This trainer encourages dogs to get outside their yard

This blog post is partially in response to this article, A Dog Trainer Confesses: I Rarely Walk my Dogs. Right off the bat, I want to acknowledge that I understand the dog trainer is speaking about alternatives to a leash walk in order to exercise dogs. And I apologize in advance if I take anything else out of context. However, I think that the suggestions are appropriate for a small minority of dogs and scenarios, and the title is a bit misleading, and therefore requires a response. I am purposefully not reading the comments before writing my response, so I am only being influenced by the content of the article and my own experiences with problem dogs and behavior modification.

The dog walk is an essential form of dog training. Your dog learns how to walk on a leash, deal with stimulation, smell neighborhood smells, learn that they do not need to be excessively territorial. Learn how to act around dogs that they need to walk past, whether it’s inches away or on the other side of the street. The daily walk offers enrichment that keeps your dog balance, like other forms of training. And being able to do that walk means you are covered in the event that you *need* to walk outside your house, such as in the event of a fire, or you need to move to an apartment without a yard, or whatever else life brings you.

I will also add that I have walked highly dog-aggressive dogs in neighborhoods with off-leash dogs, cats, and a significant number of leashed dogs. It’s not relaxing, for me. I had to be highly aware of my surroundings to keep the dogs I walked under threshold (calm). It was possible, and I felt we quickly created a bond and trust. It perhaps even helped them realize they could walk with other dogs in their vicinity. So there is no right or wrong answer, and a million variables in this country. So lets look at another take on the subject.

Getting your dog out of the house/yard

If the point is that you go somewhere else to get your dog outside*, that’s really not much different than a walk (unless your dog has an issue to work through). Yes, dogs are said to enjoy the “migration” of a walk (going from point A to point B together), but the main point is going out and smelling the world, seeing things outside of the house, fresh air, bonding, learning new skills, sports, and the list goes on. Getting outside the “territory” is mentally stimulating and physically rewarding. If you choose to go elsewhere to do this on a daily basis, great, you and your dog are lucky indeed! But most of the article wasn’t focused on getting your dogs on adventures like this.

(*) An exception is the enclosed dog park, which is a highly stressful environment for most dogs (negative or positive stress). It’s best to avoid these, unless you would like to instill behavior problems in your dog. But that’s a different blog post!

Rehabilitating dogs

If your dog has stress walking in the neighborhood, I don’t think it’s fair to avoid a problem your dog has unless he is in danger (being threatened by off-leash dogs). If your neighborhood is a problem that puts you or your dog in danger, then that’s a separate issue that probably needs to be addressed with authorities. If you are not going on walks because your dog is leash-reactive or panics at noises for example, I don’t think it’s fair to avoid these issues by avoiding the walk. It does not help your dog in the event your dog needs to go for a walk in the future (say, you unexpectedly need to move to an apartment without a yard, your car breaks down and you can’t get them to the alternative location, fire/earthquake, or whatever life may throw at you and your companion).

I do not agree that most dogs being rehabilitated should not be taken on neighborhood walks. The idea of this article is that many of the potential problems that mean you can avoid the neighborhood walk are to avoid stresses on your dog, and that’s why the suggestion is to avoid it. However, most dogs being rehabilitated for these same problems eventually need to face those stresses in order to desensitize themselves to them. And most of the time, through selective timing or methods of performing the leashed walk, you can still walk in your neighborhood while staying within a safe threshold (keeping the stress low enough it’s fine for the dog).

The whole point of rehabilitating a dog is to work through the stress so it is reduced, desensitizing them, and they can lead a more normal life and are capable of living with these elements. When these are so common as the world outside the front door, not being able to cope in this environment is quite a detriment to the daily life of the dog. Avoiding those everyday elements with indoor training, indoor play, back yard romps, or going to a different location like the beach every so often, does not fix a dog’s issue so they can function in most places or situations. And it does not equal a couple of walks per day outside of the house.

Yes, to start out rehab in an extreme case you may need to work in different locations, but it should not be permanent. You should eventually get back to the neighborhood once your dog is ready for it. As I will explain further below, alternative locations will not necessarily rehabilitate your dog, who is likely to be very location/scenario specific.

