Article first published on 22 December 2014 in Bangalore Mirror Bureau. Reproduced with kind permission. It's been a week since I returned from an International Dog Trainer Education in North Carolina. Since I've been back, the participants of the education have been exchanging their very first experiences of this new kind of training - Natural Training. Everyone seems to be in awe of how effective these methods are and how seemingly small things make such a huge difference. What stands out the most in the stories shared are the ones that highlight the effect of choices on dogs' behaviour. This is most evident in walks.
All participants of the education are people with big hearts and an intense desire to help dogs. Many of the participants have troubled dogs. Many of the dogs are reactive dogs - reactive to dogs, to people, to objects etc. All of their pet parents have been leaving no stone unturned in finding solutions to help their dogs. So getting updates from them is particularly heart-warming. And the single biggest tool that seems to be helping them all is easing the stress on walks by converting walks to loose leash walks and giving the dogs choices on their walks.
Loose leash walking starts by first loosening the leash. For that, one needs a long leash - at least 9 feet long. But not everyone might be able to handle their dog on such a long leash, without actual training. That's okay. That need not be the starting point. However, even on a shorter leash, it's possible to give dogs choices. It all starts with what's in our minds.
It's important to identify the main intention of a walk. The traditional view on walks is that walks provide dogs with physical exercise. But a walk does something far more important - it provides dogs with mental stimulation. A dog gets to see the world, hear strange sounds, sniff interesting odours, feel different textures under their paws and experience the world in general. A dog's senses are fired up and these in turn light up different parts of the brain, keeping a dog mentally fit. A mentally fit dog is a well-balanced dog.
It's hence critical to give a dog maximum opportunity to process the world around him at his own pace, make choices and experience the consequences of their choices within safe limits. It's important not to distract the dog during this experience. Our presence there is to keep the dog within safe limits and to take the dog out of the situation if it gets too much for him to cope with. But within the coping limits of the dog, there is a lot of freedom we can give a dog.
Freedom starts off with letting the dog walk at his own pace. Do not rush the dog or set a pace for him. Always leave home with some time to spare, in case the dog takes a little longer on a certain walk. Let the dog sniff as much as he wants. The olfactory senses in a dog are the most powerful of their senses and stimulating that really lights up the brain like a Christmas tree. When possible, let the dog pick the route of the walk. Every once in a while, go on a completely new route. And when your dog wants to turn around to avoid something, respect his wishes. Do not force him to deal with anything.
With these small changes, you will be surprised with the changes you will see in your dog within a short while. If your dog is pulling too much on the leash, he has not learned to be calm enough and explore during a walk. Get professional help in teaching the dog to walk on a loose leash. Good walks go a long way in improving the quality of a dog's life and in cementing a good bond between dog and human. Sindhoor Pangal is a dog trainer and behaviourist, and runs Bangalore Hundeskole in India. www.bangalorehundeskole.com