Walks with your dog should be rewarding. Jackie Drakeford advises on how to make sure they are!
Dogs’ senses are far sharper than ours; their pleasure at being out for a walk is more detailed.
We are visual beings, and might think that dogs’ limited colour perception also limits what they can see, but they are better than us at identifying movement and seeing in low light, and we can get caught out walking early in the morning or late in the evening, when our dog sees something we haven’t.
Dogs’ hearing is superior too, so watch those ears to find out where they are getting information from, and what they think about it. Dogs do a lot of ‘talking’ with their ears, and it’s a wise move to watch them.
Use your scouting skills
Happy walking is all about protecting and pre-empting. Keep calm though, because if you act in an excitable manner, you can often precipitate the very behaviours you don’t want. Watch the sniffing pattern. Before you take the lead off, do the Indian scout ‘thing’ of finding out which way the wind is blowing by scattering a few leaves or blades of grass. Once you know where your dog is getting information from, and if he is keen on pursuing wildlife and the wind is coming from the woods, do your walk the other way round so there is less chance for him to scent it.
Look at the ground for footprints or droppings of prey species — forewarned is forearmed. If he lifts his head and ears and starts really sucking in the wind, put the lead back on and ‘change the subject’ by initiating a game instead. There is ground scent too, which rises or sinks according to eddies of air. Dogs like to ‘share’ ground scent (the ultimate generosity being rolling in it) and if you watch your dog as he sniffs, he will communicate with you, using ears, eyes, and (look closely) whiskers, telling you what snippets of information he is finding.
It’s much more fun to try to guess what it is, rather than standing there bored and telling him to hurry up. A bonus is that the more you ‘listen’, the more your dog will tell you. It’s a very bonding experience, and pays off hugely when training.
Some dogs are top-notch scavengers, and if so, you need to be very careful to ensure they don’t eat anything they find out on walks. At home, teach a ‘Leave it’ command, then proof it out on walks. Keep a constant lookout for dodgy edibles and stay ahead of the situation by watching the dog.
It’s too late to wait until the dog is actually wolfing something down. When you spot a potential hazard, get between it and your dog rather than trying to pull him away, and as soon as you are clear of the undesirable item, treat-bomb your dog. The message to him is that it is every bit as rewarding to get something yummy from you as it is to eat something he finds.
It will be touch-and-go at first, but practice makes perfect, so it’s important not to give up just because you were a bit too slow to begin with. Practise changing sides and moving your dog away in safe areas first, so that he is comfortable with the concept before there is the added incentive of whatever it is he shouldn’t eat.
We exercise our dogs not only for their health and to keep their bodies fit, but to refresh their minds, too. ‘Walkies’ should be a two-way pleasure, and rather than being an annoying limitation to your dog’s desires, you can use this time to work on training.
Understanding your dog's ears!
Bearing in mind breed limitations, this is what your dog’s ear positions are telling you:
BOTH EARS BACK
I don’t like this, or someone is approaching from behind.
ONE EAR BACK
Let’s go this way, or there is something on that side that needs investigating.
BOTH EARS RELAXED
Aren’t we having a good time? Make eye contact and agree!
EARS UP AND TOGETHER
Look at what or who is approaching.
EARS FORWARD AND STIFF
Put that lead on fast; your dog has spotted some trouble he wants to get into.
Allowing your dog to carry sticks can cause severe injuries, as your vet will tell you, and carrying stones will wear down teeth. If your dog loves to carry items, take some safe toys instead.
You’re not alone!
Don’t forget on your walks that you and your dog aren’t the only people out there. You need to be aware of what is going on around you. For instance, if your dog likes to chase a ball, you should make sure there are no other dogs about when you launch it, because this is a great way to start a fight.
If someone else is treat-bombing their dog because they are training too, it’s an opportunity to keep yours to heel as you pass. Permission should always be asked before dogs are allowed to associate with others; it is not helpful to have someone trill: “He’s friendly” or “She only wants to play” from 40 yards away as their dog barrels into yours!
Engaging with your dog is not only fun, but it also helps with recall, probably the most difficult exercise to teach most pet dogs. So, instead of leaving your dog to do his own thing for the whole walk, work with him, making off-lead periods a time to spend with you. Use a specific word for recall, then the dog knows what is wanted, and make recall a sensationally rewarding thing to do.
Treats given on walks should be amazingly worthwhile, even among all those other opportunities for fun. Call your dog back, reward him, put him on-lead for a few steps, then release. If you only ever call your dog back to end his fun — well, would you come back?
When you let your dog off-lead, you need to work on being interesting. Throw that treat behind you, or somewhere to be sniffed out and found, waggle a tug toy, practise off-lead heel at different paces, stand still behind a tree for the dog to search you out, so he has to watch you rather than freelancing. Don’t become boring by doing the same thing over and over. Give him time to sniff and scent mark, too, but make it an interactive time rather than striding off with your mind full of what you have to do when you get home.
The more you listen, the more they ‘talk’.
One-on-one time with your dog
Some people have more than one dog, and, if so, it is really important to give each one a walk with just you whenever you can. Even if you only manage one a week, it is astonishing how a dog’s behaviour changes when he has his best person in the world all to himself. Not only does this deepen your relationship with each dog, it is also a kindness if the day comes when one has to be on his own, maybe because the other is away at the vet’s, or if there has been a bereavement.
By accustoming each dog to frequent special solo time, you provide a security base to help during those times of disturbed emotions. Although you need to be wise to what your dog is doing or about to do, this does not mean military-style control over the whole walk. It is fine to do a little training interspersed with a lot of relaxation and fun. Some days you just won’t feel up to it, and then there is no need to feel you ‘should’ or the dog ‘ought’; as long as you keep your dog safe, there is nothing wrong with a quieter walk. When your dog can do plenty of sniffing, his mind will be refreshed and his body relaxed.
If your dog is not yet at the reliable recall stage, there is good sense in keeping him on-lead if you are having a frazzled day. Dogs are terrific at reading our moods, and may take advantage, or else be anxious, if we are exhausted, unwell, or stressed. This might all sound like hard work, but it really isn’t.
Walks should be the high spot of your dog’s day, and they can be the same for you, too. It’s surprisingly little effort once you get into the habit of engaging with your dog — and enriches the relationship beyond words.
If you use a long line or extending lead, shorten it to normal lead length when another dog is approaching. It is all too easy for a dog to be injured if a long lead gets wrapped around them.
Hidden dangers in new areas
When walking in a new area, be extra alert, especially when with friends who are not dog aware. There have been tragedies where dogs have run over cliffs while chasing birds or a rabbit, or a sheep that pops up suddenly from behind a rock. Check for wildlife such as deer or hares, which can go a long way, possibly taking a pursuing dog across roads or other dangerous places.
Watch out for barbed wire or dumped rubbish that might include broken glass or rusting metal; don’t assume anywhere is completely safe. Never be afraid to put the dog back on his lead if in doubt.