What? Is this guy nuts? That is probably what you’re thinking right now. Well, let me explain what I mean.
We are really unfair to our dogs in many ways. We often don’t respect them or treat them fairly. We don’t teach them well enough to understand a command but expect them to master it regardless. We even get mad at them when they don’t get it. How is that fair?
We don’t spend time building a strong relationship of mutual respect, seeking to understand what our dog truly enjoys and instead want to decide for them, what they should enjoy. Can we decide what another being finds enjoyable? Hardly. And then, to top it off, we get upset or frustrated, when our dog wants to rather chase a squirrel or play with another dog, than pay attention to us; he wants to do something more fun. Our dog has no motivation or incentive to pay attention to us in light of such fun things. We are not putting enough into the relationship to have earned that, yet, still expect it. How is that fair?
We deprive our dogs of biologically fulfilling activities like chasing, or searching, or playing with other members of their species and are surprised when they become fearful, or reactive or develop separation anxiety. We caused that, and then they often end up in the shelter as a result. How is that fair?
I am sure most people are not even aware of how unfair all of this is, but it is unfair and disrespectful to dogs. No human would stay in a relationship with another and tolerate that kind of abuse for their entire life. However, our dogs don’t have much of a choice and it is only because they are so amazing, that they love us regardless. We owe it to them to do better! Let’s change at least one thing: Walking.
Let’s stop walking our dogs, we are doing that to them. Let’s stop taking our dogs on a walk, we are doing that for them. Let’s walk with our dogs—together, as a team!
Dogs love walking, but they naturally would travel twenty miles a day if left to their own devices, while humans would cover ten miles at best. Dogs naturally travel at about four miles an hour, humans at about two miles an hour. People feel a social connection at maybe eight to ten feet apart, dogs still feel connected at 50+ feet apart. The disagreement between you and your dog is really just the walking speed and what should happen during that outing.
Your dog wants to do dog stuff, and that is not happening when walking next to you. When you are going as a team, that should be happening though. That doesn’t mean your dog loses respect for you, quite the opposite; it strengthens your relationship. A guide dog for a blind person is walking ahead of them, a military or police dog runs into the building before the handler, a search and rescue dog is far ahead of the handler too, sled dogs are pulling the sled the musher is standing on, and even in a wolf pack the fastest animal will take over the hunt, if the pack leader is slower. In none of these scenarios is there any kind of confusion of who is in charge of the operation.
Please don’t get me wrong, there are training scenarios and interim stepping stones, in which keeping your dog by your side or even in a heel is very valuable temporarily, but that should not be the end goal. The end goal is ideally to be able to trust your dog at liberty even if that seems unrealistic for most people, as it takes a lot of time and commitment. But giving your dog more freedom on the walk and making it a team effort is a very realistic goal for everyone.
It starts by teaching your dog to have a healthier relationship with the leash and collar.
Most dogs only know them as frustrating restraint devices instead of communication tools. A little bit of training can change that. Also, dogs find pulling quite self-satisfying. It starts with the natural opposition reflex in all creatures. If your friend shoves you, you lean into him to not fall over, that is a natural opposition reflex. Dogs have that with leash-pulling. It may look unpleasant to you, but clearly, your dog doesn’t feel that way or he wouldn’t be doing it. A little bit of training can change that too. A skilled dog trainer will be able to teach you and your dog these skills in a few hours and soon your dog could have a full 6-ft leash (or more) to explore the walking path without pulling or making you trip. Your furry family member will be so much happier.
To be clear, I am not advocating letting your dog drag you down the street or letting your dog on a retractable run wherever he wants and do whatever seems appealing. Quite the opposite. I am advocating to train your dog to the point where he can earn more freedom. You’ll both be a lot happier!
Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen and Community Canine certifications, author of the dog behavioral book: "If Your Dog Could Talk" and owner of the dog training company Happy Dog Training. Ralf works with clients in Southern California and can be contacted through his website at HappyDogTraining.info.