by Colette Kase, first published in the January 2020 edition on Dogs Today
On-lead walks are often seen as ‘the poor relation’ in terms of exercise, but they benefit all dogs, and for those that can only ever be walked on a leash, they needn’t be any less rewarding than a free-run – provided you treat your walking partner with the respect they deserve
Not all owners are able to give their dog off-lead exercise – and there are numerous reasons for this. Elderly dogs, or those with medical issues may not be able to exercise off-lead freely for their own safety. Reactive or fearful dogs, and those with strong prey drives may also not be able to exercise freely. In some areas, there simply might not be anywhere dogs are allowed to exercise off-lead. There are also people who own breeds or types of dogs that are legally restricted, and they are required, by law, not to have their dog off-lead in any public place.
Quite simply, it’s not possible for every dog to run freely off-lead and for those dogs, it’s especially important that their owners know how to make the most of on-lead walks.
My most recent rescue dog only gets on-lead exercise and it’s been a very new experience for me. In the places I’ve lived previously, I’ve always been able to run my dogs and give them plenty of off-lead freedom. Now, in a new city, with a very large adult rescue dog who spent a great deal of time living as a stray on the streets, I simply have no access to open spaces that are safely enough enclosed to make off-lead exercise possible.
When I had a dog training school and behaviour practice in London, I was often called upon to coach and advise dog owners who were only able to exercise their dogs on a lead. Many of them found it frustrating and difficult. Fortunately, with that background, I’ve been able to transition from a dog owner who has always free-run her dogs, to one that only lead-walks her dog, quite easily. But, I understand that not all dog owners know how to make on-lead walks fun, so I hope that by sharing some thoughts about dog walking, especially on-lead dog walking, I may be able to help owners and their dogs.
MORE THAN A CHORE
I think all dogs should have regular on-lead walks, even if they benefit from free-running exercise. On-lead walks are an important way to bond with your dog, work on important basic obedience skills, and reduce certain types of inappropriate excitement behaviours before walks. They are also good for building up strength and muscle tone in dogs, not to mention giving you great calves.
In multi-dog households, it is particularly important to walk dogs individually, on a lead, from time to time, so that they don’t become too dependent on their relationship with the other dogs in the household and maintain a good connection with you.
I’ve heard dog owners, who are dedicated to free-running their dogs, make exclamations of despair when confronted with people who only lead walk their dog. Free-running is a great way to exercise active dogs, letting them burn off steam and to work on important training skills like recall and retrieve. But not everyone has the luxury to free-run their dogs, and, shock horror, some people don’t want to. Believe it or not, some dogs become very anxious and almost hysterical before walks that involve off-lead exercise. While some owners misinterpret the behaviour as excitement, they may be missing out on behavioural signals that indicate that their dog might benefit from more confidence building, on-lead work.
The first and most important part of getting the most from on-lead exercise is to examine your attitude to dog walks. Let’s do the naughty thing and anthropomorphise our dogs for a moment. Imagine your dog is a person. Just like your dog, this person is your very dear friend, whom you love. He might even be your best friend.
Imagine suggesting a day out with your best friend, putting them in the back of your car, taking them to the high street and saying, ‘OK, off you go’
and then making a phone call, starting to chat to other friends or just sitting down and looking at Facebook. Or, maybe strolling with them along the riverbank, only speaking to them when they are too close to the edge. Not really a great way to treat a friend, is it?
So, let’s try another scenario. You invite your best friend for a walk. You hold their hand and you talk to them the whole time. You stop and explore things together. You sit down for a while and have a conversation. You giggle together, make eye contact from time to time, and you simply enjoy each other’s company. Maybe you teach each other things and play some games together. Doesn’t that sound lovely?
OK, I know the holding hands thing sounds a bit weird, but I’m sure you can see where this is going. If you approach your on-lead walk with your dog as if you were going out with your best human friend, you’ll immediately see it as something that you both look forward to.
