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Walking Together

Walks with dogs can bring temptations and challenges, especially in parts of the UK that are built up, with a lot of traffic, people, and other dogs. In rural areas, there’s the temptation of sheep and other livestock, as well as wildlife, that offers an exciting chase. It’s normal for dogs to want to pull to make you go faster, especially if you use a flexilead, which rewards them for pulling. Dogs can feel overwhelmed by loud traffic, or being crowded by strangers, human and canine.  It’s also normal for youngsters to have bad manners when they meet other dogs and people. Someone has to teach them. The goal is for walking together to be a safe and enjoyable experience for both people and dogs. That takes some planning and thought on the part of humans, and trainers can help enormously with developing a structured programme.


First steps: Learning begins at home

The safest place to teach skills to pups and untrained adult dogs is at home. Everything they learn at home can help them to cope with the outside world, including getting used to strange noises, and meeting new dogs and people. You can help a dog learn self control by asking for a sit before providing whatever the dog wants, like a ball, or a cuddle, and by asking for a wait before the dog goes out of the back door.

You’re building up a programme in steps. Teaching a dog to walk by your side off-leash makes to easier to teach leash manners, because your dog already knows what’s expected, and your dog isn’t staying by your side because of the leash, but because you’ve already taught that it’s a good idea. Likewise, practising walking on a lead is much easier at home where there are fewer distractions, and you’re both more relaxed.

Practice walking nicely on the lead from puppyhood, with the first lessons in the garden, or in the house. The pup will initially find the lead exciting, and try to play with it. Encourage the pup to focus on you by using a ball, titbit or whatever to attract his attention. You can start walking with a slack leash with the pup or dog following something interesting in your hand, until he gets used to the leash and stops trying to eat it. Then teach him to walk on a slack leash, allowing him to dawdle and go to the side a bit if he wants, but not to pull. If he's never, ever allowed to pull he won't get into the habit. At the slightest hint of pulling, stop dead, call him, and do a run-back recall, or simply call him and walk in a different direction. Keep his attention by calling him and doing unexpected things. Once he's got the hang of loose leash walking, you can teach him greater focus, with no dawdling or moving to the side.

Leashes are best introduced after the pup has run off some energy and played a game that involves co-operating with you, so he's less likely to be overexcited and is more likely to focus on you. The same applies to walks - a pup or dog that has already spent a short while, even as little as ten minutes, playing a game with you is less likely to try to rush out of the door and pull, ignoring you completely. Teaching the dog to wait at the door also helps give you more control once you open it. If the dog rushes through, repeat until you have an orderly exit.

Dogs that walk on a slack leash are far easier to control than those that are straining to get to whatever exciting things they see or smell, and paying you little attention. Teaching slack leash walking can take self-control for both owner and dog, but both benefit enormously from the effort invested in learning this skill. Training is more effective than special equipment, like choke chains. Dogs can still pull with choke chains, and so damage their windpipes. If you have to use any special equipment, make sure it's secure, ie won't come off in traffic, and won't damage the dog. Harnesses can be useful for dogs that don't normally pull, but do so when they panic at gunshot or other loud sounds. 

Knowing our limitations

There’s only so much you can expect from a pup, or an untrained adult dog for whom bikes are there to be chased, older dogs are there to be plagued, and people are exciting so should be jumped on. Roads are full of scary monsters that aren’t always predictable. Kids on bikes are a particularly risky temptation. In the long run, dogs should be able to cope with most events on walks if we build up their skills in a structured programme, for example at paying attention to us while walking along quiet roads for a short time, moving on to busier roads and for longer. Busy roads on rainy nights are sensory overload for many dogs, with splashing, moving lights reflecting on the ground, and roars from lorries, and most dogs find this very difficult to cope with if they aren’t used to traffic, so it makes sense not to throw them in at the deep end before they can swim.

Likewise, it makes sense to teach the basics first, including self-control, as well as actions, like ‘sit’. As dogs build up skills, we can teach recall and sit at a distance in response to a whistle, very useful on walks, along with treats, a ball or other toy, and poo bags.  If you have, or can borrow children, you can teach your dog to hold a sit-stay, despite kids doing loud and interesting things nearby.

Knowing our limitations means assessing how well a dog will cope. Preventive leashing keeps dogs out of trouble, and prevents them from learning bad habits if they’re in a situation they can’t handle.

Dog walkers' etiquette

We obviously believe that our dogs are wonderful, and everyone should love them, but we need self-control too, to ensure that our adored pups don’t plague older dogs, even if the dogs appear to be tolerating it. Pups also need to learn to pass strange dogs and people without getting overexcited. This means being selective about introductions, so that the norm when people pass by with their dogs is for pups to politely ignore them.

