Taking the first step to a complex skill
One of the main reasons people enrol in training classes is for help with teaching their dog to walk nicely on a lead. It makes sense that this is a difficult skill for the human and dog to learn to do together. I like to think of it as a skill that requires the same level of coordination as two people trying to dance together where there hasn’t been any discussion or agreement on what dance they are doing. Then add the distractions of other people, dogs, birds and other animals and its even more complicated. Another seven hundred layers of complexity are added on if you have a dog who is scared of dogs, people or the world.
There are many techniques which, when used together, can help our dog walk nicely on a lead.
Teaching this skill is easier if we get the foundations right. The biggest foundational skill is to make sure our dog’s enrichment needs are met. Specifically the enrichment need our dogs have to smell.
Walking your dog is all about the sniffs
The main reason most dogs are trotting along in a walk is to get to different smells. A small portion of dogs are moving along at break neck speed simply because they love moving, however the majority of dogs are moving along to get to different smells. Sniffing is how dogs gain most of their information about the environment. They can even smell into the past and near future with their nose.
Sometime people want to know the secret to stop their dogs sniffing on a walk. Sure, you can train your dog to not have their nose on the ground for parts of the walk, however doing this for the entire walk doesn’t make sense for the purpose of the walk. Depriving our dogs of this basic interaction with their environment is detrimental to their welfare. The equivalent is taking your friend to a beautiful look out at a forest and putting a blindfold on them. It just doesn’t make sense.
What is the purpose of walking your dog?
When asked the purpose of walking your dog, most humans say it is for the dog’s exercise or enrichment. While we acknowledge this, we often don’t conduct the walks in a way to meet our dog’s enrichment needs best. For example, we may have a specific route in mind that we follow, regardless of where the dog wants to go. We often walk in straight lines along foot paths and streets rather than meandering along. We get frustrated and impatient if our dog sniffs at something for too long and we try and move them on.
If your dog wants to sniff something on a walk, let them. Unless, of course, they are trying to pull you onto a road. If they want to spend five minutes really getting to grips with a particular patch of smell, allow them that time to do so. Walking the dog is for the dog, not for the human.
If part of the purpose of walking your dog is for you to get exercise, this purpose can also be met. We’d recommend meeting your dog’s enrichment needs to smell on the first half of the walk and then picking up the pace for the second half. Ideally the second half of the walk is ground the dog has already covered, and therefore already sniffed. Remember, if your dog is moving with you on the lead and not sniffing, they need to have some reward for doing so. For some dogs this could be that they enjoy moving quickly, for others it may be treats.
The lead is a cue
We know that dog’s are contextual learners. This means that they are great at taking cues from the environment around them. We want the dog to think that if they are on lead and that lead feels loose; then they get to go and have access to smells. This means that until we have put in enough training with our dogs to help them understand how to keep that lead loose, we need to help them keep it loose. We can do this by using a longer lead such as a 3-5 metre lead and moving around with our dog. By doing this we create the context of our dogs getting to do fun stuff with us while on a loose lead.
This is the very first step to the foundational skill of loose lead walking. If walking your dog on a loose lead is something you want to work on, we have a Walking and Recall Manners Class that does just that.
Note, this blog post will not be helpful for our dogs who are scared of dogs, people or the world. Often repeatedly exposing our scared dogs to the things that they are scared of makes the issue worse. For these dogs we recommend private sessions to help address these fears.