Your dog’s daily walk is likely one of the highlights of his day. Going for a walk can provide your dog with more than just a bathroom break. It can give him physical exercise, mental stimulation, and a chance to keep tabs on the neighborhood. How to train a dog to walk on a leash is certainly important. After all, if walks are unpleasant, you’re less likely to provide them. But there’s more to the story than whether or not you’re pulled down the block. Think about the walk from your dog’s point of view. To make sure he’s truly enjoying himself, be sure to avoid these five common mistakes.
1. Rushing Bathroom Breaks
Where dogs choose to go to the bathroom is an important decision. It’s not just about relieving themselves, it’s about communicating with the world-at-large. Dogs use their urine to signal their presence to other dogs. And in turn, smelling other dogs’ urine tells a dog all about the other canines in the community, including their gender, age, and health. This system of pee-mail keeps dogs up-to-date on what’s happening in their neighborhood.
While on a walk, dogs want to sniff out all the places other dogs have gone to the bathroom, so they can leave a fresh deposit on top. This is the equivalent of human graffiti, saying, “Rover was here.” Male dogs specifically will lift their back leg as high as possible to get their urine up to the nose level of other dogs.
If the urine or feces isn’t enough of a message, dogs sometimes scratch the ground with their feet to further emphasize their signal. Along with leaving an additional visual cue, they use special glands between their toes to leave extra scents on the ground as they scratch, adding even more impact to the scent mark.
All this sniffing and scratching requires concentration and time. Giving your dog the opportunity to smell the pee-mail and leave messages of his own will help him get the most out of his walks. If you want to keep your walk brief, or limit the areas your dog does his business, consider teaching him potty cues. This will let you tell him when and where you would like him to go.
2. Preventing Sniff and Explore Time
We have five or six million scent receptors in our noses, but dogs have up to 300 million, depending on the breed. They also have a far larger area of their brain devoted to their sense of smell, as well as a Jacobson’s organ that helps them detect normally undetectable odors such as pheromones. All of this adds up to a sense of smell that is at least 10,000 times greater than a human’s. It’s almost impossible for us to imagine the complexity of the information they gather with their noses.
Just as we might want to look around to take in the scenery, dogs want to smell all their environment has to offer. Dragging your dog away from an interesting scent, or asking him to heel the entire way around the block, prevents him from truly taking in everything around him and diminishes the mental stimulation a walk can provide.
Some dogs seem to be ruled by their noses and think of nothing else while on a scent trail. Proper training can help regain their focus when out on a walk. Consider teaching your dog cues like “Watch me” or “Leave it” to take his minds off the smell and put his attention back on you. Reward short bursts of heeling or loose leash walking with frequent sniffing sessions to help encourage good walking behavior.
3. Pulling on the Leash
From a dog’s perspective, humans walk far too slowly. To follow interesting scent trails and get where they want to go, dogs will drag their people behind them as fast as they can manage. One of the most common responses we have to a dog pulling on the leash is to pull back. However, this rarely gets the desired effect of a loose leash. Instead, we end up in a leash tug-of-war, and with a large and strong dog, chances are the human will lose.
This is because dogs have an opposition reflex, meaning that if you pull on their leash, they will pull back. If you try to drag them in the opposite direction, they will dig in and stop walking. They are not doing this to be stubborn or controlling, it’s simply the way their body naturally responds. But all that pressure on the leash is hard on their throat, particularly for small dogs or those prone to collapsing trachea. It’s also pretty frustrating for your dog because it keeps him from exploring and doesn’t provide him with any direction about what you want him to do instead.
How to train a dog to walk on a leash is simple but requires patience. To encourage a loose leash (having the leash hang down in a “J” shape between you), stop and change direction whenever your dog gets ahead of you. When he turns to catch up, reward him with praise, a small treat, and the chance to keep walking. Only let your dog walk when the leash is slack. The loose leash will eliminate pressure on his throat and prevent you from triggering his opposition reflex. If you already have a determined puller, consider using a training harness or head halter while you work on developing your dog’s polite walking skills.
4. Preventing Your Dog From Greeting People
Although some breeds can be more aloof, many love people and consider every human a potential friend. Denying these dogs the chance to say hello to neighbors and strangers on the street can frustrate and disappoint them. However, if greetings are chaotic, it’s no wonder you want to pass everybody by. In addition, well-meaning strangers can interfere with your training by encouraging behaviors you are trying to eliminate like jumping or pulling on the leash.
First, teach your dog to greet people by sitting politely for pats and attention. Start at home with people he knows well until the behavior starts to happen automatically. Then you’re ready to take it outside. The new location and his excitement can set him back, so enlist the help of friends and neighbors to solidify the behavior before moving on to strangers.
Second, don’t be afraid to speak up and explain your greeting rules to people you meet. Something as simple as, “Please don’t pat him until he sits,” can turn strangers into training partners. If someone refuses to cooperate, it’s best to politely move on. Carry treats in your pocket so you can reward your dog’s calm behavior when the greeting needs to be cut short. Your dog shouldn’t be punished for the stranger’s actions.
5. Avoiding Dog-Dog Socialization
The chance to socialize with other members of their own species is super exciting for many dogs. But if your dog isn’t polite about it, you’ll turn and walk the other way at the first sight of another pup. Excitement barking and lunging are embarrassing and can give others the wrong impression about your dog’s intentions. Plus, in dog society, it’s simply rude. But avoiding dog-dog greetings removes a great source of fun and socialization for your dog.
The trick is to teach your dog how to approach and greet other dogs politely, not just from your point of view, but from the other dog’s as well. Of course, if your dog’s reactions stem from fear or aggression rather than excitement, avoiding dog-dog socialization while you work with a trainer or animal behaviorist is the right thing to do.
It’s important to teach your dog that he won’t get to meet every dog he sees. That decision is up to you. If greetings aren’t guaranteed, he’s less likely to drag you towards other dogs and instead will learn to wait for permission. To help your dog focus on you in the presence of other dogs, use cues like “Look” or “Watch Me” to request eye contact. Or give him something else to do like “Sit” or nose targeting. Finally, don’t forget about the power of the “Leave It” cue to let him know he won’t be greeting that particular dog.
When you do allow greetings, select only those dogs that seem friendly and interested. One bad experience can traumatize your dog. Even with dogs that look okay, ask the other owner if the dog is friendly before allowing a greeting. Then ensure the interaction is calm and polite. Look for signs your dog is having fun, like play bows or a wiggling rear end. When it’s time to move on, give your dog a cue like “Let’s Go” so he knows the interaction is done. Of course, at the first sign of stress in either dog, such as a tucked tail, tension in the body, or a yawn, calmly end the interaction and walk away.
Once your dog understands polite greetings, you’ll feel more comfortable allowing him to say hello during walks. You can even use the chance to socialize as a reward for good walking behavior. Plus, all this hard work brings your dog much closer to passing the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test — the gold standard for polite dog behavior. The test includes loose leash walking, sitting politely for petting, accepting a friendly stranger, and behaving politely around other dogs.