A few years ago, my German Shepherd Dog Anya was selected for a part in a movie that was filming in New York City. Anya had to play the role of a stray dog “meandering” on the streets of Manhattan. “Meandering” was a big stretch for a bitch that does everything fast, but as always she lived up to my expectations and then some.
Although being part of a movie sounds glamorous and exciting, it involves a lot of sitting around waiting before there is any action. We waited about five hours for the crew to get to our scene and prepare it. Fortunately, it was a great June evening and the city was alive. I had the opportunity to observe at least 40 to 50 dogs out for walks with their owners. All breeds and all sizes of dogs passed by the movie set that evening. There were some small Chihuahuas, many medium-sized mixed breeds and numerous large dogs. I saw at least 5 pit bulls and 3 bull terriers. Many of the owners knew each other, so they would stop, say their hellos while the dogs gave each other a sniff, and then they would move on.
Hour after hour I watched a wide variety of dogs and people. Each owner had a different collar and leash on the dog. Some had six-foot leashes; others had flexi-leashes. Some had prong collars, while others used a harness. What struck me immediately was that not one of these dogs was pulling, growling or lunging. In spite of the noise, crowds, traffic, and chaos around them, these dogs were calm and relaxed.
Frankly, these dogs were behaving better than most of the dogs entering my basic or intermediate class for the first time. The city dogs were not better behaved because of better breeding or better training; they were better behaved because of better walks. New York City residents can’t just open the door and let their dogs out to do their business or to run around—dogs have to be walked several times a day for their elimination and exercise needs. Consequently, these dogs do not get over stimulated by the idea of a walk or the sights, sounds, and smells they encounter on the walk. They enjoy their walks at a leisurely pace because walking is not a novelty; it is part of their regular routine.
Page BreakNot All Walking Is “A Walk”
Ironically, living in a suburban home with a big yard is, in some ways, bad for a dog. A dog that lives in a house with a “doggie door” and/or a fenced yard is a dog that probably does not get walked very often. Because the dog can be let out on his own, he often is. A dog in a yard may walk but he is not getting all of the benefits of a walk. It is part of a dog’s genetic make-up to “travel,” to follow their leader at a good pace for sustained periods of time. Sniffing around your yard or chasing a ball cannot replace a walk for fulfilling this need.
Running around in the dog park is not a substitute for a walk either. You will rarely see dog trainers with their personal dogs in a dog park. They may go to the dog park to train their dogs, but they will not usually allow their dogs to run and play with the other dogs. I do not take my dogs to a dog park for several reasons. I don’t know the other dogs and people in the dog park. I do not know when I enter that crowd of dogs whether the people can control their dogs and whether the dogs are well socialized. I don’t want my dogs picking up other dogs’ bad habits. Furthermore, I have no way of knowing whether the dogs are all healthy and vaccinated. Finally, running and playing with other dogs does not fulfill the same needs as “a walk.”
There is a big difference between letting your dog walk (or run or chase a ball) and taking your dog for a walk. Your dog needs you to take him for a walk that lasts at least 20 minutes at least once per day.
- A walk is not simply a potty break. Your dog should be in proper heel position and remain there for a sustained period of walking or trotting by your side.
- Your dog should not stop to sniff at each and every bush and tree. You determine where the “sniffing stops” will be. Release your dog from his heel and allow him to sniff the area and do his business. Do not allow the dog to pull you along and sniff his way forward. If he does not do his business where you stop, have him return to the heel position and walk at your side until the next place YOU decide to stop.
- Vary your route so that your dog does not begin to anticipate where and when you will stop or turn.
- If and when your dog tries to forge ahead of you, change directions quickly, giving a firm pop to his leash and repeating the heel command. If you find that your dog is inching ahead of you, correct him with a quick pop and change directions by crossing in front of him.
- When you encounter other people or dogs, reinforce the heel command and correct if your dog breaks the heel. Do not allow your dog to pull, bark, or otherwise over react to other people and dogs. If necessary, put your dog into a sit or a down while the other dog or person passes. It is vital that your dog focus on you to accept that you are in charge of the situation. Never allow your dog to approach a stranger or strange dog.
The Importance of “A Walk”
I tell all my new students to make sure they take their dogs for a good 20-minute walk each day. The walk is important on many levels and has many benefits for your dog’s health, relationship with you, and overall behavior and attitude.
The walk teaches your dog that you are his leader. A young puppy will usually lag behind when you first take him out for walks. Use your body language to reinforce that your dog should be following your lead. As the puppy grows, he will accept this position as normal, which will facilitate teaching the “heel” command. If you are training an older dog, he may need to be taught that he is not in charge. Regular walks and consistent training will reinforce your leadership position.
The walk stimulates your dog’s mind. Walking with you allows your dog to experience a much wider range of sights, sounds, and scents than he can find in his own backyard. This variety of stimuli keeps him thinking and prevents boredom. Because he is using his mind as well as his muscles, he will return from the walk both mentally and physically tired and ready to rest.
The walk is a way to socialize your dog. When you walk your dog, you will inevitably encounter other people and dogs. As a result, the walk teaches your dog that there are other people and dogs sharing his world and that he must adjust to their comings and goings without causing a commotion. Over time, your dog will come to accept new faces as a normal occurrence, rather than something to get over excited about.
The walk builds your dog’s confidence. Walking your dog regularly and in a variety of different places teaches your dog to respond calmly to unfamiliar environments. Reinforcing that you expect good behavior in new situations communicates to your dog that he is safe with you no matter where you go
The walk improves your dog’s behavior. Some dogs become frustrated when they are on the leash because the leash prevents them from indulging their impulses to chase, jump, and react. Some dogs react by becoming aggressive. This condition, called “leash frustration,” occurs mostly in dogs that are not getting walked frequently enough. Although it is challenging to walk a dog experiencing leash frustration, it is vital to do so. Avoiding walks only makes the problem worse. The fewer walks a dog gets, the more urgently he feels the need to investigate every sight, sound, or smell. In contrast, dogs that are regularly walked are not as easily frustrated or frazzled because they do not feel that every stimulus is a novelty that must be immediately checked out.
The walk is healthy exercise. Although there are many ways you can use up your dog’s excess energy, sustained walking is a healthy, safe, and reliable way to build a routine to ensure that your dog gets exercise every day. Walking has the added benefit of being exercise that calms your dog, rather than getting him worked up.
A change in your dog’s walking behavior is not going to happen overnight. The dogs that I saw in New York City started as young pups, not older dogs. But you will see a change in your dog when you integrate a walk into his daily routine. A dog needs a daily walk for socialization, physical exercise, mental stimulation, and bonding with you. Take your dog for a walk every day and I guarantee that you will see a behavioral change for the better. Both you and your dog will be healthier and happier!