EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first part of a series.
Taking your dog for a walk is more than just good exercise, it is key to your dog's mental well-being. Dogs were "designed" as hunting pack animals, which means that they are supposed to spend a lot of time walking from place to place. During these walks, dogs learn about their pack and their neighborhood -- who is in charge, what noises are normal and which are to be feared, etc.
Unfortunately, most people don't know how to walk their dog. First and foremost, your dog is supposed to walk at your side. When he is allowed to constantly walk in front of you, this means that he is in charge. Remember, the top dog is the one at the lead of the pack. Dogs who think they are in charge tend to have a number of problem behaviors, including housetraining problems and incessant barking.
A good walk begins with a proper leash and collar. At some point, a dog may see something that interests him on the sidewalk -- a piece of food, a leaf or another dog. A well-trained dog will respond to a slight pull on the leash that in turn creates a slight "pulling sensation" on the collar. This pulling sensation should be enough to tell him when he's at the "end of his rope," so that he stops pulling and returns to your side.
Because the "pulling sensation" is your dog's signal to return to your side, it sends a confusing message if you use a retractable leash. These self-rewinding leashes always have tension and pull, and that teaches dogs to ignore the pulling sensation as your signal to get back to the pack. With self-rewinding leashes, dogs quickly become less responsive when you really do want him to come back. I prefer a long flat leash -- it gives you the control and is less likely than a cord leash to cause rope burn if you need to give a brisk tug.
There are only three times when a harness is appropriate for your dog -- 1) if he is pulling a sled or 2) he is a guide or assistance dog, or 3) an existing health problem demands that he not have the pressure of a collar placed around his neck.
When your dog is at one end of the harness and you are at the other end, this means that your weight is distributed across the dog's body. A harness allows your dog to have more "pulling power," which means that it is easier for him to cause injury to you -- by constantly yanking on your arm and shoulder. Harnesses do not give the proper feedback to your dog -- he never gets the message that he's at the end of the leash because the force of you tugging on the leash never creates the "pulling sensation."
When a dog is going for a walk, it is very important for his collar to be positioned high up on his neck -- just below his jaw. This will create the feedback of a pulling sensation without choking and stressing your dog. Next week, we'll talk about the types of collars that will allow you to go for a walk without dislocating your shoulder.
Dr. Jon Klingborg is a veterinarian at Valley Animal Hospital in Merced. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.