Should your dog walk by your side?

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One of the most common problems we are asked to help clients with is to stop their dogs from pulling on the leash. Today more than ever, we see so many dogs pulling their owners down the street, park or beach in some sort of rush to get somewhere.  There are even people who we see running behind their dog trying to keep up.

This is hardly ideal. Other dog owners seem happy to allow their dogs to walk out in front, although they are not ‘pulling’.

So, should your dog be expected to walk by your side, or at a heel position when asked? Or is it perfectly acceptable to let your dog walk in front of you? Why is it so important to expect this and what are the benefits?

walking your dogFor a professional dog trainer, the way your dog walks with you is critical, and tells us a lot about both your relationship with them and the state of mind they are in when walking with you.

A dog that walks by their owner’s side, willingly on a loose leash, is displaying trust and respect for their owner. It is in a what is often called a calm – passive state of mind, relaxed, head low and ears slightly back.

In this passive state of mind a dog is not alert and ready to make decisions or go into instinctive behaviour when they encounter a stressful event or trigger or other stimuli. This is how and where a ‘follower’ walks when they trusts their leader to make decisions, set the pace and direction, and hold the focus on a migration.

A dog that either chooses to or is allowed to walk in front will often start to believe they are in charge of the migration and thus start to display unwanted behaviour. To them, your allowing them to walk in front is permission to lead the walk and make decisions on behalf of your pack and their own survival. They will instinctively assume you are not up for it and believe you expect them to make decisions. This is unfair on any dog as you are actually asking them to make decisions they are not capable of, and will lead to unnecessary stress, especially with weak, nervous and/or sensitive dogs.

There are of course exceptions to this rule. Some dogs can walk slightly ahead of the pack but will stay passive and not decide to lead. Or an older dog who is established and/or who has ‘serenity’ and can be trusted in all situations won’t be a problem out in front.

Now we are not advocating that your dog has to walk by your side all the time. We all want to let our dogs have a run around to play,explore, smell and burn energy. This is essential to their well-being and fulfilment. We are recommending that this should happen on your terms. You should be able to walk your dog by your side when necessary, release them to investigate or play when appropriate, and then call them back to be by your side again. There are times when it is appropriate to expect your dog follow you, such as public places, crowds and around other dogs, and times when it is safe, to allow them to explore and satisfy their instincts.

This “following the leader” concept is certainly not isolated to the dog world. Humans readily follow someone with more power, more authority, more experience, more skill, more strength, more certainty etc in numerous situations and for numerous reasons. Mammals learn predominantly through copying and mimicking, and having a successful, supportive role model to learn from and experience both positive and negative outcomes is a proven benefit.

True leaders are not dictators, nor are they egocentric. If you are fulfilling the role of pack leader, it should be done with love and commitment, it will be accepted as a gift rather than a hindrance.

Not only does changing the way you walk your dog make it a  more enjoyable and safer experience for everyone concerned, you also address many problem behaviours, like aggression toward people and other dogs, jumping up, general attitude and various anxieties, and of course the obvious one of no longer having your arm yanked out of it’s socket.

So contrary to popular opinion from certain factions of the dog training community, we believe it is not only important to expect your dog to follow you (at times), it is negligent to not. With today’s rules and regulations regarding dog bites and bad behaviour it is not appropriate to allow any dog to walk in front while around crowds or in public. It is not advisable to let your dog approach other dogs or people before you, as this is inviting them to make a decision on the pack’s behalf.

In our next post we will give you some important tips to help you achieve a successful dog walk.

Author: George Lygidakis

George is well known as Australia’s leading Dog Whisperer. He has unique ability to help dogs and their owners communicate.

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