My training facility is in what I refer to as a “cottage community” – an upper income residential area with a well-designed retail area meeting the needs of the community. Along the main street is a walking path that is frequently used by joggers, older residents out for a stroll and the locals out walking their dogs “for exercise.”
I have been in this area for going on 17 years and I have never used the path. In fact I have never walked my dogs for exercise. I know I am an anomaly. But I have strong convictions as to why I do not.
For years my clients have been telling me they walk their dogs for exercise. However most complain about the pulling and behavior problems they have with their dogs when they do. Lately I had a client whose puppy screamed the instant she saw another dog or person on the street. The client continued to walk the puppy saying “She’ll just have to get used to it.” Other people tell me they want their dogs to have “fresh air.” I guess the air in their house is pretty stale. And lately a very responsible client of mine was denied a rescue dog because she didn’t walk her dogs. Instead she followed my lead and exercised in other more positive and fun ways. So I decided it was time to present my reasons as to why it isn’t always good to walk our dogs for exercise.
The reasons why NOT to walk
So why don’t I walk my dogs? My clients have taught me that walking their dogs leads to a lot of behavior issues. They then come to class to learn how to “break ______.” I can fill in the blanks with:
- Chasing cars
- Running away when the owner loses the leash
- Lunging, barking and going after strange dogs
- Lunging, barking at people
And how are these “problems” fixed? Most people resort to some form of correction or punishment in an effort to thwart the increasing problems. Let’s discuss some of the problems.
Pulling on leash is particularly troublesome with larger dogs. It’s not so bad with little Yorkies, pugs and other dogs under 10 pounds. Most owners can deal with that. It IS a problem with the larger dogs such as German Shepherds, boxers, pit bulls and other dogs who have the potential to harm both themselves and their owners.
I watch people in my community literally being dragged down the street by their dogs. This is particularly harmful physically to the dog who is coughing and gasping for breath as he tries to move at a faster doggy pace and get to where he “thinks” he is going. Most people answer this pulling dilemma with a choke (literally) chain or a pinch collar and punish the dog for trying to go at a trot or a canter, the speed the dog would normally use if they were actually free to enjoy the outing. I have noticed however that many people are now hiding the pinch collar with a bandana. How is this “fun” for the dog?
A well-meaning woman came to my school wanting to “break” her dog from chasing cars on walks. Her large mixed-breed dog would walk nicely down the street until a car passed them. Then he went into “Cujo-mode” she told me and began chasing the car. Several times he caught her unaware and literally pulled her to the ground. We were both concerned that he was eventually going to be hit by a car. I convinced her it would be safer for and her dog would be happier if they could play some fetching games or some other games in the back yard. She took my advice and also joined an obedience class. It was amazing how much this dog just wanted to work for and with her. They are a much happier duo now.
Most of the people who walk their dogs do so with good intentions. However, most of the people walking dogs in my neighborhood have not trained their dogs in any kind of basic obedience. I know the people and they have not attended any formal school with their dogs. One such person lives across the street from my building. The couple has a very overweight husky they walk several times a week. Obviously the walks are insufficient given the dogs obesity.
However, several months ago the dog got loose from the wife. She spent a good half hour trying to catch the dog and/or coax it back into the house. As soon as she got close to the dog it went into a play bow and took off in another direction. This could have been quite serious if this happened out on the main street. I had terrible thoughts of the dog running directly into an oncoming car or truck.
Barking, lunging at strange dogs and/or people
Dogs that are not well socialized in early puppyhood or even well socialized dogs going through a fear period often develop fearful, defensive behaviors when confronted with strange dogs and/or people on walks. Owners call me with six, eight or ten month adolescent dogs that have developed these behaviors – barking, lunging at the dogs/people in an effort to keep them away. Many of my clients believe the dog is protecting them. I believe the dog is simply fearful and wants the scary things to stay away.
But here’s where the trouble begins. When the dog begins to bark at strange dogs or people the owners “correct” the dog. They jerk and pop the leash. Also, they begin a verbal scolding of the dog that includes, “Stop it! No!! Quiet!! Bad dog!!” My clients tell me these reprimands are really for the people their dog is directing his displays toward. The owner wants to appear to be responsible and believes that correcting the dog demonstrates his/her concern. They never seem to realize the corrections don’t work. In fact the corrections do the opposite – the displays start earlier when their dog sees another dog or person.
