Walking Dogs: From Lassie to Cujo

Seems like these days everyone in my neighborhood walks their dogs a lot more than usual.  Being cooped up at home means that for many the only outing into the world is to take their dogs out for a stroll.  In my neighborhood I see tons of people and dogs that I’ve never seen before.  And I have to admit that I’m out even more than usual.  

I love walking my dogs, it allows me to relax and at the same time it energizes me.  It lets me clear my head and go into a nice neutral zone.  And my dogs love it as well.  Zen is slowing down quite a bit these days and a slow paced mile and a half with plenty of sniffing is about his limit.  Star wants to GO! and spends her time scanning for small mammals that need to be chased.  Even though she doesn’t get to chase them that doesn’t diminish her keenness for the task.  Ever hopeful.

Both dogs are easy to walk.  They don’t pull, they ignore other dogs and people, and they listen if I need to give them a cue.  What I see of other people and their dogs looks quite different.  I see lots of pulling, but even more reactivity to the sight of other dogs.  It doesn’t look like these dogs are having a lot of fun when they are constantly in this heightened state of arousal on a walk.  It certainly doesn’t look relaxing for either the dog or the owner.  


I have a lot of empathy for folks who are just out there trying to have a nice calm walk with their dogs.  They have no idea why Lassie turns into Cujo in a heartbeat.  Some folks don’t even seem to notice.  They just blithely assure everyone in earshot that “he only wants to play”.  Yeah, no dude, that is not what he wants at all.  They simply don’t have enough understanding of canine behavior to evaluate this overreaction as problematic and potentially dangerous.  

I am always on the lookout for dogs in our general vicinity so that I can make some tactical decisions as early as possible.  I have to admit that social distancing has been my friend.  People don’t question that you would cross the street to give them more space.  I have taught my dogs to come in close to me when others are approaching us.  This only makes sense when we hike on narrow trails, but it’s coming in very handy for neighborhood walks as well.  My dogs are moving away from the other dog and clearly not inviting any interaction, which can be helpful in diminishing the unwanted focus on my dogs.  I have also taught my dogs to move behind me and be still so that I can put myself between them and dogs that make me nervous.  

Some people are clearly embarrassed by their dog’s behavior, and have no idea what to do about it.  I really wish I could send them all to good qualified trainers to work through their over reactivity issues.  Things could be so much more pleasant for everyone if this issue was addressed properly.  The thing is, I know that almost all these dogs could be better, and I’m sad for them that they aren’t going to get the opportunity to enjoy relaxed and calm walks.  Every walk becomes a roller coaster of wild emotions, and that’s just not fun.  Sure, the dogs may end up exhausted once they get home and feel safe and secure again; but that’s not true relaxation.  

Most normal average dog owners aren’t canine behaviorists.  They are familiar with dogs; they may have lived with dogs their entire lives, but that doesn’t mean they understand why their dogs act the way that they do.  The problem actually isn’t the reaction; though that’s the most obvious thing you see.  The problem is the emotional response that leads to the reaction.  That underlying state is what needs to be addressed.  Simply trying to punish out the behavior is a terrible approach that will typically backfire.  

A good plan for helping a dog like this manage his big feelings is going to be two pronged.  There is addressing the emotions that are so out of control, and then there is teaching the dog appropriate walking manners.  The first part is going to be the more challenging aspect, but it actually makes the second part a lot easier.  Trying to diminish the unwanted behavior and replace it with desired actions will be much smoother once the emotional aspect has been addressed.  

Some dogs become totally overwhelmed at the sight of dogs outside their homes.  They scream, claw at the air, lunge, and spin.  This is not the way to make friends!  It’s likely they are acting out of stress and anxiety rather than enthusiasm and excitement.  People often want to let their dog in this state “meet” other dogs so they will “calm down”.  Don’t do it!  This is a recipe for a very bad experience for all involved.  

The answer isn’t “let them meet” or “never take the dog out of the house again”.  The answer falls in the middle.  We need to help these dogs learn to manage their huge emotions and maintain their composure when they encounter other dogs out in the world.  

The good news is that there is a LOT that can be done to make things better.  You have to know what those things are, and then how to apply them properly.  That part isn’t always clear or easy, but it is very doable.  Finding a good qualified trainer is the first step in this process.  These days much dog training is being done online.  Online training can be VERY efficient and effective.  Clearly, I would think that!  

So where to start?  Take a look at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy .  We have a number of excellent instructors who offer one on one online private training sessions.  We have classes that can be very useful for reactivity and basic walking manners.  In particular, Dr. Amy Cook’s Management for Reactive Dogs June class is a good place to start.  We have a huge network of trainers who could be helpful.  It’s a really good starting point for finding help.  

People often ask me about focus training (one of my specialties) for walking their dogs more easily.  I tell them that focus and polite relaxed walks are two very separate things, and I always keep them separated.  For me focus is intense 100% mutual engagement and concentration.  That’s not what I want on a recreational walk at all.  I want my dogs to see the world, sniff, explore, and move.  Focus is for training sessions and performances; where my dog and I are working together as a team.  It is important to train and develop focus, but on walks I only practice the behaviors that are necessary for making a walk pleasant (loose leash, recalls, come to side, get behind me, leave it, and so on).  Walks are not about intensive cognitive effort for either me or my dogs; they are our chance to recharge and relax.

Walks can be the best part of you and your dog’s day.  It may take some effort to get there but it’s definitely worth the effort!  

Deborah Jones, Ph.D. is a retired psychology professor (specializing in behavioral and social psychology) who now trains animals full-time.  She has been training for 25+ years and focuses on positive reinforcement based methods.  Deb has written 12 books on dog training and has helped develop several DVD series.  She has also trained and shown multiple breeds to high level titles in agility, rally, and obedience.  She is currently teaching online training classes, workshops, and webinars at www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com.  Visit her website at www.k9infocus.com for more information.