Whether walking one or a pack of fur kids, for the first time or the hundredth time, the same core principles always apply. Tools such as the right collar and leash are important, as is being present in the moment, but perhaps the most critical thing is to be the leader of the pack.
Being a leader is not about dominance, strength, or force, but rather it is about confidence, assertiveness, and consistency, and leading members of a different species means the method has to be more about non-verbal than verbal communication. For most of us, this is not as simple as it sounds. By the time we have become adults, society has taken us away from paying attention to our own body signals, never mind those of the individuals around us. For other animals, however, including dogs, being tuned into the non-verbal cues of others, their body language and emotions, means survival. Non-verbal cues are instinctual and true. Recognizing them tells the real story of any situation.
What does this all mean for walking your fur kid(s)? Well, dogs are pack animals and therefore natural followers. However, they do not just follow randomly because following the wrong leader can mean certain death. Animals only follow calm, stable, and confident energy. So if we are to take our fur kid(s) out for a walk, we need to make sure we are all these things…and faking it doesn’t always work. If we are vocally commanding but feeling nervous and/or angry inside, your fur kid will likely know the truth. This is where the expression “nervous energy” comes into play, and animals can sense it. How many times have we heard a fur parent say that their fur kid always seems to know how they are feeling?!
To walk calmly and confidently while providing consistent leadership means several things. First, be present during the process- this is not the time for multi-tasking. Would the leader of any pack in the wild ever be searching for their next meal or sleep spot while trying to play with its pals or while gnawing on a bone? Concentrating on the task at hand of migrating (traveling from point to point), conveys confidence and certainty. Think of how important this is in the wild- animals never wander aimlessly as doing so is non-productive and potentially dangerous.
Second, be in a positive frame of mind for the walk. Being fearful in anticipation of a negative outcome and/or walking while emotionally charged is not lost on the pack. Again, in the wild, emotionally charged energy is sensed by more than just the members of the pack- nearby predators also pick up on this energy. Such energy is like a beacon and there are only two responses to it- flee from it or attack it. Unlike in the human world, it is never just ignored, or worse, accepted. The chances of your fur kid(s) behaving well while you are emotionally charged is not great, so take a deep breath and abandon the anger, sadness, and/or fear before leashing up.
Next is consistency of actions and expectations. Leadership has to be consistent- rules have to stay the same and be reinforced/upheld. Nothing is more confusing than to understand rules and parameters only to have them constantly change. Think of this in our own circumstances. How hard is it to know what is expected if the guidelines always change? If we are uncertain, we are not as productive or effective in what we are asked to do. This is exactly the same with our fur kids. If walking ahead of the human is okay during one walk but not the next, or meandering is permitted this time but not the next, how do we expect our fur kid(s) to know how to behave?
Finally, actions do speak louder than words, especially congruent actions. Leaders lead from the front of the pack, no exceptions. If you are not in front of your fur kid(s) while walking, you are not setting the pace of the walk, determining the direction or activities of the walk, and looking out for potential dangers for the pack. Again, in the animal kingdom, no animal leader leads from the middle or back of the pack. On a more subtle level, applying tension to the leash by having it tightly wound around your hand and/or tugging on it sends a clear message of uncertainty and disapproval to your fur kid no matter how much you are saying good boy/girl. The same holds true for inaction. If you say no to disagree with a behavior done by your fur kid, but do nothing to correct, redirect and/or provide a consequence to the poor behavior, there is no message communicated. For example, if your fur kid lunges to jump up on a person during walks, an effective leader stops the behavior with a firm snap of the leash or poke (action), accompanies it with the verbalization of a stern no (words), and requires an alternate behavior like a sit (correction/redirection). This is much different than a pull on the leash that doesn’t stop the lunge, an unconvincing no, and/or the presentation of a treat to redirect the behavior. Leaders that do not behave like leaders do not have followers.
Leaders protect the best interests of all the members of the pack by providing clear directions, expectations, and consequences. The members of the pack comply with this decisiveness, and subsequently thrive in the resulting calm and orderly environment. This is the most evident proof of the love of an effective pack leader.