With all this happening on walks I ask, “Why? Why continue to walk the dog?” The answer I get the most is, “Dogs need walks for exercise.” And when I ask if the dog is having fun the answer is generally affirmative because their dog gets excited when they pick up the leash to go for the walk. After I discuss this as a classically conditioned behavior, the same we see when we pick up the car keys, I start asking questions. Is your dog truly having fun on the walk? Is the walk enhancing your relationship with your dog? What is really happening once the walk begins?
But are they really having fun????
To answer this question I decided to observe and video dogs walking past my training building. As you watch the videos look beyond the obvious. Look at the faces, body postures and actions of the dogs. What do you really see? Let’s take a look at the dogs and the owners.
I watched this dog walking past my building and wondered what the people were thinking. No one, not even the dog, looks like they are having fun. The dog is definitely not interested in the owners. He clearly finds the environment more stimulating. There is nothing happening that looks like a partnership is developing. It appears that the partnership is between the two people walking. I look at this and ask, “What is really going on?” Personally this is NOT the relationship I want to foster with my own dogs. I want a fun relationship with them. I want a relationship in which we play and work together.
Here’s another video. In this video the dog is clearly learning to pull on its leash. Owners reinforce this behavior over and over. Then they come to a class and want the dog to immediately STOP pulling. I would be giving the dog another behavior to replace the pulling – maybe walk beside me and get reinforced for that behavior?
And what is the owner doing? He looks like he is drinking something like a beer. And he is not the least bit interested in his dog. What part of this is fun? Where is the relationship between the companion dog and its owner? Over and over the same questions come into my mind. What is really going on during these walks? Where is the fun? What is the dog learning? Why is it so important to walk when there are more interesting things he can do with his dog? But there’s the key and I’ll talk about this a bit later.
And here’s another dog who starts barking at me as he passes my building. The dog clearly has some fear of strangers. What is he learning by taking walks? He learns that there are a lot of scary people in the world and he wants them to stay away. I guarantee that continued walks with this dog will lead to lunging and barking at both people and dogs whenever they are near him. Most people physically and verbally correct their dog for this behavior because they want to be perceived as “responsible owners.” The leash and verbal corrections actually exacerbate the fear behavior and the dog will learn to start barking and lunging sooner. Fortunately for this little dog his owner is not correcting. Perhaps I can talk to her the next time I see her.
This is a really brief video of a little Yorkie walking with its owners. Look how concerned she seems to be. The woman brought this puppy to my building when she first got it in a purse-like crate. She didn’t think her puppy needed to be trained. But look at the puppy now. She seems worried about what is going on with me. She isn’t wagging her tail because she wants to come and meet me. Is she beginning to learn that the world is scary? Is she learning that walks are fun or do they seem stressful to her? Does she want to come over and meet me? Her body language says “no.” And she is definitely not interested in her owners. And I know she’s a female because she is wearing a skirt
Thinking outside of the box
Any of you who know me understand I march to my own drummer. I am always thinking about what is best for the dog. In my area it makes me an outsider. “Everyone does it. Everyone walks their dog.” they say. In fact one “former” client posted what she thought was a negative review complaining that I don’t like dog parks, doggy daycare and I don’t walk my dog!” I personally had to laugh. She was right! I agree to all those complaints. But my main concern is for the emotional and physical safety and health of the dog as well as my relationship with them.
First of all my personal philosophy is based upon creating a complete partnership with my dogs. I do this so I can live with them comfortably. And part of that partnership includes a managing partner – me! Now this doesn’t make me the “alpha” in the house. I haven’t believed all that TV hype about being the alpha in the house for many, many years. It just didn’t make sense and current research doesn’t support the concept. However, someone has to set up the rules and structure; and doggy brains, no matter how highly developed, just are not up to the task. That’s what makes me the managing partner.
Within that partnership I want to be perceived by my dogs as the best and fun-nest resource in the universe. Susan Garrett calls it “becoming the cookie.” For example I want them to choose playing with me over chewing on the sofa. I want them to learn I’m just more fun and reinforcing than the sofa. That’s not really hard to do since the sofa just sits there and doesn’t play back. Also I want to be able to exercise sufficiently them so they don’t chew on the sofa.
I want my dogs to also think I am more interesting than the environment or I want to give them permission to explore the environment. This is become a new way of walking your dog. We call it a sniffing walk. The environment has good smells, especially those where the deer and the antelope play. But I also use it to reinforce my relationship with my dog. I also offer them lots of reinforcement for coming to me when I call them. And in my managing partnership role, work IS play and play IS work. They are one and the same. After all, many of you know that in my world “it’s all fun and games.”
