Walking your dog off property is one of the most important things you can do as a pet parent. Off property walks provide mental stimulation as well as physical exercise – for you and your dog. It’s not always easy to walk your dog, as we shall see.
Many people are put off walking their dogs because they pull, leap and lunge and make the experience a nightmare. The easy way out is to find a semi-remote place and let dogs run off lead. But is that always a good idea? More importantly, is it always legal?
The most important aspect of walking your dog off-leash is to ensure legal in your state. Many states in the US have different laws about off-leash walking to ensure the public’s safety as well as the safety of your dog. For example, attorney Kenneth Philips says there is a one-bite law; dogs aren’t given a chance to bite twice. There is “the theory of negligence per se”, which gives dogs and their parents a little more wiggle room.
Practicalities of dog walking
There’s nothing more fun for a dog than the freedom to run free and sniff to her heart’s delight without the pressure of a leash. However, it’s essential that your dog learns proper on-leash walking behavior so that if a cat or squirrel races across the street, you can prevent a wild dash of her own.
Even the most headstrong of dogs can learn to comply with the invisible tether that is your voice. In order to teach your dog to walk politely you need to start with loose-lead walking. Once the heel position is an entrenched habit, you can progress to walking without a leash.
Loose-lead walking equipment
You have the option to walk your dog on a collar and lead or a harness and lead. Harnesses are best to lessen the risk of injury to your dog’s neck, esophagus and wind pipe. However, you need to choose the right type of harness. Harnesses that attach to the lead at the back actually promote pulling. It’s an opposition reflex (think of physics and every action having an equal and opposite reaction). Instead you should get a harness where the lead attaches at the chest. ASPCA recommends SENSE-ation® and Easy Walk® harnesses.
If you use a collar only, use a flat collar and not a choke chain or half-check collar and definitely not a prong or pinch collar. No matter what any ‘trainer’ or ‘behaviorist’ says, these types of collars are cruel and punishing and can cause serious injury. They also don’t do any more than teach the dog to be afraid.
During training, a short-medium length lead works well, but you can use a longer lead when you take your dog off property so she has more ranging room.
The first thing you want to do is teach your dog a ‘watch me’ cue. This trains your dog to focus on your face and watch your eyes so you can easily give them other information, such as ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘stop’. It’s also important when it comes to the transition to off-leash training.
Take a nice treat, bring it to your dog’s nose and then up between your eyes. As your dog meets your eyes, say “Yes” to mark the correct behavior and reward your dog with the treat. Repeat a few times and then remove the treat from your hand so your dog is following your finger only – continue to mark the correct behavior and reward.
When your dog reliably follows your finger and gives you decent eye contact, you can put in a ‘Watch me’ cue. Don’t call your dog’s name as you don’t want to ask for the attention, you want your dog to volunteer it. Build up the duration of the eye contact from 1 second to 30 seconds and longer.
Next, you’re going to put your dog on lead and sit them on either your left or right side (the side doesn’t matter unless you’re going to compete in things like canine freestyle, competition obedience and canine good citizen, which all require your dog to walk on the left). Hold the lead in the opposite hand of whatever side your dog is on. This allows for greater control when you walk your dog.
In the beginning, you will literally take one step forward and reward your dog for stepping next to you in the heel position. Change direction often so that your dog has to keep thinking to stay by your side. Keep the rate of reinforcement high – reward every single step. If your dog pulls ahead of you, change direction and reward your dog for turning to keep up with you. Remember to bring your hand up between rewards; otherwise your dog might be tempted to jump for the tempting treat just out of reach. Engage with your dog, praising her and keeping your voice light and happy. The more you encourage your dog to focus on you, and the more worthwhile you make it, the more willing attention you will receive.
Moving forward – literally
When your dog has the hang of the exercise you can start taking two steps before rewarding, then three steps, then four and so on. Always increase your criteria very slowly. Don’t think that because your dog can keep the heel position every step that she’ll keep it for 10 steps. You’ll both end up frustrated and annoyed.
If your dog pulls as you increase the steps, you can play the Red Light, Green Light game. When she pulls, stop dead (red light), when she looks back at you or steps back and the lead goes loose, you can walk again (green light). Because walking forward is so rewarding for dogs – it gets them to the park or the smelly bush – dogs learn very quickly that pulling makes the walk stop. Treat every walk as a training opportunity and don’t let your dog practice pulling at all. Every time she gets away with pulling, it’s money in the bank for the behavior.
Practice loose lead walking in your own garden until it’s rock-solid before taking it to the street or park. When you do take it off property, decrease your criteria drastically. The distractions will be much more tempting than anything in your garden and your dog’s attention span will be around zero, so go back to rewarding every single step to remind your dog what the exercise is and then build up to two steps, three steps, etc. Start in quiet areas at first and work up to more distracting places.
Walk your dog off-lead
Before you start allowing your dog free rein off lead (which you’ve found out you’re legally allowed to do), make sure you have an excellent recall. Your dog should respond to your recall cue even when she’s leaping up a tree to chase squirrels or has her head down a mole hole or has spotted a bouncy Labrador and wants to play.
Keep your recall consistent and use something simple like your dog’s name and come. So, “Fluffy Come!” is your recall cue. Not, “Fluffy, Fluffy, come Fluffy, here Fluffy, come girl,” “Fluffy, Fluffy, Fluffy,” “FLUFFY! COME HERE NOW!”
Always keep your tone light, even if you’ve reached the point where you want to turn your dog into a fur hat. The angrier you sound, the less likely your dog is to respond. As far as your dog is concerned, shouting makes psycho and they don’t want any of that action. They reckon they’ll just hang around sniffing a bush until you calm down.
Always reward your dog coming to you, even if they’ve taken their time. Coming back to you should always be worth their while.
Practice recalls on a short lead to start with, so your dog doesn’t get the opportunity to ignore you. You can then move onto a longer line and eventually remove the lead.
When you first remove the lead, encourage her to stay by your side in the heel position and reward. After some duration, give your dog an ‘Off you go’ or ‘Go play’ cue so she can run and explore. Call her back to you, reward and encourage her to walk in the heel position again. It’s a good idea to put the lead on and practice loose-lead walking for short periods of your walk. You can release her again to run and play.
Always have your lead ready, so that if another dog appears or you see a cyclist or jogger, you can call them back and put the leash on for everyone’s safety.
Choose the areas in which you walk your dog off lead carefully. Don’t choose somewhere that is crowded, where you know there are lots of dogs, children and cyclists, which are all danger points. Rather choose quiet, out of the ways locations, or choose times when you know popular areas will be quiet. This could mean you walk your dog very early in the morning, late in the evening or in the middle of the day when everyone is at work or school.
Always respect other dogs and their owners. Not all dogs like having other dogs in their space, so if you see another dog on lead, put your dog on lead too. It’s just good petiquette.