 It makes sense to only let pups approach new dogs when everyone is quite calm, so you reinforce self-control. Pups are also more likely to upset other dogs if they’re overexcited and so keen on contact that they can't read ‘back off’ signals. Asking for a heel or a sit, reinforced with a treat, can help to calm pups and focus their attention on you.

Good manners means always checking with other owners before letting your pup or dog approach their dog. Some dogs just don't like being approached when they’re on the lead, and may bite if they feel cornered. Dogs are often attacked if they barge into another dog's ball game. Spats are also more likely if dogs don't have much space, for example if they’re hemmed in on a narrow pathway. If an initial meeting looks promising, the best place for dogs to get to know one another is off the lead in a large space, like the middle of a field. 

City dogs need very well developed social skills. For a country dog that comes to the city, the erect tail of a spitz may seem threatening. Bigger dogs may panic at the approach of smaller dogs, like Yorkies, which may rush under their legs, while smaller dogs may find very big dogs too much to cope with. Humans can help dogs to learn good canine manners, but the best teachers of canine social skills are other dogs. Pups benefit enormously from walks with well-behaved older dogs who set a good example. Trainers often have demonstration dogs which can cope with youngsters and show them how to behave. Training classes are very helpful for both owners and dogs to learn about safe walking, and for pups to learn how to behave well with other dogs. 

Protecting yourself from other people and their dogs

Unfortunately, not everyone we meet on walks is considerate, and this can cause problems especially if people try to pet dogs after being told not to, or let their dog invade another’s space. It helps to walk dogs at quiet times of the day, and to avoid walking them near pubs, where you’re likely to meet drunk and unpredictable humans. Some people resort to waistcoats with ‘Dog in Training. Do Not Approach’ on them, worn either by the owner or the dog.

 If your dog is approached by a loose dog on a walk and you sense the other isn’t friendly, try throwing treats at the dog, or even small stones aiming to miss, but close enough to startle, backed by a lot of stomping and shouting. You can also take a walking stick to keep strange dogs at bay, using the point, or an umbrella with a pop-open button.  Teaching your dog ‘behind’ means you can put your dog behind you and you’re putting yourself between the strange dog and yours. If you aren’t sure how to tell whether or not strange dogs are friendly, try walking with someone who has a lot of experience and can explain the signs, and watch your dog's body language. If he’s wary of a strange dog, keep a comfortable distance.

Preventing fights is better than trying to stop them once they've started. People are often hurt trying to separate fighting dogs, so it's best not to expose yourself to this danger, and to use distractions and prevent contact if possible. 

Fighting on walks

Some dogs manage to live their whole lives without fighting strange dogs, but many have an occasional spat. Most fights between dogs are brief, and result in no damage to either dog. Typically, they involve a younger dog being briefly scolded for taking liberties with an older dog, or two entire males reaching adulthood. Previously sociable male dogs may suddenly decide to take on other entire males. Neutering males may not make them less aggressive, though it does tend to reduce aggression against them.

 If you have a dog who sometimes picks fights, or seems to get involved in a lot of fights, get professional help, and meanwhile, keep him on the lead unless you have a clear view ahead, and know that any dog approaching is one he gets on with. Anticipate trouble, and try to spot approaching dogs before he does, so you can call him if he’s off leash. Walking your dog in the same place at the same time every day helps you to avoid fights, since you’re more likely to know the dogs around..

 Trainers can be especially useful when dogs have been attacked, and then start to posture at other dogs of the attacking breed. A male dog attacked by an entire male golden retriever may, for example, lunge and bark at other entire male goldens, though not necessarily females or neutered dogs. Trainers can help find calm dogs of the type that your dog can't cope with, and help you teach your dog how to cope. Parallel walks can calm dogs very rapidly, with two people walking the dogs alongside each other on the leash, but at a safe distance.

Dogs not used to meeting other dogs will often fight any that get close to them. It's worth trying to socialise adult dogs, even if you may never trust them off the lead with other dogs. It means that they’re less likely to bite any young dog that approaches them, or to lunge at dogs that pass by. You'll need to enlist the help of a trainer, or at least someone with a lot of experience of dogs, who can help by exposing your dog to calm adult dogs who don't react to barking and posturing. You can also take an unsocialised dog to watch outdoor training classes, leashed and at a safe distance, so long as all the owners taking part in the class know not to let their dogs approach you. Set up markers so your dog has his 'comfort distance' respected.

Some dogs fight for fun, and will try to pick fights despite efforts to socialise and train them. Their body language is confident, and they charge at other dogs. Males usually target entire males, though there are also bitches who like fighting and they may attack both sexes. This tendency is usually clear before the dog is eight months old. If you’re worried that your dog only really likes meeting other dogs to fight them, use a muzzle, reinforce recall, stay, and stop at a distance commands, and have the dog assessed.