I believe that the walk is the most important daily feature of our relationship with our dogs. It is not just about the physical exercise. It is also the best way to affirm your place as Pack Leader. Done right, it's the perfect time to let go and really connect with your dog.
It might seem like the most natural thing in the world to go walk with your dog -- but it is surprising how many humans mess it up. And the reason is a very simple human problem: We think too much!
Be in the moment
When you and your dog are walking, you need, as much as possible, to be in the moment and aware of your surroundings. That's hard to do if your mind is focused on a problem you're having at work or you're busy texting with a friend.
Trust me -- you will both get so much more out of the experience if you are fully present for the 30 minutes or so you are out with the dog.
The Pack Leader energy
My rule is that a dog should be in a calm, submissive state before you set off on the walk. But it is just as important that you are in a calm state too. Your dog is going to pick up your energy and will be looking to you for calm, assertive leadership. You can't fool a dog -- if you are agitated, she will know!
On the walk, your position as Pack Leader is vitally important, because your dog is looking for you to protect her from danger. So try to remember that just because you don't see something as a danger, it might be something that scares your dog. You should know your animal and be prepared.
Do bicycles or skateboards upset her? Does she become nervous around dogs she doesn't know? If you stay conscious of your surroundings, you should be able to see potentially unsettling situations before they arise.
You can react calmly -- perhaps changing to a different road or steering your dog to the opposite sidewalk to avoid another dog. The worst thing you can do is be caught by surprise and react in a panicky manner, because that is just going to reinforce your dog's problem. So before you set off, think about your route and what you may encounter.
Here's a tip that I think will help you: Try to walk with your back straight, head up, and eyes forward. Not only will this help you scan the area ahead, it's also physically the posture of a Pack Leader. You'll find that walking like this encourages you to be calm and assertive.
As the Pack Leader you are also responsible for the safety of your pack, which, for most of us, means being aware of the traffic. Remember, it is not just the cars on the highway that you have to be concerned with -- be on the lookout for cars turning in or backing out of driveways or those that fail to make a full stop at an intersection.
Get to know the other people who walk dogs on the same route as you and try to see which are calm and in control of their dogs and which are not. Walkers who are not in control are much more likely to be the cause of an incident, because their dogs are more likely to start barking or jumping or snapping -- all of which can provoke a reaction from your own dog.
With practice you can learn to determine whether an approaching walker is in control or not. Observe whether his dog is pulling ahead of him on the leash. Does he shout at his dog to correct her? Does he appear in control or is the walker tense and anxious?
If you see the situation in advance you can casually change direction. But even if it is too late for that, don't react in a distressed way and unnerve your dog by yanking on her leash. Use your body to turn and redirect your dog so she is facing away from the oncoming dog.
Communicate with other people you meet walking dogs. Let them know if your dog is nervous around other animals or ask if theirs are friendly. If an encounter with another walker starts to go bad for any reason, calmly walk away. If you were at fault, apologize. If not, don't wait around, demanding an apology. The tension will only escalate the anxiety in your dog.
Walking your dog should be something you look forward to every day. I know that for me it is, and with these few simple steps it will be for you too. October 4th is World Animal Day, it also marks the beginning of the National Walk Your Dog Week. If there was ever a perfect time to start walking your dog on a daily basis it's now. Enjoy!