Taking the lead
Considering your dog’s needs on walks
by Kate MallatrattA Dip CBM, PPG, Canine Behaviourist
This article was first printed in Animal Therapy Magazine Issue 15 February 2019 pp 26-29. Reproduced with kind permission from the editor. To visit their website, please go to: www.animaltherapymedia.co.uk
Walks are joyful times for many dogs.© Bounders Dog Photography
Many people consider getting a dog for more exercise and while dog walking has positive benefits for both owner and dog, exercise can have a negative impact on a dog’s health and wellbeing if his welfare needs are not adequately met. There are a number of considerations that will impact his walk so, as the song says, if you don’t know how to do it, I’ll show you how to walk the dog.
Harness or collar?
Holistic veterinarian Dr Peter Dobias advocates a harness. He places much importance on the health of the neck and cervical spine for overall wellbeing. Jerks on a collar might misalign joints and strain muscles. The trachea and oesophagus could also sustain damage from collar pressure as could the thymus gland and thyroid gland due to their location. Repeated yanking and pulling places pressure on the major blood vessels leading to the head, and may even result in eye complaints. Neck trauma could be indicated by secondary leg lameness and paw licking too. Flexi-leads clipped to a collar may cause a whiplash injury if the dog sprints to the end of the lead and is jerked backwards. McTimoney chiropractic check-ups are essential for balancing the musculoskeletal system if you feel your dog may have sustained neck trauma.
As well as potentially doing less physical damage, a harness gives you more control and an older, frail or special needs dog may appreciate the additional support and guidance a harness brings. There are many types available and finding one that suits your dog’s shape, weight and size is vital, but avoid those that tighten when your dog pulls or restrict movement. If looking for a harness for a puppy, the Perfect Fit range comes in three individual pieces, each of which can be replaced as your puppy grows. Teaching a dog to wear a harness is a skill that can be taught to puppies even before they can go out walking. Some dogs find having a harness placed over their head frightening and back further and further away until you are chasing them around the room. To avoid confrontation, think of the harness as a ‘head target’ that your dog comes forward to put his head into. Offering the harness as a visual cue for the behaviour (of putting his head into) gives him control and choice over the situation.
If your dog or puppy is anxious about wearing a harness or dislikes the sound of the clips being fastened, enlist the help of a positive trainer otherwise try the following steps:
1. Holding a piece of food (with fingers pinched together), place your hand through the head hole of the harness.
2. Put the treat just in front of yourdog’s nose. Lure his head through the head hole by slowly withdrawing your hand backwards towards your body, as if you were pulling his nose towards you on an invisible thread.
3. Reinforce his behaviour by feeding him with an open pony-feeding hand when his head is through. (Note your hand position changes: fingers together is a visual cue for luring and open palm is a visual cue that your dog can take the food.)
4. Drop a few morsels on the floor and whilst he is distracted eating these, fasten the side clips.
At every stage, evaluate what your dog is learning. Is he eagerly coming forward for the treat in your fingers, or is he backing away because you are placing the harness over him?
Once your dog is kitted out, it’s time to venture outside.
Walking in partnership
We expect our dogs to walk at our side with ease, but if you have tried to speed up or slow down to match your partner’s stride you will appreciate how difficult it is to maintain a change of rhythm. Any dog much larger than spaniel size will not comfortably trot at an adult’s side, and this incompatibility causes gait disturbances such as pacing. Pacing occurs when both legs on the same side land and push off together. A dog that is comfortably trotting will have diagonal pairs of legs landing and pushing off together.
You may need to vary your speed to accommodate your dog’s pace: a fast pace may increase excitement and a slow pace may bring about calmness and an opportunity to take in more of the environment.
Pulling is a common complaint and we often inadvertently ‘teach’ our puppies to pull on their first outing. The cute puppy who enthusiastically drags you towards a wonderful scent or a friendly person, is learning that pulling works. Your puppy or adult dog must learn that a tight lead gets him nowhere and a loose lead enables him to move forward.
Remember to let your dog sniff as much as he likes on his lead walks, after all he ‘sees’ the world through his nose. As long as his lead is slack, let him ‘read the news’ to his heart’s content. Since your dog’s brain is geared for olfaction, to deny him the opportunity to sniff could be considered be sensory deprivation.
Lead walking is of course just one form of exercise and there are many other types that your dog can enjoy.
Turning to other forms of physical activity, how much and what type is best depends on many factors including age, size, health, metabolism, stress/anxiety levels and breed type. Sight hounds such as greyhounds and lurchers enjoy short bursts of sprinting while dogs with exaggerated body shapes like dachshunds or basset hounds are better suited to steadier walks, and giant breeds such as Great Danes require less exercise than some of their smaller cousins. Some dogs benefit from stay-at-home enrichment days once or twice a week if exercise is over-arousing or if exposure to the outside world is likely to trigger anxiety.
Puppy walks are for learning valuable life skills rather than exercise, and over-exercising can be detrimental to health. Puppies and young dogs have areas of cartilage on the bone that calcify as the dog matures and until these growth plates have closed, they are more susceptible to joint damage. Excessive ball chasing with sprinting, sudden stops, sharp turns and jumping, can put strain on joints at any age but especially in juveniles.
Although they appear to be having fun, dogs will chase balls until they drop as chasing is instinctive. Repetitive ball play keeps them in a state of over-arousal and adrenaline levels high, and may exacerbate underlying issues such as arthritis, so please ditch the ball chucker and perhaps consider scent games instead.
