It’s days like today, a beautiful summer day in Maine, when I really miss having a dog. There were few things more fun than getting some “me time” with my dogs, both on leash and off. It gave them (and me) exercise that we both needed. It helped increase the bond between us. They got to develop their social skills with people, and with other dogs. But like a lot of things, it took work to make it happen.
First, make the time and effort to teach your dog to walk properly on leash. You need three things: Time, patience, and the right equipment, that being a proper leash and collar. Start in a quiet area with few or no distractions, like your living room. Gently go through the same routine, over and over: Have the dog sit, attach the leash, and then give a food or praise reward for their good behavior. Positive reinforcement it the key: Remember, dogs love treats, but for many of them your praising and petting them means more than any jerky treat. If the dog starts to walk away once the leash is attached, gently call them to your side, saying “come.” Again lots of praise and a treat when they do this properly. Work up to walking along, and if they pull or wander, resist the urge to pull them back: Stop, get their attention, and call them back, rewarding them when they do it. Sound boring? Well, yeah, it is, but it can change “walking the dog” from a chore to a joy. It is important to do this slowly and in stages: Progress from walking with them near you to having them walk at heel. Some dogs will pick up on it faster than others, but virtually all of them will get it. The real test is to get them to walk and behave out among distractions, like people and other dogs, when they will get all excited. Remember to keep it positive, with praise and reward, rather than shouting at or scolding the dog. It will actually make it more fun for you and your dog if you can work together as a team.
The equipment you use can make a big difference. The collar is important: Although I know that there is no one item that works for all dogs, I think the head halters (such as the Halti or Gentle Leader) are wonderful. They are fantastic for gently keeping the dog from pulling or jumping up on people, and can also be used to close the dog’s mouth if they like to “nip” when excited. I’ve had a couple people complain that their dog doesn’t like the head halter, but the vast majority will get used to it with time and patience. Some people like using “prong” or “pinch” or “choke chain” collars, especially with large, powerful dogs. While these collars do have their place, they should primarily be used for training only, rather than being regularly used to walk the dog. A dog constantly straining against a prong or pinch collar risks damage to the skin or neck. If you have a small dog, one under 20 pounds or so, strongly consider getting a harness for walking them. Many toy breeds have very sensitive tracheas that can be damaged by the pressure of pulling against a collar. Some dogs can do well with one of the “no-pull” harnesses, but in my experience the results are very mixed. There are times using one of those “no-pull” halters on a lab that I feel like I am water skiing behind the dog.
Okay, next: Let’s talk leashes. Please do yourself and your dog a favor a get a real leash, made of leather or canvas (I love the ones from the Lupine company: They are attractive, sturdy, and best of all, if they break or get chewed up, the company replaces them. My labs Rosie and Daisy loved chewing each other’s collars off, and I would just take the shreds back to the pet store and pick up new ones). I’ve seen chain leashes tear up people’s hands when the dog bolts, and I personally have almost broken fingers that got trapped in a chain leash. And please don’t even talk to me about “flexi-leashes.” These flimsy, cockamamie string-on-a-reel contraptions, have been documented to amputate fingers, and often give people the illusion of control without really keeping the dog anywhere close to them. Some years ago I was driving home and saw a dog being walked with a flexi-leash. The owner and the dog were both on the side of the road. The problem was, they were on opposite sides of the same road, with the flexi-leash strung across thirty feet of road between them. Not really ideal…
Second, remember: Although you love your dog, not everybody does. Other folks shouldn’t be forced to have to meet your dog or deal with them. Some people are allergic to dogs, and break out with just casual contact. Some poor folks are terrified of dogs (yes, even your adorable labradoodle who just wants to give them a kiss). In my job I have seen dogs who run up off leash “just to visit” get kicked, punched, and, on one occasion, shot when the person they approached thought they were being attacked by the dog. Be smart: If you have them off leash, make sure it is in an appropriate location, like an off leash park or similar situation.
Finally, set them up to succeed, not fail. The time spent training them is well worth the investment. If you know your pet is not good off leash, don’t take them someplace where they can just run off: Use one of the fenced in play areas. If they don’t get along with other dogs, walk them in isolated areas away from other pets. Plan ahead, and you and your dog will have a great time together.