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Joyful Walks: Guiding Your Dogs

By Doug Duncan, Portland Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Doggy Business

French Bulldog sitting and holding his leash in his mouth.As the days grow longer and warmer and the flowers come out, so do the people! And they bring their dogs with them. While you might enjoy seeing these folks and their canine companions enjoying the outdoors together, their presence can make it more difficult to keep the dogs in your care calm when out and about. You can, however, do many things to help your dogs enjoy a more relaxed and comfortable time during their outings.

When a dog sees something exciting or worrisome, like another person, dog, or other animal, his nervous system quickly prepares his body to respond. When there are barriers that prevent the dog from investigating or moving away, frustration can be quick to follow. This frustration commonly leads to barking and lunging at the stimulus. We’ve all seen the dog who runs and barks along the fence line or barks out the window at things that pass by the house. With repetition, these dogs often react more quickly and intensely to these stimuli.

It’s important to remember that leashes are barriers too! They prevent dogs from investigating things on their outings. Leashes also render dogs unable to retreat when they feel the need. Whether the desire is to approach or move away, dogs on leashes become frustrated, and that is expressed with barking and lunging. Once aroused in this way, many dogs have a difficult time calming down, making it a challenge to even get their attention, let alone keep them walking politely with you.

Dogs have to learn how to negotiate their environment, just like humans do. But much of the environment is set up to facilitate our human interaction with it, for our comfort, and we’ve invited dogs along for the ride. Without our guidance, dogs can very easily learn behaviors that make it more difficult for them to be out in the real world. It’s on us to show them what we want them to do, make it worth their while to do it, and then help them practice and master these new skills.

What can be done? One helpful strategy is to be mindful of how much space a dog needs to stay comfortable with what’s going on around her. If the dog you are with becomes aroused and frustrated when confronted with another dog that is within, say, 30 feet of her, you can help your furry friend to stay calm by simply respecting that buffer and staying more than 30 feet away from the other dog. Maintaining this buffer zone can stave off the arousal and frustration that often lead to challenging behaviors.

This strategy can even work for dogs who are off leash. Try guiding off-leash dogs away from other dogs by moving away yourself and calling the dog to you. This can help relieve the dog’s frustration by keeping a comfortable distance from the other dogs in her environment. It helps a lot to carry some fabulous rewards on walks, like bits of cheese or hot dog. Reward your canine charges for following you and coming when called. Practicing these skills on a regular basis, even when there are no other dogs in sight, helps dogs deliver a reliable performance when you need them to.

We invited dogs into our lives. It’s on us to help them succeed in our world, and practicing good guide techniques can help create smooth walks for dogs and dog walkers both.