Yesterday I took my rescue, Jack, to a nearby park that he had not seen. I put a 75 foot leash on him and attached it to me. If he was going after the deer so was I. At first Jack decided he wanted to heel and sit beside me. He offered that behavior on his own and got tons of reinforcement for it. I am thrilled anytime at dog offers me a behavior such as this. I started to overlay a new signal,” go sniff.” That cue has a specific meaning. It gives the dog permission to leave me and do what they love to do—sniff. Jack and I had a blast and he came home ready for a nap.
So if you buy into my paradigm that everything between us should be all fun and games have you ever looked at the faces of dogs being walked? When the idea for this article came to me I was driving down the main street and saw a couple walking their two dogs. One was a greyhound and the other was a dachshund – Mutt and Jeff personified. As I passed I observed the four of them. I had to stop and write down my thoughts for this article. It was clear. No one was having fun!!!
The man and the woman were very serious about their job. They didn’t even talk. Just faced forward as I watched them walking down the street. The greyhound was clearly bored and had a “hang dog” look as his head was actually hanging down and he was focused on the ground. This tedious walk was a far cry from what he was bred to do as a sight hounds. He would have been much happier chasing something that moved, maybe lure coursing for him.
And the dachsie?? He was barely keeping up with the strides of the couple and the greyhound and was obviously struggling with his short little legs toward the end of the walk. He certainly wasn’t having fun. He was going to need a hot bath and a nap when he got home. I certainly would if I were him.
As I watched this couple I wondered if people ever really look at their dogs when they walk them. My clients tell me their dogs can’t wait to go for the walk. Is this because everything else in their life is so dull and boring? Do they not have any other interactions with their owners? The ones I see don’t have any other activities with their owners. Walks take the place of training or teaching the dog to do something positive such as fetch. Owners tell me they don’t feel guilty about not doing other things with their dogs because they make sure they walk their dogs several times a day.
Q: So if we don’t walk them what the heck do we do with them?
A: We train and play and interact with our dogs!!!
And that answer is exactly where all the trouble starts. My form of exercise with my dogs requires some thinking, a bit of planning and some real energy on my part in order to create the best and most stimulating life I can create for my dogs.
I prefer to have all interactions between my dogs and me to fit into my program of fun and games. So one of the first and one of the most important behaviors I start to teach my dogs and puppies is fetching. Most of them do not start out wanting to or liking to fetch. As a result I have had to shape the game. When I teach fetching I start out as though I am just teaching a trick and start reinforcing approximations of the fetching behavior. By putting enough reinforcement or value behind the behavior my dogs grow to LOVE to fetch. The behavior itself becomes self-reinforcing to them. In fact it is so reinforcing I can even use fetch as a reinforcer when I want to create more speed in certain behaviors. As an example, fetching allows me to develop tons of drive for weave poles with all my dogs. I use the toy as a reinforce at the end of the poles.
However the most reinforcing part of using fun and games for exercise is the look on the face of my dogs as we are playing.
Here’s one of the earliest videos I took of Classy as I was just starting out his fetching. He was only 10 weeks at the time. Fetching gave me a good way to start to build a game of cooperation between us. It was also a great way to exercise and tire out my puppy. But most important he was having fun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIdVkq9e-ZI
Here’s a later video with Classy as we play Frisbee. As I mentioned I also use fetching as reinforcement for behaviors. Watch Classy as he gives me a fast drop (one of my drop on recall games) before I throw the Frisbee. And look at his body and face. Is he bored? Is he enjoying the game? Do you think he would be happy if the game went on and on? I know he would! As you watch him compare the look on his face to the dogs who were being walked. Which dog would YOU rather be???? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r15swt2VP4
Here’s another fetching game that is useful for AKC open as well as exercise. I take the two toy game to another level as I use it with two dumbbells. You can really see Fly in this video. I love the look on his face and the spring in his step!! And more important, I’m having fun too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCg7kuYFFws
another exercise game Fly loves to play is what I call it the “Food – Down Game.” In addition to running to the food I am also training and reinforcing his drop on recall. And it’s a great game for strengthening our relationship too. Fly is off leash, playing with me and for him, all is right with the world. Compare this to the dogs in the walking videos. What form of exercise is better for the dog? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0kqlDZXsN0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FssHgVU7rxM&feature=youtu.be And one last video where Fly is having the time of his life. Don’t you agree? He’s getting great aerobic exercise and having fun with me too.
In my opinion everything falls into this category: Play = Work and Work = Play. In all the videos MY dogs are playing with me and also learning something even if that something is simply cooperating with me.
Now I invite you to look at the other dogs and compare my dog’s form of exercise to those dogs being walked in the first videos. You be the judge. Which form of exercise is better for your dog? Do you now understand why I don’t walk my dogs?