomes more natural. When done properly with the right timing and consistency, you will begin to see you dog draw back and fall into a more relaxed position while walking because of your ability to prevent their mental energy (the rubberband) from over projecting. It is at this point that you should start to reinforce your command word (heel, let’s go, etc.) and praise your dog for walking without pulling once they are making the effort of performing what you are teaching them on their own without being reminded. The goal is to be able to say the command and initiate the walk without constantly reminding them of what to do.
Potty and Exploring: A dog needs time to do their business and to sniff and explore. However if they are heavily focused on their command, this is difficult to do. There needs to be a designated “off duty” or “recess” command like “ok” or “release” to tell your dog they are off duty so they can go doody. Once they are done you may reinitiate the command to resume walking.
Step 5) Reinforcement and Proofing:
As your dog continues to improve their walking command and is beginning to walk in a calm way on their own it is important to reinforce and proof their efforts. This means that you should reward your dog (verbal and treats) to make their new abilities heavily reinforced. As well as “proof” them by taking skills they can perform solidly in a controlled environment and teach them how to carry them over to increasingly intense and new distractions, environments, and social situations. Continue to reward your dog for new breakthroughs and efforts as well. At this point your dog should also not require a constant command to walk everywhere you go since you have demonstrated consistent leadership and calm associations while walking when you were willing to make the commands a mainstay.
A Quick fix:
There are many dog training devices on the market like no pull harnesses and gentle leader haltis that seem to be a quick fix to a dog’s leash pulling and reaction problems. Unfortunately, many trainers even use these as a way to avoid a deep understanding of the human dog relationship and willingness to communicate in a way that promotes a higher level of engagement between the two species. Basically they can be like putting a band aid on a dog’s behavior problems instead of addressing the root cause to provide natural long term solutions.
What is the Ultimate Goal?:
The goal of mastering the walks with your dog is to have a dog who enjoys walking while not pulling and getting too ahead of themselves both mentally and physically or over reacting to distractions as you travel together as a pack.
Brett Endes, The Dog Savant is a professional dog trainer and author with over 20 years experience specializing in problem behavior and puppy development counseling. The Dog Savant hosts a weekly podcast and is currently developing a reality show to promote his message of canine behavior awareness. Brett takes a unique approach to dog behavior like no other trainer. His methods are based on psychology and principals of meditation along with a dog’s natural way of communication. Brett has been affectionately called, “The man with a dog’s brain”. He is available for private consulting of individual clients and speaking engagements in the greater Los Angeles area and worldwide. To learn more about Brett or for contact info please visit his website: dogtrainingLA.com