A question I get frequently is “How aloud I walk my dog?” I know that sounds silly, but all people are really wondering is whether they should let their dog sniff around and wander or keep their dog next to them the whole time.
There is no absolute answer to this question. We handle this in a very structured way, which we believes helps a dog become calm and get over aggression, and behave well. We’ve found that walking dogs in a specific way does make it easier to achieve those results. Maybe that sounds ridiculous to you.
The answer, to me, comes down to context. Generally speaking, if I’m walking a dog on the sidewalk in my neighborhood, the dog is heeling. If I notice that she needs to use the bathroom, I’ll scoot over to a green strip and encourage her to use it. In that case, I would let her wander a little bit. But for the most part, I want her at my side when we’re in the neighborhood. Now, dogs who have reactivity and aggression issues, this is ten times more important. When your dog is in a position to encounter distractions and triggers, they really need to pay attention to you. Is a walk about exercise? Yes. But it’s actually more about what’s going on with the mind than what’s going on with the body.
I’ve had clients through the years who say things like: “My dog and I will go up to the hills and he’ll chase me on my mountain bike for two hours—but when we come home, he still has a ton of energy! I don’t know what to do!” How do you get that energy our? Well, if that same dog walks beside their owner in a focused way for thirty minutes, they’re suddenly a completely different animal. They’re calm, relaxed, and yes, even tired. You tire a dog out much more quickly through mental exercise than physical exercise. So when you’re in the neighborhood, walk your dog next to your side. He’ll handle distractions better and feel more fulfilled.
Some people struggle with this because they like their dogs to be able to wander. Today, for instance, I was out walking my dog on a trail near my home. Up until we reached the trail, she heeled at my side the whole time. But once we got to the trail itself I let her off leash to run around.
Now, some owners aren’t at the off-leash stage but still want their dogs to sniff, wander around, and enjoy their time outdoors. These people can achieve the same kind of results using a long line. Notice that I said long line, not a retractable leash! Those are of the devil. Instead, use a twenty or thirty foot leash that allows your dog to wander.
A few days ago I encountered a client out on the trails. When this happened—as I do any time that I encounter another person or dog on the trails—I brought my dog back to me and asked her to heel past them. In order to let your dog wander, therefore, you need to have a solid recall and heel skills. once you’re past the distraction, you can let your dog wander and have free time again.
Maybe you don’t have a trail like this near you, but still want your dog to have that fun wandering time. No problem! You can do this at a park or pool, or just along a certain part of your normal walking route. What you need to do is establish a clear distinction in your dog’s mind. Your dog needs to know that when he’s heeling, he can’t be sniffing everywhere or barking or chasing rabbits. He’s engaged and paying attention to you, not mentally wandering. When you get somewhere else and give the release command, then he’s allowed to sniff. Dogs need to understand that during some times it’s fine to sniff and walk around, and that during other times they need to buckle down and pay attention.
Both of these activities should be enjoyable and fulfilling for your dog. Heeling is an exercise in teamwork, where your dog is focused on and paying attention to you. Wandering is just a way to have fun chasing grasshoppers and sniffing the grass. As long as you maintain a sense of separation between those two activities, you will be fine. If your dog starts to wander just because he feels like it, then issues with poor focus and leash pulling usually follow, and reactivity and aggression can easily come out of those little problems.
Keep all of this in mind when you’re heading out to have some fun on the trails. Happy walking!