Walks are a staple of dog life. When they go well and both you and your dog are enjoying yourselves, they are an amazing bonding opportunity and a great way to brighten both of your days. When walks aren't going well, whether that’s because they’ve gotten stale or they are causing stress for one or both of you, they can end up driving a wedge between you.
Whether your walks could use a refresh because they are stressful or just getting stale, here are a few things to try to make walks fun for everyone.
1. REWARD GOOD CHOICES.
Bring a pouch with really good treats like boiled chicken or cheddar cheese cut up into pea-sized bits. Anytime your dog unpromptedly does something you like, like looking at you, walking by your side, or waiting with a loose leash while you scoop a poop, tell them "yes!" and then give them a treat. It's a simple, low-stress way for you to encourage good behavior without having a rigid training protocol totally change up your walks. It also helps you notice all of the good things your dog does, which can help you feel better about your relationship with them.
2. AVOID TRIGGERS.
If certain things upset your dog or cause them to behave in ways that are stressful for you, stay away from them! The first step in teaching your dog how to respond and behave differently is to break their current pattern.
Whether it’s bikes, rabbits, dogs, or kids, here are a few ways to keep your dog from reacting:
Plan your routes or the timing of your walk to avoid them.
But don’t be afraid to adapt on the go. You don’t have to stick to your route and you can always head home early.
As you walk, stay on the look out. If you see a trigger, make a move before your dog starts to react. Cross the street, turn around, or hide behind a visual barrier like a car or tree.
Use a playful voice and see if you can get your dog to jog away with you to turn it into a fun game.
Now that your dog isn’t practicing their old ways as much as they used to, you can implement a training plan to teach them better ways to respond so you don’t have to avoid these situations forever.
3. TRY A FRONT-CLIP HARNESS.
A harness that has a clip for the leash on your dog’s chest instead of their back removes some of their leverage so they can’t pull quite as hard. It’s not a perfect cure or a total replacement for training, but it could be just what you need to keep your arm in your socket and your frustration levels down.
I love the PetSafe 3-in-1 harness. You can see it in the above photo of Kona. If you need something a little more effective, I also really like the SENSE-ation harness. Just make sure you fit it so the chest strap is above your dog’s shoulders and not restricting their range of motion.
4. TAKE A SNIFFARI.
A sniffari is a walk where your dog gets to set the route and the pace, sniffing for as long as they want and enjoying their surroundings how they see fit. Sniffaris allow your dog to use their primary sense, smell, and to exercise a little control over their own life, which makes walks even more mentally satisfying for your dog. Plus, sniffing is known to help dogs lower their heart rates and reduce stress.
The main benefit dogs get from walks is mental enrichment, not physical exercise, so a sniffari is a great way to help your dog be even more satisfied and content after a walk. Plus, letting go of the pressure to cover a certain distance or follow a set route allows you to feel like you are on your dog’s team instead of fighting against them.
5. USE A LONG LEASH.
Long leashes allow your dog to have more freedom and move around more naturally. Using them actually has a lot of the same benefits as taking a sniffari. Your dog will get to move at their own pace, running a little ahead or staying behind to sniff. Recent research shows that dogs spend three times more time sniffing when walking on a 15-foot leash instead of a six-foot one. Plus, with a little extra room to explore, your dog probably won’t pull on the leash as much, which makes walks more pleasant for you.
I prefer a long cotton leash to a retractable leash because it doesn’t put constant pressure on your dog and it’s easier for you to reel in if you need to bring your dog closer. But, if you have your hands full or are managing more than one dog, a retractable leash is a totally fine way to go.
Check out our post on how to handle a long leash, if you want to give it a try.
6. WALK MINDFULLY.
It can be super frustrating when your dog stops to sniff or pees or pulls towards a squirrel, you know, does anything too dog-like when you are trying to chat with a friend, hurry home, or mentally plan your day.
If you are able to quiet your mind and leave competing distractions (phones, friends, coffee, etc.) at home, you might be able to enjoy your walks together a lot more. You can watch your dog; see the way they react to their surroundings and appreciate the joy the get from sniffing a scent trail or greeting another dog. You can take in your surroundings; listen to the birds or the wind rustling through the trees, notice the changing of the seasons, or bask in the sun.
7. VISIT AN OFFICE PARK.
Especially during the pandemic, walking through an office park during off hours is a great way to get away from people, dogs, or any other stuff that gets your dog worked up, stressed out, or scared. The views might be better than you think, since lots of office parks have nice landscaping and winding sidewalks. If your dog struggles with fear or reactivity (barking, lunging, etc.) towards people, dogs, cars, bikes, etc., this could be a total game changer for you.
8. DO SOMETHING ELSE INSTEAD.
People who walk their dog because they enjoy it report longer walks and greater satisfaction than people who walk their dogs out of a sense of obligation. There are tons of ways to help your dog burn energy and have fun at home, so next time you aren’t feeling up for a walk, why not try one of them instead?
Here are a few ideas:
· Play an interactive game like fetch, tug, or keep away.
· Use positive reinforcement to teach your dog a new skill or brush up on old ones.
· Set up a scavenger hunt or other scent based games.
This isn’t to say that you should give up on all walks. It is permission to give up a rigid daily walk routine and skip walks on days when you are busy or tired or when the weather isn’t cooperating. It’s also a suggestion to skip walks all together for a brief period if they are causing you or your dog considerable distress. You can use the time to decompress and work with a professional trainer to come up with a long-term plan to improve your walks.
These are a just a few ideas to get you started. If walks are causing you a lot of stress or you are dealing with more serious issues like fear or reactivity, nothing beats working with a certified, force-free trainer! Look for someone in your area with a CTC or KPA-CTP certification.