Do you dream?
What does your perfect dog walk look like? Maybe you like trail hikes? Maybe you explore more urban parks? Or you have to walk the streets? Maybe you’d love to stroll on sandy beaches in the sunset while your dog plays in the surf?
Whatever your perfect vision, and no matter your physical location and restrictions, I bet one thing stays consistent in your dreams: you see you and your dog striding along together; a team, connected, in tune with each other even though you may not be physically joined.
And how does the reality measure up?
Assuming your dog doesn’t have emotional issues like reactivity or anxiety (which are problems to be addressed separately before anything else), do you have the walking partner you’d like? Or do you find yourself in the role of chauffer and pack horse – you drive your dog to their favourite place and once there, they disappear while you carry the kit. There you are, lugging poo bags, lead, water, phone, maybe treats and toys with no dog in sight! Or, assuming you’re using a lead, you find yourself dragged hither and thither as your dog dashes madly from one enticing smell to another.
What’s the difference?
When you compare your dream with your reality, can you put your finger on the biggest difference? It’s not ‘leash manners’. It’s not a ‘functioning recall’. It’s not the level of training per se. Training certainly helps. If your dog knows what’s expected of him, it at least puts you in the right direction. But who’s ever had the experience of walking someone else’s dog – and having that dog ignoring every word you say even though they’re very well ‘trained’ and behave impeccably with their owner? The thing that’s missing? It’s ‘connection’. It’s had to define but you know it when you have it and you can feel it’s absence when you don’t.
What IS connection?
Connection is what promotes your dog to pay attention to you. It’s that invisible umbilical cord that means you both know exactly where the other is without the need for constant calling or lead pulling. Connection is the emotional attachment that keeps you moving together and in sync. Training can help build it but it’s a whole lot more than just training.
To make this concept easier to understand, imagine walking down the high street with your significant other or a good friend. Would you feel connected if they ignored you completely and just did their own thing? If they walked off in random directions without giving you any indication where they were heading?
Think about what you do naturally in this situation. You adjust your pace with them, slow down or speed up with them. You tell them before changing direction or entering a shop. You let them look in shop windows at things that interest them; maybe have a chat about the window display or the people you see. Both parties do this so you’re constantly checking in with each other and adjusting speed and direction accordingly. And you probably never ever give it a moment’s thought.
Starting points – building a habit of connection
Having said that, connection CAN be trained. It starts by rewarding voluntary checking in and offered attention. It’s important that these behaviours are driven by your dog, NOT YOU! Why? Because a big part of being connected to another being is the act of paying attention to where they are and what they’re doing – without being asked.
You can watch me start this type of training in these two videos:
What I’m doing in both of these videos is teaching the pup that connecting with me is a great thing to do. I’m also letting them make their own decisions to some extent. If they need to stop and stare at something, I let them. I don’t rush them back to ‘work’. Here’s a video of me and a very young Felix doing some exploring.
Notice how I’m constantly monitoring his needs. I keep him moving along but he’s not rushed. I let him explore and check things out. When he stops, I stop. When he moves, I move. On the flip side, when I want to move him, I just tell him we’re moving and he comes along willingly. He has a long lead so he doesn’t have to pull to get to things he’s interested in. However, I also provide firm boundaries: “when the lead goes tight, that’s as far as you’re going young man.”
In this video I’m not ‘training’ loose lead walking, but that’s what he’s learning. He just doesn’t know it! He’s also learning that bumbling along with me, checking out the world, checking in with me, getting the odd cookie and being relaxed and chilled, is a great way to spend some time. I acknowledge him every time he looks at me, either with some soft words and a smile or very occasionally with a cookie (not shown in this clip)
What I’m not doing is striding along, ignoring my dog, while I fulfil some agenda of my own. If you want connection, you have to GIVE connection.
Maintaining the connection
Once you’ve put some foundations in place, you can start to go to more interesting places. I like to use natural rewards such as sniffing and exploring for offered check-ins. Once your dog is an adolescent, in most cases, these are the sorts of things they want, not pats and cookies from you. However, if your dog will take cookies or play with you, it’s simplicity itself to give the reward and then actively release them back to fossicking.
Already got problems?
If you find your dog is inclined to forget about you, try standing dead still. If you’ve done your groundwork properly you should find that just the fact that you’re standing still will be enough for them to look back, “wotcha doin’?” You just need to acknowledge the look back and release to go sniffing again.
If your dog tends to disappear, a long line will be needed to prevent that. Build a strong habit of checking in and being released. Work in either secure, smallish safe places or keep your dog on a longish lead when you first start. Remember that the further away your dog is from you, the less relevant you’ll be – and the fewer check-ins you’ll get. There’s a sweet spot between not enough freedom, so no learning, and too much freedom, so no learning. That spot is different for every dog so I can’t give you a recipe.
Sure, you can work on building a strong response to a recall, but really, it’s your dog’s job to remain within calling distance of you, not yours to keep reminding them where you are! Automatic, habitual check-ins build your invisible bungee line – it stretches but doesn’t break. Your dog looks for you, gets acknowledgement and sent back to what he was doing. That way you only need to call when you actually need him, not to restrict how far he goes.
Give ‘n’ take – meeting both of your needs
One thing to remember when walking like this: connection is a two-way street. If you habitually walk your dog while talking on the phone, listening to music, chatting intently to your friend or just generally ignoring your dog, don’t blame them if they give you the same treatment!
Why are you walking?
Ask yourself why you’re walking your dog. Is it to accrue steps on your fitness tracker? Because someone told you that dogs need exercise? Or to have a relaxing, pleasant time with your canine companion?
A connected walk needs to meet both of your needs – but mainly your dog’s. Your dog needs to sniff and explore. He may need to do some off-lead running. He might benefit from off-lead play with other dogs. Or he may be far happier just ignoring other dogs and tootling along doing his own thing with you. Don’t inflict your requirements for exercise or social interaction on him.
Think of your walks together AS together time. Take an interest in what he’s interested in, gross as that might be – at least you can intervene before he eats it! Adjust your pace to suit him, at least for some of the time. Set firm boundaries on acceptable behaviour (no pulling, thank you!) but try to give him access to explore and be a dog.
Once you start building a mutual connection you’ll find that ‘walking the dog’ is so much more than just a walk.
– Sarah and the Gang
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