Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Language matters. It sets expectations, influences our experience. This is important in many different ways when it comes to living with our dogs, and teaching them new skills. Today we'll talk about one, a daily event: dog walks.
Except, we should consider not naming them "walks". The problem with the word "walk" is that when you think "walk", it sets a certain expectation. You'll likely picture yourself clipping on the leash and then leaving the house, moving constantly in a walking speed until you return home. Right?
The problem with that is that this is not what dogs do when they can choose freely.
Let me give you an example. When my dogs aren't on leash, here's what they do.
Chickpea is our youngest dog, she's 2 years old now, she likes to move. She doesn't like to hang out sniffing very much, but a walk is way too slow for her. She wants to trot, or to run fast. Biking is great for her (obviously while taking care that she gets breaks and moves as fast as she wants, not as fast as we want), running, or taking her to off leash areas.
Then there are Blue and MJ, our two older dogs who are 9 and 10 years old now. Here's what they want to do. They want to meet people, and score a cuddle or a treat. They want to eat grass. Sometimes we just move out of the house and then they will eat grass for 10 minutes. Or they want to sniff and so it's a lot of stopping and standing for me (actually our "walks are mostly stopping and standing). Not so much a walk at all. And when they finally move, their preferred speed is also a trot, which is a much faster pace than my walking speed. And the direction isn't dictated by roads and trails, but by smells, which results in a lot of zigzag, stop and go.
We get annoyed with our dogs and we get disappointed with them because we have this expectation that when we go for a walk we'll be moving at a consistent (slow) speed, from A to B around the block.
And annoyance and disappointment never lead to good behavior on our end of the leash. The frustration we end up feeling all too often leads to leash yanks and pulling our dogs along. And none of is is feeling the joy we imagined to have when getting a dog.
And our dogs, they probably get annoyed with us, too, because they have to inhibit their normal walking movements, can't stretch their legs as they would like to, and can't explore the world in a way that they would prefer.
Yes, it's very useful for dogs to learn not to pull on leash, to walk nicely with us, and to come with us when we need them to (and I'm happy to coach you and your dog towards that goal!).
But for most of the time that you're taking your dog outside?
Ditch the word "walk". Go out without that expectation.
Get a longer lead to give your dog more freedom and the opportunity to walk at their pace. I personally like 9ft (3 m) ones as shorter leashes, and 30ft (10 m) ones for long lines.
Don't set a route, set a time.
Let your dog decide. There's nothing wrong with that.
If your dog wants to just sniff up and down your street. Perfect. Allowing them to sniff will tire them out more than you might think. Give it a try.
If your dog just wants to sit in the sun and watch the world go by? Let them, join them, breathe.
If your dog wants to zigzag, stop and go? Follow them, rewire your brain to do the unexpected and perhaps boring, slow down.
Turn home when you're running out of time.
Not sure what a better term would be, but I'm certain that the word "walk" is not setting us and our dogs up for a happy and great experience outside, and that observing your dog, staying curious and learning what they want and need, will make us happier on both ends of any lead.