Why It's Time to Consider a Walk on Your Dog's Terms
You wouldn't want to be yanked, scolded, or told "there's nothing there."
Posted May 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Jessica Pierce's recent essays focusing on the general topic of agency (giving dogs more consent and autonomy), the last centering on the way in which dogs are typically walked and the importance of letting them be free to poop and pee, got me thinking about a "fun" way of getting people to pay more attention to how they walk their dog because, quite frankly, I'm getting somewhat tired writing about what dogs need when they're tethered to a human as they stroll here and there. The same goes for when dogs are supposedly free to run around at dog parks, but are actually vicariously tethered to helicoptering humans who still control much of what they do.
My interests in bringing a bit of humor into dog walking and dog park interactions among dogs and hoping this perspective might make a positive difference for "tethered" dogs stems from a number of emails I've received saying something like, "Don't you get tired of continually asking people to give their dogs more daily freedoms—as many as possible—when we're supposedly exercising their bodies and senses?" I do indeed; I continually ask myself how many times do people have to explain that a dog's walk is for them and it should be on their terms, as should their time at dog parks when they're zooming around and having fun.
There's lots to learn by imaging a tether is on your neck
I recently found just what I was looking for on a poster called "How to walk a Human: A Dog's Guide." There are seven guiding principles:
1. Allow your human to tether themselves to you. This keeps them from wondering off or running away. 2. Your human will probably need breaks. Be considerate and stop and sniff often. 3. Bark frequently. Humans have short attention spans. 4. When you go to the bathroom, walk away. If you have trained your human correctly, they will pick it up. Good aerobics. 5. Periodically drag your human as fast as you can. This is called interval training. 6. Do not allow your human to shorten the walk. They are being lazy. Sit in protest if you must. 7. Once you return home, allow your human to remove their tether, then lick their face many times. This is positive reinforcement for a job well done."
Dog to Human: Stop Saying "There's nothing there"
Let's consider some of these seven points. There's a lot to think about when we imagine a leash is on our neck. I couldn't find any data on dog walk styles, so I did some citizen science and watched 100 different people walking their dogs on the streets around Boulder.
Seventy-eight were in total control of their dog, yanking their necks or muzzles, telling them to stop doing this or that, and often pulling them along when their noses were fully engaged sniffing something or when they were cocking their heads and moving their ears to locate a sound.
Ten people were sort of passive and let their dog do what they wanted to do most of the time, and 12 truly let their dog do what the dog wanted to do, one woman allowing her dog to sniff some grass for more than 45 seconds and another letting her dog sit, sniff, and look around for whatever caught the dog's attention.
The numbers were in the same ballpark as the data I collected on the prevalence of helicoptering at dog parks that showed people said "No!" or "Don't do that!" far more often (83% of the time) than they said, "It's okay!" or "Good dog!"
I also talked with 20 people about the above guide and everyone said it made them think more about how to walk their dogs in the future. They all agreed that thinking of themselves being tethered, or as Marie said, "Being noosed and yanked about," made them reflect on their dog's well-being. It's not surprising that repeatedly yanking dogs by their necks can, in fact, cause significant damage.1
It's also essential to stop saying "There's nothing there." There might be nothing for you, but more than likely there's tons of information for a dog when their nose is pinned to the ground, a tree, or a bush and they're assessing pee-mail or trying to locate a sound and what another dog might be telling them.
A dog's exercise should be fun, enriching, and exciting
A dog's walk and other exercise should be for them. Taking a dog for a walk is their time so try to make it fun, enriching, and exciting and let them exercise their bodies and senses as they wish. It’s also good for their mental health. Let them lead the way, choose where to go (putting safety first), and how slow or fast to move (not faster than you can comfortably walk or run when they're attached to you).
I hope that by switching roles and imagining being leashed and pulled here and there with little to no control (agency) over your movements or by imagining you're a dog running here and there at a dog park and you're constantly being told not to do something or being commanded to here right now, more progress can be made on having a dog's walk or other exercise period be for them.
By making dogs' walks and exercise dog-centric and by paying careful attention to individual differences in gait and how each dog prefers moving about, it's a win-win for all. Just like humans, dogs display different ways of walking, often related to what they're feeling and their unique personalities. Changes in gait can also alert you to the presence of musculoskeletal and neurologic conditions.
Letting your dog be a dog when they're out and about might also serve to slow you down and have you learn more about your dog as the individual they truly are and what they want and need when they're supposed to be having fun.
Facebook image: Jus_Ol/Shutterstock
1) For information on the harm caused by yanking dogs by their necks click here.
Bekoff, Marc. For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.
Carr, Brittany Jean and David Dices. Canine Gait Analysis. Today's Veterinary Practice, 2016.
Carter, Anne, Doral McNally, and Amanda Roshier. Canine collars: an investigation of collar type and the forces applied to a simulated neck model. Veterinary Record, 2020.