Scent work can be incorporated easily into walks. You could throw a handful of moist highly scented titbits into the grass for your dog to seek, or perhaps lay a track by marking a trail with liquid stock poured on the ground, placing the odd biscuit along the way. Scent games should be interspersed with ‘natural’ sniffing time so encourage your dog to explore his environment. Nose work engages both mind and body and if time is of the essence, your dog will still benefit from a ‘sniff’ around the block. Scent games are also ideal for tiring a puppy who is too young to go for long walks and a very simple foraging enrichment game is rolling your pup’s kibble (dry food) into a towel and letting him sniff out his dinner.
Reading the headlines’© Bounders Dog Photography
Quality exercise includes sustained smooth movement, which produces the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin and releases pleasure endorphins helping to offset stress. Given freedom, most dogs will divide their time between walking, trotting and sniffing, of course. Vary your dog’s exercise over the week with some on and off lead work, play dates and swimming, longer hikes and shorter strolls.
Whatever type of exercise your dog enjoys, there is one common skill he needs to master for everyone’s peace of mind: a reliable recall.
Encourage your dog to explore their surroundings© Anita Hope
Teaching a reliable recall is one of the most valuable skills your dog can learn and recall should be taught in puppyhood to build strong foundations for the teenage years. In my experience, it is not practiced nearly enough especially around distractions.
Recall often falls on deaf ears due to the dog being put back on the lead, admonished for running off, distractions such as other dogs to play with, squirrels to chase, rabbit scents to follow, and genetic traits.
Recall has several components: breaking off from an engaging activity, orientating towards you and returning. The reinforcer for returning must be strong enough to compete with environmental ‘attractions’ so find an activity that your dog highly favours. If using treats, choose highly scented titbits – homemade liver or sardine cake are firm favourites in our house. To increase the value of the treats, bowl them along the ground for your dog to chase to bring out his predatory chase drive or scatter a handful on the grass to forage for. If your dog isn’t food motivated, use play as your reinforcer and always have two balls or tugs to hand to entice him back with one.
Blowing a whistle rather than shouting your dog’s name can improve recall as the sound carries further than a voice, is unique to recall and is not potentially over-used like a name. It’s also consistent in its delivery and holds no emotion, unlike speech. To teach your dog that the whistle sound means he gets a reward, start at home by blowing the whistle before mealtimes and/or play sessions until your dog is anticipating a reward on hearing the sound. Test his learning by whistling when he is absorbed in another activity. Does he come running to you? If so, you are ready to take this ‘on the road’.
Please remember to practice recall on every walk, call your dog back often, and always reward. Your whistle is a promise – don’t break it.
Merlin my collie is in his 80s in human years and our walks are slow but highly pleasurable. The herding of his youth has been replaced with meandering leisurely along the grass, finding scent ‘treasures’, stopping here and there for more information, then walking a few paces and perhaps scent marking. Scent is his roadmap for which direction to wander in and influences his decisions. When we reach home he slumps contentedly into the armchair and dozes. Does he dream of scent, I wonder? For our dogs, walking is so much more than exercise.
Scout – Walking a blind dog
Blindness doesn’t stop Scout enjoying his walks© Tracey Ison
Have you ever considered the number of decisions that your dog makes every time they go for a walk and how instrumental you, as the owner, are in shaping those decisions? I currently own three dogs, one of which, Scout, was born severely visually impaired and this presents additional challenges on our daily walks.
Blind or visually impaired dogs require their owners to be their eyes, to help them to avoid hazards, to steer them safely around obstacles and to maintain their confidence at all times when out and about. For these dogs it can be a scary, unpredictable and noisy world out there when they are surrounded by darkness.
Observation is key to helping dogs like Scout, and watching him and learning from him pays great dividends. But as much as we were instrumental in Scout’s basic training, he taught us heaps in return.
Scout was initially walked on a harness with a double-ended lead. One end was clipped to a ring on the back of the harness, the other end to a ring on the chest piece. This gave us the ability to steer Scout gently around obstacles (bins, cars parked on the pavement, lampposts etc). Scout soon learnt that gentle pressure on the lead meant that there was an obstacle coming up and his pace would slow. Initially a tasty tit-bit was offered for each successful negotiation of an obstacle.
We quickly learnt that Scout needed to hear our voices when we walked to know that we were always close – cue general chatter about the daily news and weather! Our other two dogs also wore additional metal tags on their collars and the constant jangling as we walked ensured that Scout knew he had company. (If Scout was our only dog, I would have attached bells to my shoes to create the same effect.)
Scout prefers to walk alongside fences and walls and he seems to use them as a guide, helping him to maintain a forward motion. Scout can also detect areas of shade as he passes through them (we assume he senses a slight drop in temperature). He has learnt that there is a potential obstacle there and will slow down to be guided around it.
On familiar routes, Scout has “mind mapped” the walk: he knows where the kerbs are and where the interesting sniffing places are (sniffing is his favourite activity!). Scout even taught himself to listen to the beeps at pedestrian crossings, waiting to cross safely every time!
Scout meets a lot of people and other dogs on his walks. He is introduced very carefully to unfamiliar dogs as he greets a new dog by wrapping his paws around them, which some dogs can find quite unnerving.
Walking a blind dog certainly enhances your own awareness of your surroundings and makes every walk an enjoyable experience.
Kate Mallatratt is a founder member of International Canine Behaviourists and is a member of Pet Professional Guild for force-free training. She is the author of Home Alone – and Happy! and worked in television as an assistant animal trainer for Plimsoll Production. Kate holds an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour Management and specialises in errorless learning, a concept she incorporates into problem prevention, behaviour modification and enriching the home environment for the family dog. Kate has owned and trained dogs for many years and runs her behaviour and training business, Contemplating Canines, in East Devon, UK. In 2017 she founded PickPocket Fabric Food Foragers, a company making fully washable foragers for dogs.
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