  • Alternate times. Walk your dog when most others don’t. It should be easy to avoid the barking and lunging dogs at 6am or 11pm.
  • Alternate routes. Take the roads less travelled by other dog walkers. See a dog coming in your direction? Move off to the side, cross the road, or turn around.
  • Alternative pace. Picking up the pace by jogging, a very brisk walk, or using a bike will cause most dogs to focus on the migration more than the surroundings. This is perfect for highly stressed out dogs, or dogs who panic. For my high-level panic dog (think flying to the end of the leash in sheer panic at anything), she stopped her panic entirely within two outings — and we were able to pass anything that stressed her at a slower pace. Within a couple months, we could walk at a normal pace.

Many problems, such as being handled by strangers or children, might not be overcome. The problem may have formed as a puppy or in the womb, and is a permanent fixture in their lives. Most of these issues do not exclude a dog from a neighborhood walk: no one has to touch your dog, children can be told to keep distance (I am not sure I’ve seen many children throw themselves onto a strange dog when told not to). I have a dog who has improved greatly in her stress level around children, but still cannot cope with children petting her. Every day we walk in a neighborhood with many children and around an elementary school, and there is no blocking issue. We walk past children, and if someone ever approaches (once every several months), she hides behind our legs. And she is not harmed, she knows she is safe and the humans have control of the situation.

Yes, there are rare exceptions. There may be dogs so behaviorally damaged that they cannot even catch a glimpse of another dog without going off the deep end in a dangerous way. In these cases, finding alternative methods for exercise would be beneficial.

The walk: often cause and cure

The article states of the neighborhood walk “it’s rarely the cause or the cure.” I also disagree with this statement. I feel that daily walks can quite often be the cause of problems (as is almost suggested by this blog post anyway, so I am confused by the statement), and quite often a cure. Why do I think this?

Cause of the problem: Leash frustration is possibly the most common problem seen on daily walks, and is way more common than true aggression (which is different than leash frustration). This problem is largely caused by walks, and humans not handling the dog’s reaction in a way that mitigates the problem. Walks with prong collars, shock collars, leash pops and a plethora of other problems in tool and technique are caused during leash walks.

Cure of the problem: Solving leash frustration also requires the dog to learn alternative ways of coping on the leash. Not a lot of walking is involved, and you won’t be walking near dogs for awhile, but the work eventually needs to occur in your neighborhood. Solving stress and panic through daily walks can work wonders. Better if you jog, as the dogs focus is primarily on the migration and movement as opposed to the world around them. I have a dog who would high-level panic at everything on our walks. The only solution was jogging through our neighborhood. I took this dog to alternative locations (the off-leash beach), worked in our house, but those activities did not have any impact on getting through the neighborhood or her overall level of stress.

Not having her learn to deal with her stress by moving through the neighborhood would have been criminal. She would not be able to function anywhere else in the world other than inside the house or at the off-leash beach! And we moved away from off-leash recreation areas, including that beach, where we would have needed to have her able to walk through a neighborhood. Not to mention, we don’t have a yard for potty breaks, so being able to walk in a neighborhood is vital.

Teaching your dogs how to properly walk past dogs who are barking or lunging is a fantastic exercise in your relationship, and their overall behavior. When we adopted Mort, we had to practice this many times per day so we did not end up with a leash-reactive dog. He was definitely headed on that path, but we taught him impulse control and he learnt how to walk past dogs while acting like a civil dog. If you frequently encounter ill-behaved dogs who are also off-leash, as stated in the article, I do agree that the neighborhood is not a great place to walk your dog as this is a dangerous situation not only for your dog, but to you, children, drivers, and the general community. This should be dealt with by officials so the community is safe and you can walk your dog in the neighborhood. I also do not feel this is common in most areas (but yes, I have a friend also dealing with this presently, and have walked in towns where non-threatening off-leash dogs were abundant, when I was walking the threatening dogs!). And barking or lunging dogs are not a threat, as long as they are on leash. It’s easy to avoid these dogs, and teach your dog to walk by them (and if not, turn around or cross the street).

