We get a lot of comments from our customers about the 5 dogs we have at work with us every day. People see our dogs lying around behind the counter and often they’ll ask, jokingly, if they are real dogs. Or sometimes they’ll chuckle and ask us what kind of tranquilizers we give the dogs!
Well, first off, let me say that our dogs aren’t always so laid back. They have their rascally moments just like all dogs, but they are very relaxed most of the time and there’s a reason for that. Actually, it’s a secret that I learned years ago when I was training my first Labrador Retriever. I guess it’s not really a secret, but, considering that it’s one of the most fundamental elements of all dog training, you would think it would be better known and more widely practiced.
The big secret is simply called “The Walk.” When I say that it’s the most fundamental element of dog training, I want you to imagine me saying it with a very serious facial expression, because I really mean it! I consider “The Walk” so essential that all my dogs have started on this program on the very first day that I brought them home from their litters.
Allow me to digress for a minute and I’ll try to explain this better:
At Woofers, we see somewhere between 100 and 200 dogs every week. Naturally, we hear a lot of stories, happy stories and horror stories. One of the most common horror stories we hear is about the “Destroyer Dog.” This story usually begins with a younger dog who is exhibiting destructive behavior in the form of chewing, digging, tearing up flowers, etc. It’s not unusual for dog owners to be absolutely fed up with his digging, chewing, barking and general canine delinquency. Sometimes the owner is so disgusted with the dog at this point that they are almost ready to give up on him and take him to the pound (or worse).
When a dog-owner tells me this kind of story, I always respond with the same question: “what are you guys doing for exercise?” One of the most common answers I get goes something like this: “Oh, we have a huge back yard and he plays back there all day long. I don’t know where he finds the energy to destroy my house!”
Here’s my theory about where Fido is finding the energy to eat your furniture, even after he has played all day in your back yard:
Dogs have a special kind of energy. This energy is present in all dogs, even though it varies from one breed to another and from one individual to another. This particular form of energy can only be expended in one of two ways. It can be used in interaction with people; or it can manifest in the form of destructive behavior.
The reason Fido still has energy to shred your sofa and chew the leg off your kitchen table at night is because he spent all day locked in the back yard with no human interaction whatsoever.
Think about it, the very first dogs were simply wolves that discovered they could live easier by staying close to humans and eating scraps. Humans learned to appreciate the wolves for their ability to guard human territory and for their ability to find and kill other animals for food. As this symbiotic relationship developed, humans began to meddle in the breeding of these wild animals, producing ever more domesticated versions of what we now call “dog”. Through thousands of years of breeding and domestication, we have produced animals which are no longer emotionally capable of living without human interaction.
So, that animal locked in your back yard is the result of thousands of years of breeding, intended to make him your ideal guardian and hunting companion. He possesses a special form of energy that drives his desire for your approval and interaction. What is Fido supposed to do with all this energy?
Oh, but your dog is just a little, tiny Chihuahua? It doesn’t matter. All dogs are descended from that first wolf that sat just outside the glow of some cave-clan’s fire, waiting to be thrown a scrap or two. They all possess the same genes that, for thousands of years, were selected to produce animals willing to cooperate with humans.
The best thing you can possibly do to provide your dog with an opportunity to burn this energy is to take him on “The Walk”. Just so you know, I didn’t invent “The Walk”. I stumbled on its importance by accident. Later, I read about it extensively in the writings of some of the best dog trainers I know, including Mike Gould, Bill Tarrant, and Julie Knudson, just to name a few. All of these well known trainers write about the importance of The Walk.
What’s the big deal about The Walk and what makes it different from the common, suburban dog-walk? For starters you need some open space. Your neighborhood streets won’t work. A stroll down your long driveway to get the mail isn’t enough either. You and your dog really need some open space. We all know how hard it can be to find open space nowadays. Fortunately, we have lots of it in our state. If you live near a wooded area you might be able to use the woods near where you live. Perhaps there’s some farmland nearby where you could get permission to walk your dog. There are beaches, National Forests, State Timber Lands and even some off-leash dog parks will work if you get there when it’s not crowded. Ft Lewis also allows public access to some of its training areas. Whatever you have to do, find some open space where you can let your dog run.
