Q: Should I let my dog sniff and pee whenever he wants on the walk?
“He gets pretty distracted, and sometimes refuses to keep going when he finds something he’s pretty interested in. I also have a problem with him lunging and barking when we pass other dogs.”
One of the most common misconceptions among dog owners is that dogs are happier if they have more freedom on the walk to sniff, pee, and explore. In reality, being out in front – or otherwise directionless on the walk – puts a lot of undue stress on our dogs. An unstructured walk makes a dog feel allowed to, or even responsible for, scanning the environment for potential issues. It empowers them to address/react to perceived problems, and enables a constant state of arousal that is actually quite uncomfortable for dogs. Imagine being constantly on alert, or perpetually jacked up on caffeine; that edginess is uncomfortable, right? This dynamic is made worse by the fact that the leash has limits; like a seat belt that becomes tight, a tense leash will evoke more frustration and tension in an already uncomfortable situation.
Dogs who do not receive direction and leadership on the walk often represent far more anxious and insecure dogs than those who learn to partner with, and default to, their handler. We like to think of the walk as a military convoy, an opportunity for you to be the lead “rig,” handling all the stressful work of scanning, processing, and executing in accordance with the world around you. Your dog, however, should be a traveling teammate in a rig *behind* you, looking to you for information, and trusting your lead so he/she can relax and enjoy the true freedom of a clarified objective.
Cruise like a convoy, and be the leader who takes on the most work for your “team.” You, after all, will know better how to process this human environment and not feel stressed in the way that your dog does. With your dog in the back of the line, he/she can truly relax, and the benefits of this dynamic can spill over into your relationship as a whole. Our dogs are foreigners in our land, they do not have the certainty we do about the multitude of stresses we encounter throughout each day. It’s our job to interpret, guide, advocate, and empower them to be themselves in the face of so many unnatural experiences. Lead on the walk, and you’ll see respect, trust, calm, and connection grow.