This article is an edited excerpt from The Business of Dog Walking: How To Make a Living Doing What You Love by Veronica Boutelle
Whether you’re walking single dogs or groups, on or off leash, how you manage your charges matters. Walk management is about keeping the dogs, yourself, and others safe, about liability protection, about making a good impression for your business and the profession of dog walking, and about you and the dogs having the best time possible each and every outing.
Set the tone
A tone will be set for your walk whether you set it or not, so it’s best to address this proactively. Ideally, you want the tone to be calm, cheerful, and focused. Leave tone setting up to most dogs and it will be frantic, cheerful, and zany. This can make for an exhausting and frustrating day. So take control.
Tone setting starts before you even open a dog’s front door. Are they barking in excitement that you’re there? Wait it out. Remember that dogs do what works. If you teach the dogs you walk to bark at you to open the door, that’s what they’ll do. If you teach them instead that they must calm down first, you’ll get a quiet greeting.
Now it’s time to open the door and step inside. Do your charges jump on you? You can hardly blame them—they think you’re the bee’s knees and they’re terribly excited to see you. But if you don’t enjoy being pummeled by paws and you want a calm, controlled walk, leave and close the door. Yep, leave. Stand outside for 20 or 30 seconds and then try again. The minute a dog’s paws leave the floor, you’re on your way out again. You aren’t angry; no need to yell or tell them they’re bad dogs. You’re just calmly teaching them that jumping on you does not get them the results they want. Four on the floor? That’s more like it—you’re happy to leash them up when they’re being calm. You can even, once you’ve got the jumping under control, begin requiring a sit as a prerequisite for leashing them up to go.
Remember that consistency is everything when we’re dealing with operant conditioning, or learning by consequence. Once you begin teaching a dog, for example, that it’s not okay to jump on you it must never again be okay to jump on you. If you make the mistake of allowing the jumping on a day when you’re feeling rushed you will not set the training back by a little bit. You’ll reset it. It’s critical that the dog learn that jumping never works. If he thinks it might still work sometimes, he’ll keep trying it. He’s not being naughty; he’s just doing what seems to work, particularly because jumping is easier and more fun than not jumping.
Leash manners are part of tone setting, too. Allowing a dog to drag you down the driveway to your car or the sidewalk will set the tone for the rest of the walk. Insist that Fido walk calmly from the first seconds you hit the front stoop or apartment hall—from step one.
If you’re transporting dogs to another location to walk, tone setting continues in the car. Ask dogs to sit and wait before being invited to jump in. They should also sit and wait for your cue to jump back out once you’ve reached the walking destination. This is a good safety measure, too, as it avoids a dog jumping out into traffic. Should a dog attempt to get out before you’ve told him it’s his turn, tell him “Ah-ah” to give him a chance to think it over. If he sits back down to wait, praise him and then, when you’re ready, give him the “Okay” all clear to jump down. If he jumps down before he should, put or ask him to get back in. Close the vehicle door. Get the rest of the dogs out, or if he’s the only or last one, wait 30 seconds or so. Open the door to try again. This procedure is essentially the same one you use to control jumping when you pick a dog up.
Now we’re on our walk. If you and the dogs are lucky enough to have a place to play off leash, don’t take leashes off for free. Ask each dog to sit. If you’re carrying treats you might give each dog a sample to let them know what awaits them for a good recall. Then, while they are sitting calmly, remove their leash and tell them, “Go play!” If a dog sits and then pops back up to a stand, ask for another sit and wait until they’ve held it for several seconds before you unclip the leash. This is another exercise in tone setting and impulse control.
If it’s a leash walk, insist that dogs maintain slack in the lead at all times. In other words, that there’s no pulling. You can do that through training or the use of humane anti-pull equipment. There are many humane anti-pulling equipment choices these days. Avoid choke chains and prong collars. They are only minimally effective and we now know from multiple studies that they do, without a doubt, cause tracheal damage over a dog’s lifetime. Humane choices fall into two categories: head halters and anti-pull harnesses. There are many styles and brands of each. Experiment to find the ones you like best.
Give lots of feedback
Once the dogs are off leash it shouldn’t be a free-for-all. We want to maintain the tone we worked so hard to set, and we want to keep the dogs safe. Practice lots of recalls, reinforcing dogs each time, and reward all voluntary check-ins by giving dogs a treat each time they come near you. Behavior that is rewarded increases in frequency, so rewarding dogs for coming by means they’ll choose to stick closer. For single dogs on leash, reward voluntary watches. Give them a treat anytime they look back at you or make eye contact. Over a short time this will give you a dog who chooses to keep focused on you during their walk. Such a dog is much more likely to hear and respond to your cues, and much less likely to be the dog out at the end of the leash who barely seems aware that you’re there.
You can use life rewards, too. If you walk a fetch-obsessed dog, reward a good recall by throwing a ball or stick or pine cone. Have swimmers? Ask for a recall or sit before letting your pack charge the pond. Use life rewards for dogs walking on leash, too. Reward a sit or watch with access to a tree or post a dog is straining to sniff. You can use anything a dog wants—a chance to play with another dog, access to a cool drink, even your attention—as a reward for practicing a cue you want to build into or maintain as a reliable behavior.
Enjoy your calm walks
Good walk management is about balancing fun and safety. Just as children can have a fantastic time without having a free-for-all, dogs can have a blast while maintaining focus and impulse control. And that means a more enjoyable walk for you, too.