Walking Your Dog: Why Your Dog is Choking

Freedom is not the absence of obligation or restraint, but the freedom of movement within healthy, chosen parameters.

- Kristin Armstrong



Last week I had a rather full schedule training, including a couple of dogs who were, for lack of a better term, “aggressive”. And this is how my week ended.




Okay, so that's not an actual photo of my wrist, but you get the idea.


I really wish I could say I got it doing something exciting. It didn’t happen while I was training dogs. It happened while I was painting. I’m officially very middle aged.



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Anyway, I’m supposed to rest it for at least a week, but as far as sprains go, it’s not too bad. Now that brings to light a few questions, though: how am I supposed to do this week’s training sessions, which includes one aggressive dog, as well as 3 super-hyper dogs, whom will undoubtedly need work on leash walking.


The answer is that if I can’t walk dogs with a mildly sprained wrist, then I can’t walk dogs.

The secret to working with dogs is to never make them feel restrained. In other words, I shouldn’t need muscle to walk a dog. If I am able to drive a car (which I am), then I am okay to walk a dog.


The biggest complaint I hear about people walking their dog is that the dog is pulling the whole time, causing the owner’s arms to become tired very quickly. But let’s think about it rationally: the dog physically can not be pulling you unless you are pulling back. In other words, you are pulling backwards just as much as they are pulling forward. You are trying to muscle your way through the walk, and as a result, your dog is choking. The reason why your dog is pulling is because you’ve restrained them…no, not with the leash, but with the nonstop tension attached to the leash.


You’ve engaged their fight or flight response, causing them to pull forward, which in turn engaged your flight or fight response, causing you to automatically pull backwards.

But what if you didn’t fall into that vicious cycle? What if you didn’t sink your feet into the ground, and pull back with all your force? No, I’m not stating you should let your dog run amok while you follow meekly behind. But rather than using brute force, have you tried answering your dog’s questions instead?


Dogs ask a lot of question, all the time. Answering your dog’s questions is called “Piloting” them. Some questions you can ignore (“Is it okay if I scratch my ear now?” or “Mind if I take a nap?”). Others you want to give a profound, hearty “yes” to, (“Should I potty outside?” or “Should I sit politely to get that treat?”). But the most important ones sometimes require a “no”, such as, “Can I jump on your guest?”, or, in this case, “Can I lead our walk?”. The answer must be “no“. So how do you “answer” your dog with a negative?


Easy.


Stand up as straight as you can, pretend your dog is a lot taller, and simply invade their personal space. Keep your feel like a letter “V” so you don’t accidentally step on their paws. The moment they are no longer “asking” the question, you are done. So, for instance, if my Arwen were barking at something outside the window, I would simply stand up straight and get between her and the window she’s barking at, and back her off the window using strong, confident body language. I’m “claiming” the window, or, as we put it, answering her question, “Should I be worried about that dog outside?”. The answer is “no”. Check out this video for a demonstration of this body language as I answer the door.


How can I tell when she’s accepted the answer? She will stop barking for a moment, perhaps look at me, sit down, turn her head away, or even just walk away. Arwen is no longer actively interested in the window, or what’s outside, therefore, I no longer have to answer her question. I’m done. No force involved. I didn’t drag her away from the window, I merely crowded her out from it, using my body.


So how does this work on a walk? Well, let’s start with the three most important steps:

1) Control yourself. No anger, no yelling. Good, confident body language. Fake it if you have to.


2) Control the situation. Did you just walk out that door with the dog dragging you, and then continue walking? Control each and every moment. If you lost control, that’s okay, just reboot to regain control. Don’t just follow the momentum. Create calm. It’s okay to stop and start over. It's even better to pick a controlled environment to start working on the walk. The first 2 weeks I had Arwen, we literally practiced walking only in the house and backyard. Small amount of external stimuli = small amount of easy-to-answer questions.


3) Answer questions as they come up, using the body language.


Okay, now you’re ready.


Go to the front door. Put Fido’s leash on. Now I want you to “claim” the door. In other words, Fido’s first question is going to be, “Do you want me to lead you out the door?” Your answer is “No”, so simply pivot on your foot that’s closest to your dog, and now you should be facing Fido, with your back to the door. You yourself should look like you are a door that just slammed in Fido’s face. Using your body language, gently back him away from the door, using an occasional tug, tug, tug on the leash if necessary, but never holding him back physically. Now he’s calm? Okay then, you’re ready to walk outside. If not, continue answering his question until he accepts the answer and you're ready to walk out the door and add more stimuli to the situation (and more stimuli usually means more questions to answer).


Remember, this shouldn't be about training your dog, nor domination; this should be focused on communicating with your dog.

Take each step slowly. If he tries to drag you down the front steps, stop, give a series of gentle tugs until he is close by you again. His ears should never be past your knees – if they are, he’s leading you. Simply answer his question; the moment his ears get past your leg, give a gentle tug on the leash (think of how quickly a sewing machine needles goes up and down; that's how you should look with that tug). If necessary, pivot on your foot so you are now facing him, again, looking like you are a door that just closed on him.



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When Fido backs up to where he belongs, and/or looks away, you’re good to “unslam” the door and move on. No pulling, no dragging, and no restraining. Merely answering questions.


The most important part is to stay calm. If you are yelling, and shrieking, or you look bizarre with your body language, you will only be adding to the energy you are actually tying to dissipate.


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At first, Fido is going to have a lot of questions that need answering, because let’s face it, he’s always lead you on the walks before. Stick with it. Don't set a time limit, set a patience limit. If you can do it for 10 minutes without losing patience, then do it. If your timeframe is only 30 seconds, that's fine. You won't be answering as many questions for your dog, but you will be answering them without fear or frustration, making it easier next time. If you're intimidated by answering so many questions, stick with a spot that's less question intense, such as your back yard, or even strolling through your house. Answer his question each and every time he asks if he should lead this walk. The first 10 minutes are going to be very frustrating for you. The next 10 minutes will be less so. The final 10 minutes are going to be like a whole new, positive experience.




Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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