Why and how to walk your dog may seem like a ‘no brainer’ topic to many of you, but the fact is there are lots of pet owners who:
- Don’t walk their dogs at all, or don’t do it routinely
- Don’t make the most of the activity
- Dread walks because their pet actually walks them, or exhibits other bad leash manners
Before You Head Out the Door
The best way to develop a positive dog walking habit is when your pet is a puppy.
As soon as her immune system is strong enough to protect her from communicable disease (discuss when it’s safe to take your pup outside with your vet) , she’s ready for walks with you or other family members.
She should already have her own secure-fitting collar or harness and ID tag, and she should be used to wearing it before you attempt to take her for walks. Some puppies have no problem wearing a collar; others do. If your dog is fighting it, as long as you’re sure it isn’t too tight (you should be able to easily slip your fingers under it) or uncomfortable for some other reason, distract her from fussing with her collar until she gets used to it. It shouldn’t take more than a couple days for your pup to forget she’s even wearing it.
Don’t try to take your pup for a walk if she protests wearing a collar. Get her used to wearing her collar first.
If you plan to use a head halter or harness for walks (which I recommend for any dog at risk of injury from pulling against a collar/leash combination), the next step is to get your puppy comfortable wearing it. As with the collar, this needs to happen before you attempt to attach a leash and head out the door.
Once wearing her collar and a halter or harness (if you choose) is second nature to your dog, you’re ready for the next step. Attach about four feet of light line — cotton awning cord or light cotton rope will do – and let your puppy drag it around the house with her under your watchful eye, of course. She’ll get used to it being attached, as well as the tug of it when she steps on it.
Once your pup is used to the four-foot line, swap it for a 10 to 15 foot line of the same material, and head outdoors.
Starting Off on the Right Foot
Initial walks should be short for most puppies – the main goal is to get your dog used to being attached to you by a lead.
Find a safe environment. Allow puppy to drag the line behind him for a bit, then pick up the opposite end. Let him lead you around for a few seconds while you hold the line just off the ground. Slow down so he’s forced to slow down, ultimately to a stop. Take a short break for praise and a little playtime.
Next, let him trail the line again, but when you pick up your end this time, call him and stand still. If he pulls, hold your ground without pulling him in your direction. The goal is to teach him to put slack in the line himself by moving toward you. When he puts slack in the line, praise him and call him to you.
If he comes all the way to you, more praise and a training treat are in order. If he stops on his way to you, tighten the line just enough to apply a tiny bit of pull to it. Immediately call him to come again. Give praise as he moves toward you and treats when he comes all the way back.
Two or three repetitions is all many puppies need to understand lack of tension in the line is what earns praise and treats.
When your pup has learned to come towards you to relieve tension on the line, you can begin backing up as he’s coming towards you to keep him moving.
Next, turn and walk forward so he’s following you. If he passes you, head in another direction so he’s again behind you.
The goal is to teach him to follow on a loose lead. Once you’ve accomplished the goal, you can continue to use the light line or replace it with a leash.
Depending on your pet’s temperament, five to 15 minute sessions are sufficient in the beginning. Practice controlling your dog on the lead for 30 second intervals during each session. Exercise patience and don’t engage in a battle of wills with your pup. Don’t snap, yank or otherwise use the line for correction or punishment. Stop before either of you gets frazzled or tired.
After each short session on the lead, liberally praise your dog and spend a few minutes playing ball or some other game he enjoys. Remember — you’re building the foundation for an activity both you and your dog will enjoy and look forward to throughout her life.
Some puppies stubbornly fight the pressure of the line rather than create slack.
If your puppy freezes on a tight line or routinely pulls against it, my first recommendation is to use a halter or harness rather than a collar attached to the lead. Your dog can create serious neck and cervical disk problems by pulling on a collar/leash combination.
Next, make sure it’s not you creating the problem. Our human instinct is to hold the leash taught, so you must also train yourself to keep slack in the line. Your dog’s natural response to a tight line is to pull against it.
Next do the following when your puppy refuses to create slack or move toward you:
- Maintain the tension on the line and turn your back on her. Allow time for it to occur to her she can’t win by pulling against you.
- Remain still with your back to her holding the tension in the line – don’t jerk the line, don’t pull or yank her toward you, and don’t put slack in the line yourself, which will teach her the way to get slack is to pull at the line.
The message you want to send your pup is pulling on the lead doesn’t accomplish a thing. It doesn’t change the scenery and it doesn’t earn praise or treats. Eventually, your puppy will stop doing what doesn’t work – especially when she is consistently rewarded for desirable behavior.
The very first second you begin leash training, make sure your puppy accomplishes nothing by pulling on her line. It takes some dogs longer than others to learn to keep the leash loose, but with patience and persistence, any puppy can learn to follow on a loose lead.
Different Types of Dog Walks
Once your dog has been taught good leash manners, I recommend you vary the purpose of your walks with him.
- If your habit is to walk him to his potty spot to relieve himself, that’s a purposeful walk – usually of short duration.
- Then there are mentally stimulating walks during which your pup is allowed to stop, sniff, investigate, mark a spot and so forth. Most dogs on a leash don’t spend as much time sniffing and investigating as off-leash dogs. (This is probably because leashed dogs sense their owners aren’t really into the same things they are!)
Allowing your pet some time to sniff around and investigate is good for him mentally. Dogs gain knowledge of the world through their noses. You can train your dog with commands to know when he’s out for a mental stimulation walk, a training walk or an exercise session.
- Regular exercise is a necessity for your dog, the natural athlete. Regardless of his size, breed, gender or even his age, he needs physical activity in order to be a balanced, healthy animal. Exercise will keep his frame strong, his weight in the healthy range, and it can also help prevent or alleviate arthritis and other degenerative joint diseases.
Exercise consistency is really important. Dogs need exercise every three days, minimum, in order to maintain muscle tone and prevent muscle wasting. In my opinion, consistent daily aerobic exercise should be the goal. It’s important to elevate your pet’s heart rate for 20 minutes during exercise sessions. If your dog is out of shape, you’ll need to start slow and build gradually to 20 minutes per session.
- Ongoing training throughout your dog’s life is a great way to keep his faculties sharp and boredom at bay. It’s also a wonderful way to strengthen the bond between you and your pet.
Training walks can be about improving leash manners, learning basic or advanced obedience commands, ongoing socialization – just about anything you can think of that can be done on a leashed walk.
Your dog depends on you for her quality of life. Walking her every day or at least several times each week – taking advantage of different types of walks to stimulate her mentally and physically – will help your canine companion be balanced, healthy and happy for a lifetime.