1999 called. They would like their structured walks back.
A well-trained dog should walk by our side, right?
Well, it’s 2019 and I am here to tell you that we know a lot more about walking our dogs than we did back then. For context, I am writing about walks for companion animals to provide enrichment, decompression, and joy. Dogs need to move through their environment to explore, process olfactory information, to decompress, and use their bodies. This requires shifting between freedom and cooperation.
For example, you are walking in a park using a long leash, because leashing is a law where you are, and your dog is happily moving along sniffing to their heart’s and brain’s content. You move back to the path and heading toward you is person clearly trying to avoid contact with your dog. In this case, training a cue that means "walk in close proximity to me, please" would help to guide your dog into a position that will allow that person to pass. I used to use “with me.” Super creative, right? Well, now I use “Velcro.” Much cuter. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a solution that makes everyone happy. Not to mention it makes your dog - and you - look like superheroes!
Continuing to work on this skill while adding duration, distance, and distraction will insure fluency. The dog will “stick” to you because they have been reinforced for doing so. Ending the skill with some cute word that means you are free to move about the park, “as you were,” returns the dog to happily sniffing all the wondrous stinks the park has to offer. We can call this joy.
Walking your dog is for your dog. So, what if you want to run, jog, or power walk with your buddy? GREAT! You can do that too. It just should not be a replacement for the kind of walk they really need. In the United States, we have changed the landscape of our dogs’ lives more quickly than they are evolving. More dogs are frustrated, lack enrichment, live in reduced space with reduced ability to express species-specific behavior. Wander Walks are critical for your dog’s mental health and a lot more fun.
I have seen a lot of videos circulating with dogs of all ages and sizes being fitted with head halters on the very first walk. These tools require conditioning for acclimation. They are walking at heel for the entire walk with no reinforcement, no ability to move and sniff, with body language (observable indicators) like lowered heads, pinned their ears, tails tucked or extremely high, and trying to keep a pace that the owner is being instructed to set and change to avoid the tightening of the head halter. These are called “structured walks” by some trainers and these kinds of walks are yet another way that we are removing enrichment from our dogs lives. This is not a productive walk. It is a missed opportunity for stress-reduction and cognitive enrichment.
Are you walking a reactive dog and afraid to lose control? “Structured walks” are not the solve. Leash reactivity - operationally observed as any combination of barking, pulling, lunging, spinning, growling, jumping, etc. in response to a person, place, animal, or thing while being walked on leash - is the result of your dog being stressed, afraid, anxious, or frustrated on the very walk that is meant to provide the opposite emotional response. We know that leashes take choice and control from our dogs. If a reactive dog is walked at heel, toward or through a scenario that sets the stage for the above behaviors we will see an increase in the intensity of these reactions because we are not honoring the dog's needs, not allowing them to contact any kind of reinforcement. Some may be operating on some false assumptions about the dog needing to "get used to it" or "get over it." This type of walking demands that we ignore their attempts at communication. We are not allowing them to choose other behaviors, like sniffing, that could help them cope with that moment.
“I've found that when dogs are allowed to use their noses, they actually display a lot less ‘misbehavior.’ It's as if the thing that they have decided to be their ‘work,’ barking at each approaching dog, say, or always being vigilant (and thus anxious) about where you are, can be replaced with this more natural behavior, if they are allowed to sniff. In other words, it makes them happy.” - Alexandra Horowitz
When we walk our dogs at heel for the entire walk, prevent sniffing, tracking, hunting, olfactory processing, and marking, we are exchanging the dog’s emotional health for an artificial human goal. Now that we know better, let’s do better. For them.