In Praise of Boring Dog Walks
During this past pandemic year, the frantic pace of modern life came to an abrupt halt for most of us. Maybe you came to embrace and enjoy this new, slower pace. Looking back, the bright spots for me were long dog walks on quiet streets and less rushing from place to place. If you have a puppy or a new dog, there’s a lesson here. Instead of teaching our dogs that the world outside our front doors is a frenetic and crazy place, we can help our dogs become more balanced and calm as they make their way through our human world.
You probably already know how important it is to socialize your puppy or new dog. Young dogs who aren’t adequately socialized can grow up to be fearful and reactive, cowering or barking and lunging at strangers, other dogs, bicycles, and skateboards.
The first critical socialization period is from 3-16 weeks of a dog’s life. During this time, puppies need to be slowly and incrementally exposed to a variety of things to become comfortable with the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around them. (Read more about how to socialize your puppy).
But socialization isn’t just teaching your dog to be unafraid of new things or making sure they get time playing with other dogs. It is equally important that they be able to walk down the street and ignore strangers and other dogs.
When my daughter was a toddler, she wanted to talk to every single person on the Muni. It was cute at first, but I quickly realized I needed to teach her that some people just want to be left alone, some people don’t like kids, and some people are just plain creepy. In short, it’s not appropriate or realistic to go up to every person you see on the Muni train.
With the goal of creating a well-socialized puppy, new dog owners often make the mistake of encouraging their dog to say hello to every dog or new person they see. This may be cute when they’re little, but definitely won’t be as much fun when your larger adolescent dog runs up and jumps on strangers or children.
Puppy socials (for puppies who are not fully vaccinated) and time at the park for pups 16 weeks and older are both good ways for your dog to play with other dogs and learn the rules of dog society. No matter how many puppy play dates you have, it’s equally important that your young dog spend time with older, adult dogs. Play skills are crucial, but your dog must also learn to calmly greet and walk away from some dogs, pass other leashed dogs on the street without saying hello, and turn away from dogs who show no interest in a game of chase.
Dogs who aren’t taught to ignore other dogs can develop leash reactivity. If your dog loves to engage with other dogs at the park but lunges and barks at dogs when they are on a leash, it is likely frustration reactivity. Pulling on the leash, whining, barking, and lunging can look like aggression and is stressful and embarrassing for the owner. If once the barrier (the leash) is gone and your dog is allowed to greet and sniff and is back to her happy and playful self, then you have a case of frustration reactivity.
If your dog is desperate to meet every dog she sees, address it right away before it becomes a default behavior. The more often your dog practices anxiety behaviors, the stronger these behaviors become. Correcting or punishing a dog when they react out of frustration will only make the problem worse. It will not change how she feels, and your dog may learn to associate seeing dogs at a distance with pain or fear.
- Determine the distance at which your dog can see another dog and remain calm. This might be across the street or it might be 100 feet away, but if your dog is whining, staring, or agitated in any way, move further away from the other dog.
- Help your dog learn by association, using treats to create a positive association with seeing dogs at a distance. Feed your dog a treat every time she looks at the other dog. If she looks at the dog 10 times, feed 10 treats. In the beginning, your dog does not need to do anything other than see the dog to get a treat. Seeing dogs at a distance will soon become a predictor of good stuff (treats) coming her way.
- Timing is everything! Do not wait for your dog to look at you before giving treats - she sees a dog and the treat immediately follows. You are not rewarding your dog for looking at you, and you are not training your dog to look at you, although this will naturally occur after your dog starts making the association.
- Keep track of the distance your dog can tolerate when she sees another dog. Decrease the distance only when your dog responds happily to seeing the dogs at a distance (tail wagging, where’s my treat!?). This may take many repetitions - hundreds, likely - over the course of many days or weeks.
- Help your dog learn by consequence. Your dog will soon start to look at you expectantly every time she sees a dog at a distance. Good work! You may now begin to reward your dog for looking away from (ignoring) the other dog. Decrease the distance between your leashed dog and other dogs only when your dog is calm and non-reactive. Learning never occurs in a straight line so expect your dog to have good days and hard days.
- If your dog is agitated at all, then you are too close to the other dog. A stranger walking by should be able to look at you and your dog and think, “look at that nice dog getting some treats.”
This kind of training isn’t exciting or flashy. Stay calm and keep treating. If your dog has been practicing frustration reactivity for a while, you may need the help of a professional dog trainer or behavior consultant. If you aren’t seeing progress after a few weeks, a professional will be able to offer coaching on mechanics and timing.
It’s tempting to make every dog walk as fun as possible, especially if you have a puppy or an exuberant adolescent dog with boundless energy. What’s wrong with going crazy with a pile of dogs on every walk or chasing a ball until they’re exhausted? But if every time you leave the house it’s a party, you may be setting yourself and your dog up for difficult times.
My neighbor’s dog Sadie is ball obsessed. Sadie’s owner throws a tennis ball on every walk as a way to tire out this young and active Labrador Retriever. If he doesn’t bring a ball, Sadie spends the entire walk looking for one. If there are no tennis balls to be found, she’ll drop sticks and even leaves in his lap in hopes of a game of fetch. At first, it was amusing, but now Sadie’s owner experiences dog walks as a chore, something he has to do to get his dog tired so she doesn’t make trouble at home.
Walks and outings should be a chance for you and your dog to connect. If your dog is overly focused on other dogs, or playing fetch, or scoping out the next dopamine rush, you’re both missing out. Lower the level of excitement on some walks and let your dog have a slow sniff hike. Sit on a park bench together and watch the world go by. Find a quiet spot outside to practice sit, down, and stay.
In the long run, boring walks will be your friend. When the world finally opens back up and it’s time to travel and enjoy post-pandemic life, you’ll be glad to have a dog you can take with you on whatever adventures lie ahead.