The back yard or in-home substitute, isn’t

But perhaps your dog doesn’t have a problem with walks, and you just don’t want to walk in your neighborhood. Most of the suggestions are activities within the house. These are great forms of mental exercise, and perhaps physical. I do this all of the time with my dogs (the scratches in my floor increase every day), in addition to leash walks, training walks, frisbee, flyball, outings to wineries, the lake, restaurants, the beach, and more. But I do not feel that alternative activities are substitutes for getting out of the house at least once per day, even if you need to adjust your schedule (very early morning, or very late night). And many schedules, and locations, wouldn’t be able to afford such adventures as it is.

Can you imagine spending a full day or two indoors without going out? Or only going out of your house/yard a few times per week? This is a stress in itself to humans, and I also feel to dogs. The number of messed up dogs who never leave the house and back yard is significant. In really bad weather, I can feel my dogs’ relief when they are finally able to get out again after a day inside even with short potty walks. If you cannot take your dog, daily, outside that is somewhere beyond your back yard, I feel quite strongly that they need some form of walk in the neighborhood. Even if it’s off-hours to avoid other people or dogs, if necessary. Not to mention it’s natural and better for dogs to potty a couple blocks away from home (it will reduce territorial issues, and they naturally prefer to potty outside of their “home”, which they consider the back yard).

Options for people without a yard

Some clients do not have a yard (myself now included). Walks are mandatory for the dogs to do their business. Solutions need to be available for these individuals, so if you are a trainer it is good to have these in the arsenal. (Please note I am not suggesting the author doesn’t have a bunch of ideas for this, I simply feel it’s worth noting).

Also, while considering families without yards, think about Manhattan. Most dogs do not have a yard, and require many daily walks in order to survive. They are wonderfully balanced dogs from first-hand accounts I’ve heard from behaviorists visiting the city. A hypothesis is that these dogs are not contained in yards, and have to go for many walks daily out of necessity. I think we can learn greatly from this large, real-life example about how multiple excursions outside of the house can benefit overall canine stability.

Mixing it up

I entirely agree with the last section of the article, , where it mentions variation in your dogs activities. This is incredibly important for all the reason the trainer mentions. Training, activities, dog sports, outings to the beach/lake, are all fantastic forms of mental and physical exercise with your dog. I also feel these should all augment

Can you do these alternatives outside your house/yard on a daily basis? And your dog doesn’t have any problems of their own to work through on the walk? Lucky dog, and lucky you! Go for it, and drop the walk! Can’t? Please keep the walk (or any form of “getting out of the house/yard”) in your repitoire.

What is in a title

I don’t to fault blog authors for sensationalism in their article titles: if it gets people to read their posts, that’s great. In the case of this article, I feel that it is slightly irresponsible. First of all, there is a significant problem in our society where dogs only receive exercise in the house and back yard, and have bad behavior issues as a result. Second, I feel that the first few suggestions are not replacements for leash walks (but are fantastic additions to a daily activity outside of the home), and the final suggestions of the article are. Web stats will suggest many people will not read that far, perhaps not much further than the title (if you have gotten this far in my article, you are in the minority). Many folks may take away that they do not need to go on daily walks, and can adequately exercise their dog indoors. I shudder to think of the behavioral consequences.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, congrats! I’d like to sum it up with:

  • It is important to get a dog outside of the house and yard on a daily basis.
  • It is important, if at all possible, to not avoid an issue your dog has on walks (unless it involves a danger to you or your dog). Dogs should work through everyday stresses in most cases, slowly and carefully, to desensitize them in a safe way so they can lead a closer-to-normal life. It is important to know how to do this properly, gradually increasing their triggers so they do not panic but slowly increase their ability to handle whatever their problem is. If this problem is exhibited when they go out the front door, it is important to work on this as it’s such a significant part of their life.
  • Variety in the activities you do with your dog is also incredibly important to the quality of your dog’s life.
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Jen deHaan

Jen deHaan is an animal advocate, volunteer, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. She likes to support local and national efforts for animal welfare and advocacy. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever.

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