Friday, August 12, 2011

Dog walking 101

"Dog walking is both a pastime and a profession involving the act of a person walking with a dog, typically from the dog's residence and then returning. This constitutes part of the daily exercise regime needed to keep a dog healthy. It also provides exercise and companionship for the walker." - Wikipedia, Dog Walking
One of my favourite activities with the Beast is our afternoon walk. It is always a good segue between my work and my home life. It's my chance to wind down from the stresses of the day and get ready to relax at home with my herd. It's also just a great way to spend some quality time with the Beast.

Of course, it wasn't always so enjoyable. As a dog more prone to dominance than to submission, the Beast saw the walk as an opportunity to take control of hubby and I. As soon as we would leave the house, his ears would perk right up like two perfect little satellite dishes (always a sign of trouble to come), his nose would hit the ground, and he would take off after whatever scent trail he was on, dragging us kicking and screaming behind him. If another dog or human dared to come into his sight line, he would bark like an ambulance siren - loud, constant, and a warning to get the hell out of the way!

I was beginning to understand why some people simply give up on walking their dogs in the first place. This, of course, was not an option. No matter how long it took us to get his bad leash habits under control, hubby and I knew that this was a battle that we had to win.

The problem is that neither hubby nor I are particularly patient people. "No matter how long it takes" is an okay goal as long as that doesn't surpass, um... let's say a week. By the second week, I was going crazy. It seemed that all we ever did was walk in a big circle because I would have to redirect him so many times to try to stop him from taking the lead. And my arm hurt from all of his pulling and my poor attempts at correcting him. Worst of all, I was getting frustrated and emotional, and the Beast would take FULL ADVANTAGE of my moments of weakness by getting even more controlling, even going so far as to jump up in my face, bark at me, nip at me, and use his body to push me out of his way.

To put it frankly, walking with him SUCKED. A LOT!

Despite all of the reading and preparation that I had done before we brought the Beast home, I couldn't figure out the walk and clearly needed help. Luckily for me, one of my best friends from university married a certified dog trainer. So we called her.

Now her philosophy behind working with dogs is driven by the concept of the pack. At the helm of each pack is the leader - the Alpha, if you will. It is his job to set and enforce the rules and boundaries that govern behaviour. This includes protecting and providing for the pack members, as well as teaching and guiding them to become better doggy citizens.

And she is a TRUE Alpha. I've seen her with a pack of up to ten dogs, and there is no question that she is always in charge. Nothing phases her. She shows no fear, always appears calm and in control, and speaks clearly and concisely to all the dogs in her care. It's actually quite remarkable to see up close, particularly because they listen. Unlike mine.

Speaking of whom.... the Beast absolutely lost it when the trainer came to our house. He would not stop barking. I think he sensed right away that this was no wannabe-Alpha like hubby and me. This was a bona fide pack leader. And there was no way that she was going to be allowed to come onto his turf and take that role from him. Despite all of our repeated attempts to just shut him up so that she could come into the house without having him in her face, the Beast kept going and going and going for what seemed like an eternity. It's like we weren't even there. When the trainer sensed more than enough desperation seeping out of my pores, she just stood up straight, looked the Beast straight in the eye, and in a "you-really-don't-want-to-mess-with-me" tone of voice, said, "ENOUGH"!

The Beast stopped in mid-bark.

It was bloody impressive, is what it was.

Then she looked at me and hubby and said, "So your dog is being a bit of an asshole, huh?"

No one wants to hear that their dog is an asshole. Myself included. Except that I could hardly argue with her on this one. If I acted that way whenever someone came to the house, I'd get justifiably clocked in the face. He really was being a jerk, and I needed to hear it.

And he needed to hear it too, because the supreme Alpha was standing in our living room, ready to show us how to set him straight. After giving us a lecture on pack mentality and training methods while we dutifully scribbled down notes and asked questions, she said, "Okay, let's go for a walk."

We weren't even out of the living room when she pointed out about three things that we were doing wrong. "The walk," she explained, "is the dog's job. And his work day starts the minute that you make the decision in your mind that you are going to take him for a walk. From that point forward, you need to be in charge, and he needs to be following you and taking his cues from you. It's not okay that he is bolting to the door and jumping up and down while he waits for you to put on his leash. I know you think it's cute, and that it's a good sign that he is so excited to go for a walk. Well, it isn't. Because this isn't his playtime. So you need to get serious about this. Get him back here and let's do this right."

It took us over 20 minutes to get out of the house.

Over and over and over and over and over again, we had to move him back to the living room, where he had to wait until we called him to the front door. Then we had to claim the space around the door and make him wait outside of that zone until we opened the door, exited the house, and called him to us. Then we had to make him wait until we took the first step down and onto the driveway, and so on and so on and so on. And every time he took the lead or got overexcited at any point along this continuum, we had to start back at zero.

I was mentally exhausted and we hadn't even started to walk yet. I'm slightly ashamed to say it, but I even started to cry because the dog was so clearly kicking my ass and it was really pissing me off.

But the trainer wasn't ready to give up. Hubby wasn't ready to give up. And so I just had to suck it up. We spent another hour learning how to walk our dog properly. And do you know what? It's not as simple as the introductory Wikipedia quote would lead one to believe! There are a lot of rules involved. Like the fact that he must always, always, always be beside or behind you unless you give him permission to do otherwise. Or that as a true Alpha, you must always walk with your head held high and your shoulders back so that he does not see weakness in you. Or that you can't tense up your arms in any way because he will sense that and become tense himself.

This was going to take a lot of work.

But she gave us the tools that we needed to succeed, including proper leash correction methods, ways to recognize signs that he was about to launch into some kind of inappropriate behaviour, and tips on redirecting his attention before this could happen. She gave us good suggestions for keeping him mentally and physically challenged, like using elements of the natural environment as an obstacle course, or putting a backpack on him and making him carry his own water to reinforce the notion that walking is his job.

Armed with all of our new knowledge, and a brand new backpack for the pooch, hubby and I spent the next couple of weeks sticking pretty close to home, walking him through the quieter streets of our neighbourhood where there were fewer distractions. There was a lot of stopping, a lot of taking big, deep breaths to relax ourselves before continuing on, a lot of turning around and redirecting him whenever he tried to pull us in one particular direction, and A LOT of encouraging one another not to give up.

Then, one day, it just kind of happened. We went for an after-work walk and he just stayed beside me. No running me over to get out of the house. No pulling. No lunging at other dogs in our path. He stayed calm and polite the entire time, looked to me for direction, and took all of my cues. It was awesome. These days, when he and I go for walks, I am even able to occasionally drop the leash and have him stay right next to me or only slightly ahead of me, but always looking back to see where I want him to go.

I am so very proud of my little Beast. But I am mostly proud of hubby and I. We worked hard for this victory. Really, really hard.

Cesar Millan often says that if you can "master the walk," you will not only cement your role as pack leader, but you will also establish an unbreakable bond of trust, affection and true companionship between you and your dog. This in turn will lead to a more harmonious relationship and household.

I believe it. With the help of our trainer, we are learning to "master the walk." There are good days and bad days, but overall, the Beast is learning to trust our leadership and look to us for his cues. This is translating into our home life, where he is much more calm and respectful of our rules than he was when he first came. He is no longer the crazed Tasmanian devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoon that whipped around our living room like a whirlwind of neurotic energy.

Except when someone comes to the door.

We really need to figure that one out...