Plan your walk in advance and set goals and a route. That way you’ll be walking with a purpose. If you’re going to do training, behaviour modification or play, have everything ready that you’ll need. An on-lead walk can be a good time for grooming, so you might want to take along a brush or a comb.
Start with a connection with your dog. Talk to him from the moment you put on his lead to go out and let him know the things you want and how to please you. Use this time to promote calmness and to fine-tune some basic training skills, such as sitting quietly, making eye contact and impulse control.
If you have a front garden, spend a few minutes checking it out with your dog, so as not to make rushing out of the gate such a priority. If you walk straight out on to the street, perhaps just hang out there and people watch for a little while. Interact with your dog throughout, letting him know that you are in this together. Training is all about teaching your dog a language, so start teaching him new words and skills from the outset.
Vary your route on different walks. That way, neither of you will get bored and your dog won’t anticipate everything that is going to happen. You are out exploring with your dog and learning new things together. Have an adventure.
Change your pace regularly on your walk. Sometimes stroll quietly and practise loose lead walking, sits, downs and picking up ‘peemail’. At other times, jog along, skip, leap and be generally silly. A lot of dogs love being silly, but they always feel ‘on duty’ when
■ Change direction
If you find that a certain street is of particular interest to your dog, or if you weren’t entirely pleased with his behaviour on that street, it may be worth changing direction and going up and down the same street more than once. Let him know what behaviour you appreciate to make it easier for him to make you happy.
If you have a dog-reactive dog, you may find it completely stressful to encounter other dogs on the street. This makes it a cause for anxiety for you and your dog. But try to see the presence of other dogs as a training opportunity instead. This is when you can produce your most high-value treats. Always protect your reactive dog from being forced beyond his comfort zone with the other dog. If necessary, cross the road before it gets too close, or even go the other direction. The important thing is to freely and generously provide high-value treats as long as the other dog is present. Don’t worry if your dog kicks off a bit – just take that as information that he’s beyond his comfort zone and create more space for him. The important thing is that your dog should start to think that the presence or approach of any other dog turns you into someone who produces delicious gifts.
If you have a reactive dog that likes to play, this may also be a good time to pull out that toy. Play and fun changes body chemistry and produces happy hormones for your dog. Quite simply, it’s impossible for your dog to be happy and enjoying a favourite toy and anxious about another dog at the same time. The more your dog’s body and mind associate the presence of another dog with happiness, the more the anxiety will naturally recede. If your dog loves balls, throwing one isn’t really possible on a walk like this, so try a ball on a rope instead.
Learn about different activities you can do with your dog. ‘Find it’ games and scent-discrimination games are perfect for on-lead walks. Start training these activities at home, until your dog understands the rules of the game, and then make the world your ‘hide and seek’ oyster. These types of games are enriching for dogs of all ages and abilities.
Identify dog-friendly places. Taking your on-lead dog to places you can relax and enjoy together helps to socialise him and you can teach him how you’d like him to behave in those situations. The more you do it, the better behaved your dog will become, which, in turn, will make you want to take him to more places with you.
Take advantage of natural obstacles and other objects you find along the way on your travels. Teach your dog to walk along low walls, learn how to go right or left around obstacles, jump over small logs or up on to other levels. The world is three-dimensional. Use it to build communication with your dog and to have fun together.
There are so many fun and constructive ways to enjoy on-lead walks with your dog. If you are 100 per cent mentally present for your dog during walks, you’re relationship will quickly flourish. It’s tempting to use a dog walk to plan your day in your head, socialise with friends and neighbours, or, if you’re like me, plan for work and write articles in your mind. It might be a convenient time for daydreaming or making phone calls and responding to messages. If you find walking is therapeutic and gives you time to do these things, that’s great. Take a walk on your own and leave your dog at home.
If you have more ideas on how to enjoy on-lead walks with your dog, let us know. We’d love to hear them. The most important thing to remember is that your on-lead walk with your dog is all about hanging out together and enjoying your friendship.