Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tips on Finding the Perfect Walking Companion – a Dog!

A conversation with Kate Varns, CPDT-KA, Training School Supervisor at the Animal Humane Society in Minnesota 

The Animal Humane Society in Minnesota is a wonderful, nationally recognized leader in promoting animal and human health and interaction.  My sister, Rose, is a big supporter of their cause, having had several wonderful shelter dogs in her life.  On Sunday May 5th we joined their annual Walk for Animals – the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year.   If you haven’t had a chance to donate to the animals, you can go online through their website and contribute to this well-run organization.

We walked last night and this little dachshund/poodle mix was the PERFECT walking companion, trotting along neatly on a loose leash.

Q:  Kate, we’ve heard the research, that people with a good walking dog companion are healthier, that they stay on their walking programs when they have the right dog.  So how can someone find the right dog?
A:  The first thing to think about is what kind of dog you’d like:  how big or small, how energetic, how old.  How fast do you want to walk?  How long?   Puppies are cute and fun, but they take a lot of supervision and training, and they can’t do a lot of walking until they are about a year and a half old because their bones are still growing.

If you really want to start walking, look for a slightly older dog, two years and older.  Look for a calm, easy going dog, because you’ll be around a lot of people when you are walking.  The cuter the dog, the more you’ll be stopping to talk to people and their kids.

Size isn’t that important—but there are a couple of exceptions to that.  Toy breeds, such as Yorkies, and Papilons, may not be able to tolerate a walk longer than a mile.  If short strolls around the block are your goal, a toy might work.  If you walk longer, you can always train them to a back pack or a stroller!
On the other end of the spectrum are the dogs that really require a lot of exercise.  These include the breeds that are bred to run, like sled dogs (Siberian, Huskies) or pointers (Vislas, Dalmations, German Short Hair, Weimeraners, and any retrievers that are “field bred” to run all day.)   But an older dog of one of these breeds matched with a walker that likes to walk longer distances, say four miles or more a day, might be a great partnership.  Some of these larger dogs can be trained to carry their own water in a dog backpack.  A bit of caution:  these dogs are great athletes, and the more exercise they get, the fitter they become, and they will need even more exercise to be happy.

On the opposite end, some dogs can’t walk far because of their “design.”   The short noses of English Bulldogs, Pugs, and Shih-Tzus make them prone to heat stroke, so they are not candidates for intense exercise, especially in hot weather.

Q:  Once I have picked out a dog that matched my personality and my activity level, how do I make walking a pleasant experience for us both?
A:   The key to a successful partnership is early training for you both.  I strongly recommend taking an obedience class with any new dog, so you can forge a partnership, and learn to work together.

Q:  Are certain breeds easier to train to walk nicely than others?
A:  “Biddable breeds” were bred to pay close attention to the cues from their handlers.  These include the sporting dogs, the herding dogs, the spaniels, English Springer, German Shepherd, Standard Poodles.  These are bred to respond quickly to cues from their handlers and are usually quick to train.  The opposite are the “non-biddable breeds.”  These can often be lovely animals, but they were bred to be more independent of humans to do their jobs.  These would be the terriers, the pointers, the sled dogs, the scent hounds.  They can be trained to be great walking companions, but sometimes they need training to understand what we really want them to do.

Q:  So how do you like to train people (and their dogs) to walk nicely together?  Can you give us some tips?
A:   At our school we use positive reinforcement rather than punishment.  We use anything the dog enjoys:   treats, toys, balls, whatever they love.   Make it fun for the animal and keep them close to you.   Always keep them on a leash.  We recommend a four or six-foot nylon web leash.  We DO NOT recommend retractable leashes for walking.   I’ve seen too many near misses in traffic, and people can get hurt or even lose fingers in the long leashes.

Q:  How do you get started right?
A:  Say the dog’s name, get their attention.  Reward them occasionally when you ask them to sit.  Always catch them just when they do the right thing and praise them and give them a treat.   Take the entire dinner of kibble on your walk with you so you can do a lot of rewarding.  Why leave all that opportunity in the dog bowl?

Q:  How do you train a dog not to pull or drag on the leash?
A:  Bring your treats in a pouch you can get to easily.  Start out first in your back yard, because the first few times you really won’t be going far!   On leash, with the dog on your left, start walking, and when the leash tightens, just stop—don’t talk.   When the dog turns around to look at you, and the leash loosens, immediately praise and give a treat.  Then start walking again, the leash tightens, stop, wait, loosen--praise, treat!   If your dog lags behind, use gentle sounds to encourage him forward:  patting your thigh, whistling, making “kissy” sounds, and so on.  When you start walking, remember to occasionally ask the dog to do something you want, like sit, so you can praise the good behavior.  Focus on rewarding the behavior you like rather than punishing the behavior you don’t like.  With more practice, anticipate your dog’s correct behavior by giving them a treat just as your catch them starting to do the right thing.  You’ll be amazed how fast they learn.

What you DON’T want to do is to continue walking forward if the dog is dragging or pulling on you.  Don’t reward that!  If you are walking with others during your training period, let them know there will be a lot of starting and stopping.  It takes time to teach dogs to walk in a straight line with you.   Keep it nice and happy and positive.  If they do the wrong thing, show them what they should do instead of punishing them.

Q:  What about dogs that really just love to pull?  Can they really be trained out of it?
A:  Dogs have a natural tendency to pull when they have tension.  Its’ called the opposition reflex.  They aren’t being stubborn or willful, they are just doing what their brain naturally tells them to do.  We are teaching them a new behavior, and it takes time.
However, some kinds of equipment can be helpful.  For example if a dog is a powerful puller, the “Gentle leader” head collar is great.  It does not cause pain.  You control the entire body because you control the head.  We are big fans of those.  Many people who have difficulty walking a larger dog can have a nice walk with this.

Another option is a front clip harness, which has the leash clip on the dog’s chest.  It is very difficult for the dogs to effectively pull against tension with the clip on the front.  Neither of these leashes cause pain and they work very well.   You can use the same training I described with either of these pieces of equipment.

Q:  What about other safety tips?
A:  Children should never walk dogs that are more than a quarter of their body weight.  Retractable leashes have their place, but should only be used by experienced handlers and well away from roads or shared paths.

Q:  Other thoughts?
A: Walking with a dog is simply one of the most rewarding activities we can do.  Hiking with my dog is my hands-down favorite leisure activity, since we can both spend time together and get exercise.  Living with a dog that enjoys walking is a great reason to get outside, enjoy the outdoors and live a healthy lifestyle.

Q:  Can we call you?
A:  Yes!  You can call the Training School anytime at 763-489-2217 and leave a message.  We also have a Free Behavior Helpline which is staffed  seven days a week, from 10a.m. to 6:00pm Central Time for public questions about companion animal behaviors.  Call 763-489-2202. If you are calling from out of state we won’t have vet listings, but we are always happy to help.  We don’t ask for any fee, but we are always appreciative of contributions.

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