Dogs have a biological need to walk.
Wild dogs and ancestors of our domestic dogs would travel for hours a day to guard their territory and to obtain resources. Up until a couple of decades ago our dogs were working or free to explore outside rather than sitting on the couch all day, as they do now. Many of our domestic dogs were bred for a certain purpose, such as hunting, herding, or other types of work. Even mutts will retain biological drives to physical engage in an activity, and walking is crucial for fulfilling that need.
Walking is physically stimulating and provides many of the same benefits that walking does for humans, such as weight loss or maintenance, stronger bones, muscles, and joints, improved attention, and disease prevention. Just because your dog has the energy to burn, it does not mean dogs will motivate themselves to exercise. Even if you have a large yard, it takes active participation from their owners to motivate dogs to move. It’s great if you engage in other activities with your dog, such as fetch, running, or agility, but a plain old walk can be extremely beneficial as well.
Walking provides mental stimulation, introducing them to new places, people, dogs, scents, sounds, and sights. Being let out into the same backyard does not provide the same enrichment as an active environment like a park. Dogs are motivated to travel and explore. Allowing them the opportunity to do this makes for a happy, satisfied dog. Ultimately, walking is an activity you should be doing with your dog. If you do not have the time or energy, hiring a dog walker can be a great way to give your dog the opportunity without having to add another item to your to-do list.
Dog Walking Equipment
We get a lot of questions about what the best walking equipment is, so here is some information on the different items.
- Flat Collar: Walking your dog on a flat collar is fine if you have a dog who does not pull. If you have a puller, it’s best to use a head halter or harness, so no damage is done to the trachea or neck from pulling. We do not recommend prong or choke collars. If you do a lot of outdoor activities with your dog, such as hiking, we would recommend a harness. In the case of an emergency where your dog gets snagged on a tree or rock, flat collars can do a lot of damage and strangulate your dog.
- Harnesses: There are many models of harnesses out there. Which one is best for your dog is very dependent on your dog. If you have a puller, front clip harnesses (Easy Walks) are great for reducing pulling. As the dog pulls, the harness turns their body towards the leash, thereby not allowing them to pull. Back clip harnesses are a great tool to use that won’t damage the neck or trachea, but if you have a puller you will need to actively work to teach them not to pull, just as you would with a flat collar. The style of back clip harness you need will depend on dog body type, dog behavior, and personal preference.
- Head Halters: Head halters are a great tool for dogs who like to pull. Head halters (Gentle Leaders), loop around the snout and hook behind the ears, similar to a horse halter. If you have control of the dog’s head, they won’t be able to use their body weight to pull you. Some dogs find head halters uncomfortable at first, so you may need to desensitize them to wearing one, but once they are used to it, it’s great.
- Leashes: Standard flat leashes are perfectly great for walking. We do not recommend retractable leashes. They teach your dog to pull, can be dangerous for humans and dogs, and reduce the amount of control you have over where your dog goes.
If you need help figuring out which equipment would be best for your pooch, feel free to ask TGDS staff. We are extremely familiar with all types of walking equipment, and can help make recommendations. Best of all, we sell a lot of items in our lobby and can help you fit them on your dog.
Loose Leash Walking
Before we talk about how to get a well-behaved walking partner, we will address why your dog walks the way it does on a leash. First, we will answer the question “Why does my dog pull??” The answer is because the outside world is so exciting and they can’t wait to check it out! Walking on a leash is a very unnatural thing for a dog. Dogs like to meander around exploring at their own pace, and we ask them to stay tethered to us and walk at our pace. Dogs also pull because they have been rewarded for pulling. As a dog pulls towards a tree to sniff it, they drag their human right along with them, and they get to the tree. They begin to learn that pulling gets them to the scent they are trying to explore and they keep doing it. You may also have wondered why dogs weave from side to side while on walks. This is how dogs track down scents. When odors come off of an item, they dissipate in a cone shape. Dogs weave within the scent cone until they narrow in on the item itself.
Now that you understand why your dog behaves the way it does on leash, we can talk about how to teach them to walk politely. There are two ways you can do this. The first way is called “becoming a tree.” When using this method, you are passively teaching your dog that pulling is not rewarding by stopping every time they pull on the leash. When you feel pressure at the end of the leash, immediately freeze. Don’t say anything or tug or do anything else, just stay still and hold the leash firmly. Wait until your dog takes a step back or turns toward you, so the leash loosens, then continue walking (you can offer a cheerful “yes” or “OK”). Do this every time your dog pulls and soon your dog will learn that pulling is not getting it what it wants. This method can be slow going at first, but if you are consistent, your dog will learn the association.
The second method involves actively teaching your dog where you do want them to be, rather than where you don’t want them to be. The easiest way to do this is with the clicker. Start this training in a small, familiar environment with few to no distractions, like your living room. Have your dog on leash, with clicker and treats on you (you may want to practice a little without your dog nearby to make sure you are able to click, hold the leash, and offer treats). Start by standing so your dog is right next to you (whichever side you prefer, just be consistent). Click and treat in this position a few times. Next, take a step forward, wait for you dog to take a step and is next to you, click and treat. Continue to take steps and clicking whenever your dog is at your side. Start off slow until you feel like your dog understands what it is being rewarded for. Next, start turning around and moving all over, and click and treat when your dog is right by your side. Once your dog is reliably moving into that position, you can start pairing a cue, such as “heel” or “with me.” Start adding more distractions, like going out to the backyard, or around the block. Don’t advance too quickly and revisit easy steps if your dog starts getting confused.
With either of these methods it is important to remember to let your dog be a dog. It is great to have a dog that can walk politely next to us when we need them to, but it’s also important to let them move around and sniff things. Pay attention to their gaze and lead them to items they are curious about. Let them sniff every other tree if they really want to. Walking daily is similar to us checking our email or Facebook. Your dog is exploring their environment and community, looking for new information. Give them the opportunity to interact with their environment and you will have a happier pooch.
Why walking is important?
Walking is a great activity to include in your regular routine. Walking for at least 30 minutes a day will provide a wide variety of health benefits, including:
- Stronger muscles, bones, and joints
- Weight loss or weight maintenance (whatever your goal is!)
- Helps you sleep better
- Improves cognitive functions such as memory and attention
- Improves lung function
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves mood
- More vitamin D
If you are not much of a walker already, start with realistic goals, like one half-hour walk per day. Brisk walks will provide more physical benefits, but leisurely walks can be extremely relaxing and be better for improving mood. Make your daily walk a chance to have some “me time” with no electronic device. Take time to explore and enjoy your surroundings. Bring along the family, or go solo. On weekends, seek out one of the many beautiful hiking trails we have in New England. Whichever way you choose to do it, just get moving!