Monday, May 23, 2016

Veronica Goes On and On About Animals. Topic: How to Walk a Dog

I want to address a problem I see all the time. It's such a common problem, you've most likely seen it, too. If not in real life than definitely in the Sunday comics. Marmaduke's creator has made a living off of this training error. Blondie drags this one out on a slow idea day, too. Even Charlie Brown catches air behind his half-canine, half-human-in-a-dog-suit. 

"How to walk a dog" sounds so simple, but actually, what I'm talking about is even simpler. It's actually, "how to use a leash". For a piece of rope with a loop on one end and a C-clamp on the other, there's an amazing amount of operator error happening. It drives me crazy to see someone struggling not to be pulled off their feet by their dog, clomping along the street with both hands on the leash handle in a waterskiier hold. They usually begin in the single-handed stunt skiier position, only to realize they aren't quite ready for trick moves. Then there's the dog who's less a runner, more a lunger who with one fast leap yanks the leash free of the hand that thought it could restrain a 70lb dog with four fingers. This really scares me because it's often a car or motorcycle that inspires the dog's chase instinct and a dog running loose like that could lose his life, cause an auto accident, or keep running til he can't find his way home. Yes, if you have a little, politely walking dog, you can probably handle holding the leash in one hand, but even a well-trained or diminutive dog can surprise you. Plus, it's so easy to use a leash correctly. 

Don't hold the leash like a drawer handle. With only your curled fingers hanging on, a sudden lunge could cause you to lose your grip very easily.  Put the loop on your wrist, then hold the place where the loop meets the leash in your hand--adjusting so the loop rests on your wrist snugly. We're just beginning, but already you have a grip you are far less likely to lose control of.

The loop hold. (Please excuse the dog bed and cat scratcher. :))

Most dogs are playful, have some weight to them (compounded by speed when they get a running start on a lunge), are prone to chase, or may be nervous about sounds/cars/other dogs and may bolt, so you need more control so you don't get knocked over or lose the leash. Start with the loop as mentioned above, on one side of your body, then take your other hand and hold the leash at a comfortable length on the opposite side of your body...usually about 2-3 ft down the leash.  Some people like to tie a knot in the leash at the spot they find most comfortable. It helps you remember that spot and gives you something to hold onto (or hold just above) for comfort and to keep the leash from sliding through your hand and rubbing against your palm. As far as which hand you choose for the loop and which you hold the knot in is really up to you. I prefer to walk so my dog is on the inside of the curb or sidewalk that is furthest from the street and traffic, just for safety. Holding onto this second point on the leash gives you significantly more balance and control. This is especially important if you are walking through a crowd, passing someone (or someone and their dog) on the sidewalk, or if you're walking through a tight trail with poison ivy on the edges and snakes possibly sunning themselves on the rocks just off the path. Keeping your dog away from the underbrush helps prevent ticks from hopping on, too. Of course, that doesn't mean you should take all the fun out of walking. A dog needs to sniff and explore, but you can both relax and enjoy the walk more when you feel more secure about your ability to keep him safe while you're having a good time together.
Your opposite hand. Well, mine anyway.

This part may sound a little odd, but it helps. Before you start walking, root your feet to the ground. Think of yourself as an immovable force with both feet planted firmly with each step. Starting off with this in mind seems to help you take stable, confident steps. I'm not saying you have to march around your neigborhood like Kaiser Wilhelm. Just don't tiptoe around, either. 

It's a bit of a side note, but a related problem I see happen too often. Please don't let kids hold the leash until they are are big enough to handle a dog without falling on their face or losing control. It's also essential that they can take direction and follow instructions reliably. Kids (even ones in the early double digits) tend to let go when the leash is pulled abruptly or causes discomfort to their hand. The dog goes running off often right into the street which risks both the dog's life and unimaginable guilt for the child should the dog get lost or injured. Show them how to hold the leash properly, as explained above. Practice at home or in an enclosed yard, where the dog will be less stimulated and won't be hurt if you find your child isn't ready to maintain leash control just yet. While working together on good walking skills, make sure your don't slip knot the leash around a child's wrist (it could cause injury) and always teach them that it takes two hands to walk a dog: one inside the loop, and one further down. It might be a good idea to get them their own 4-foot lead so the dog can't get a running start on a lunge.

That leads us (get it?) to the question of what kind of leash is best. As with everything, different trainers have different preferences, but I like a 6-foot woven cotton lead for comfort and security. The width you need depends on the size of your dog and which feels comfortable in your hand. Unless your dog is very small, a 1"-2" leash is a good choice. Chain leashes may look tough, but they aren't as strong as they appear. A good hard lunge can cause a link to bend or break completely, and they're not conducive to being held properly, since holding onto anything but the loop will result in the chain digging into your hand painfully, and could even cause injury. Nylon leashes are strong but not quite as comfortable to hold since they don't mold to the shape of your hand the way cotton does. They aren't a bad choice, though, and they do last. Some people like leather leashes, but leather is unappealing to many animal lovers, raises ecological concerns, and leather leashes are awfully appealing to chewers. In addition you may have trouble getting a knot to stay in one, should you choose to add that to your grip.

I suppose I can't end the discussion of proper leash use without mentioning Flexis and similar zip leashes a.k.a the bane of a trainer's existence. The problem is that you have very little control since they are super easy to pull out of your hand--imagine how many pounds of pressure can build up when your dog has a 15' head start! Also, your dog can't be pulled back quickly if something potentially dangerous appears, and it's easy to get tangled up with another dog's leash, which can turn into a very bad situation, very quickly. These leashes tend to get tangled beyond the point where you can simply drop the leash in the event of a fight and allow your dog to get away, and if you do drop the leash, that can cause its own problems, too. A friend of mine accidentally dropped the zip leash attached to his rescued greyhound who ran for miles, tearing her paw pads completely off in places. As far as she knew this loud clacking thing was chasing her and wouldn't stop. A less dramatic, but still painful problem with zip leads is the danger a fast moving string or tape can present if it comes in contact with skin while the dog is running to the end of the lead. I know a lot of people with scars from cuts and burns they received when the leash rubbed against their skin at great speed. Yowch. There are a few instances when these kind of leashes can be handy, but not for a walk.

So, those are the basics for walking your dog. There's plenty more you can learn to make walking easier and more fun, but this is probably the easiest lesson you can implement, with the biggest payoff. It won't make for funnier comics, but neither does Marmaduke, really. Blondie? Maybe you had to live back when binge eating, abusive bosses, and your best friend's alcoholism were hilarious. I'll spare Snoopy, but if he could fly a plane, surely he could master an off-lead recall.