Walking the Dog vs. Walking with Your Dog
The ability to walk without being pulled down the road like an Iditarod team rushing to Nome is a highly sought behavior for many dog owners. Don’t get me wrong, I too like to be able to walk with my dog without having her pull. Instead of talking about “how to teach loose leash walking”, let’s take a moment to invert that idea and ask ourselves: Are the dogs pulling forward or are we pulling back on the dogs? And are dogs always pulling forwards or do we also pull them forwards? Some people may say, the answers don’t matter. We are the humans, we are in charge, thus regardless of where the dog is pulling, the dog is wrong. OK. That can be true sometimes. Often I hear people say they are taking a walk for the dog's sake. If that's the case, then maybe we need to think about our dogs when we think about walking with them.
If you’ve ever been to a zoo, you see some people walk through, maybe pause to spot the lounging lion, and move on to the next exhibit. They move with a quickness. There are those people who read every sign, even the Latin names, and gaze into the enclosures. Which one are you? Maybe in an art museum, you’re the one briskly walking, only stopping to take in a piece or two but in the zoo, you’re the one who lingers at each exhibit, taking in the sights and smells before you. What about shopping at a market? Some people walk with a swivel like head and only when they spot something do they pause. Other people halt at each table, look at everything, and then move on. In each scenario, you may be a different person. Sometimes you’re moving quickly and other times you’re not. Why is that? The answers may well be in what you’re interested in, why you’re there, and what goals you have. It isn’t that different with our dogs.
“When we go for a walk with our dog”, that’s what we are doing: walking with our dog. Just like that friend you took to the museum. You’re not going to drag your friend faster just to get it over with any more than you would make your friend stand at every exhibit for an hour at a time. You’re there together and you negotiate your time together. The same should be true with our dogs. When we are going for a walk with our dogs, we need to consider their needs and wants too. That means that we take the time to train the behavior of our dog walking near our side so that we can cross streets quickly or avoid danger or the dead bunny on the sidewalk. We don’t use that behavior as the means by which we take a walk the entire time. Instead, we negotiate our walks. At times in the walk, we cue the behavior of being near us. At times in the walk, we let our dogs lead. We let our dogs stop to sniff. We let our dogs do what that friend in the museum does – linger, gaze, and take in the moment.
When our dogs stop to sniff, they are like the people reading the Latin signs at the zoo. They are taking in information, learning things, and unlike our human companions, our dogs sometimes leave some of their own information behind. Don’t begrudge them for that. The walk is as much about them as it is about us. We are walking with our friend.
At this point, some people may be frustrated. Their dogs aren’t lingering, they’re looking to run down the street. Ahh, that’s the friend who wants to zip through the museum and drag you behind. Again, it’s a negotiation. If you had a very large enclosed area and began walking with your dog off leash, would your dog naturally, on its own, walk at your pace following a path? No, he would not. Could you train that behavior? 100% yes. But I’m not talking about a trained behavior. In nearly all such cases, your dog would zig zag, following his nose and his eyes at a fairly good clip. He would meander, sprint, trot, make circles, follow a line, and perhaps enjoy a few good rolls in something aromatic. Notice, I didn’t describe how you were walking. You were likely walking in a line, following a path – whether it be a predetermined path or your own. Either way, you’re not walking like your dog. And your dog naturally doesn’t walk like you. In fact, your dog’s idea of a walking pace is really a trot. With the exception of geriatric dogs or those recovering from injury, the most comfortable pace for a dog to keep is a trot. Depending upon your dog’s height, his trot may or may not match your walking pace. If your dog is shorter than your knee, it’s likely that your walking pace more closely matches his trot. If he’s taller than your knee, then your walking pace is more like a slow funeral march for him. What do we do in these cases? That’s when we look at the function of the walk. For an athletic dog, our walking pace often doesn’t come close to “physical exercise”. But that doesn’t mean you two can’t enjoy a walk together. What it does mean is that you want to use some of his physical energy before the walk. Then the walk becomes an exercise in scents, sounds, and sights. The walk becomes a negotiation – part of the time you walk at a brisker pace, part of the time he walks at your pace, and some of the time is devoted to letting him sniff and learn.
The next time you think, “I need to take my dog for a walk”. Stop and ask yourself: Who is this walk for? What is the purpose? If it’s about getting your daily exercise, that’s OK. But if it’s at all about your dog, then be sure to stop and smell the roses. Be sure to pick up the pace sometimes and enjoy the breeze that comes with a brisk trot. Be sure to negotiate your walks. Connect with your dog, your friend, and enjoy the walk together.