Here’s the general procedure for The Walk: Drive to your place. Let the dog out of the car, without a leash. Start walking! Don’t call the dog or praise or encourage him in any way. Avoid talking at all. Just walk. He may not follow you at first. He may charge off in the opposite direction. If he’s a puppy he will probably stay so close to you that you’ll have to be careful not to stumble or step on him. Avoid well worn roads or trails. You want the dog to experience the habitat in as natural a form as possible. Of course, you may want to avoid thick brush. You don’t want your pup to get lost. Let him find his own way around obstacles. Don’t wait for him to sniff every bush, just keep going, he’ll catch up!
Eventually your pup will get bolder and he’ll begin to run out in front of you. He’ll learn to look back to see where you are and where you’re going. You’ll be amazed to see that after only a few weeks your dog will begin to read your body language and it will seem as if he knows which way you’re going before you do!
During the walk, you can learn things about your dog that you can’t learn any other way. It’s important to observe the dog carefully, try to keep an open mind and withhold judgment about his abilities, senses and talents. As humans, it’s second nature for us to judge everything. We have a natural inclination to quantify and qualify all our observations and to draw conclusions. You want to avoid that and just observe as much as possible.
While you’re walking, learning and observing, your dog is also learning about his natural habitat. He’s sniffing coyote poop and other animal scents. He’s learning about all the different plants he encounters, trees, brush, sticker bushes. He finds birds, rabbits, mice, insects and all the rest of creation and all of the accompanying scents. He’s learning about you and your habits too. He senses your reaction to your surroundings. All of these details add up in his dog-mind. They engage a part of your dog that can’t be exercised any other way.
After a week or two of doing “The Walk” every day, you will be amazed at the bond that is building between you and your dog. You’ll find that he is more calm and relaxed. The younger your dog is when you get started, the better it is for both of you. Puppies can begin “The Walk” as soon as you bring them home. Just remember to keep the walks short, maybe 15 or 20 minutes to start. It’s not an endurance test! As your puppy matures you can stretch the walks out to as much as an hour or more if you have the time. The only thing to avoid in terms of time is that you don’t want the dog to become exhausted. In other words, never allow the walk to go on so long that the dog wants to quit.
Keep in mind that, since he’s off leash, your dog is covering a lot more ground than you are. In fact, if you put a GPS tracking collar on your dog, you would see that for every mile you walk your dog will cover about 5 to 7 miles!
There are, of course, some disclaimers. If you have a hound dog that ignores you and slavishly follows his nose you might need to keep a lead on him. The same applies to any other dog that is extremely independent. My experience is that just about any dog will return to you eventually, but it may take a lot longer than you are willing to wait. Another cautionary measure is to leave a 6 foot long rope attached to the dog to make it easier to catch him if you think it might be necessary.
It’s up to you to decide what safety measures you think are necessary, just remember that the object of the whole walk is to get the dog off leash so he can be a dog in his natural habitat. It might not be easy. You may need to drive some distance to find the right place. I still urge you to do whatever you have to do to get your dog on The Walk.
But what if you live in the city and there’s just not enough time for you to go out to the country for The Walk every day? I understand that it can be impossible for some folks to find time for daily walks. For those of you who are in this situation, I urge you to get out for The Walk as often as you can. On the days when you can’t go on The Walk, keep in mind that the most important ingredient is human interaction. Find a game you can play that provides lots of interaction. Even if it’s just playing fetch with a tennis ball or Frisbee or maybe running some agility drills, the human interaction involved in these games provides a release for your dog’s energy.
As I sit here typing these words, Vee and Kaia are lying on the photo stage behind the counter at Woofers. Ginger is sitting near Lyn’s feet while Ellie and Fred Man sleep soundly on their pillows. It’s a busy Saturday, but they barely notice as customers come and go with their newly groomed dogs. All five of the dogs had a good walk on Ft. Lewis this morning. When things get really busy and I feel the stress of trying to manage all these people and dogs, I just think of my young Kaia crashing through the cattails with her coat full of swamp-mud and a huge doggy grin on her face. It helps me relax too.