Taking the lead

Considering your dog’s needs on walks

by Kate Mallatratt A Dip CBM, PPG, Canine Behaviourist

Many people consider getting a dog for more exercise and while dog walking has positive benefits for both owner and dog, exercise can have a negative impact on a dog’s health and wellbeing if his welfare needs are not adequately met. There are a number of considerations that will impact his walk so, as the song says, if you don’t know how to do it, I’ll show you how to walk the dog.

Harness or collar?

Holistic veterinarian Dr Peter Dobias advocates a harness. He places much importance on the health of the neck and cervical spine for overall wellbeing. Jerks on a collar might misalign joints and strain muscles. The trachea and oesophagus could also sustain damage from collar pressure as could the thymus gland and thyroid gland due to their location. Repeated yanking and pulling places pressure on the major blood vessels leading to the head, and may even result in eye complaints. Neck trauma could be indicated by secondary leg lameness and paw licking too. Flexi-leads clipped to a collar may cause a whiplash injury if the dog sprints to the end of the lead and is jerked backwards. McTimoney chiropractic check-ups are essential for balancing the musculoskeletal system if you feel your dog may have sustained neck trauma.

Reading the headlines © Bounders Dog Photography

As well as potentially doing less physical damage, a harness gives you more control and an older, frail or special needs dog may appreciate the additional support and guidance a harness brings. There are many types available and finding one that suits your dog’s shape, weight and size is vital, but avoid those that tighten when your dog pulls or restricts movement. If looking for a harness for a puppy, the Perfect Fit range comes in three individual pieces, each of which can be replaced as your puppy grows. Teaching a dog to wear a harness is a skill that can be taught to puppies even before they can go out walking. Some dogs find having a harness placed over their head frightening and back further and further away until you are chasing them around the room. To avoid confrontation, think of the harness as a ‘head target’ that your dog comes forward to put his head into. Offering the harness as a visual cue for the behaviour (of putting his head into) gives him control and choice over the situation.

If your dog or puppy is anxious about wearing a harness or dislikes the sound of the clips being fastened, enlist the help of a positive trainer otherwise try the following steps:

  1. Holding a piece of food (with fingers pinched together), place your hand through the head hole of the harness.
  2. Put the treat just in front of your dog’s nose. Lure his head through the head hole by slowly withdrawing your hand backwards towards your body, as if you were pulling his nose towards you on an invisible thread.
  3. Reinforce his behaviour by feeding him with an open pony-feeding hand when his head is through. (Note your hand position changes: fingers together is a visual cue for luring and open palm is a visual cue that your dog can take the food.)
  4. Drop a few morsels on the floor and whilst he is distracted eating these, fasten the side clips.

At every stage, evaluate what your dog is learning. Is he eagerly coming forward for the treat in your fingers, or is he backing away because you are placing the harness over him?

Once your dog is kitted out, it’s time to venture outside.

Walking in partnership

We expect our dogs to walk at our side with ease, but if you have tried to speed up or slow down to match your partner’s stride you will appreciate how difficult it is to maintain a change of rhythm. Any dog much larger than spaniel size will not comfortably trot at an adult’s side, and this incompatibility causes gait disturbances such as pacing. Pacing occurs when both legs on the same side land and push off together. A dog that is comfortably trotting will have diagonal pairs of legs landing and pushing off together.

You may need to vary your speed to accommodate your dog’s pace: a fast pace may increase excitement and a slow pace may bring about calmness and an opportunity to take in more of the environment.

Pulling is a common complaint and we often inadvertently ‘teach’ our puppies to pull on their first outing. The cute puppy who enthusiastically drags you towards a wonderful scent or a friendly person, is learning that pulling works. Your puppy or adult dog must learn that a tight lead gets him nowhere and a loose lead enables him to move forward.

Remember to let your dog sniff as much as he likes on his lead walks, after all he ‘sees’ the world through his nose. As long as his lead is slack, let him ‘read the news’ to his heart’s content. Since your dog’s brain is geared for olfaction, to deny him the opportunity to sniff could be considered be sensory deprivation.

Lead walking is of course just one form of exercise and there are many other types that your dog can enjoy.

Off-lead exercise

Encourage your dog to explore their surroundings © Anita Hope

Turning to other forms of physical activity, how much and what type is best depends on many factors including age, size, health, metabolism, stress/anxiety levels and breed type.

Sight hounds such as greyhounds and lurchers enjoy short bursts of sprinting while dogs with exaggerated body shapes like dachshunds or basset hounds are better suited to steadier walks, and giant breeds such as Great Danes require less exercise than some of their smaller cousins. Some dogs benefit from stay-at-home enrichment days once or twice a week if exercise is over-arousing or if exposure to the outside world is likely to trigger anxiety.

Puppy walks are for learning valuable life skills rather than exercise, and over-exercising can be detrimental to health. Puppies and young dogs have areas of cartilage on the bone that calcify as the dog matures and until these growth plates have closed, they are more susceptible to joint damage. Excessive ball chasing with sprinting, sudden stops, sharp turns and jumping, can put strain on joints at any age but especially in juveniles.

Although they appear to be having fun, dogs will chase balls until they drop as chasing is instinctive. Repetitive ball play keeps them in a state of over-arousal and adrenaline levels high, and may exacerbate underlying issues such as arthritis, so please ditch the ball chucker and perhaps consider scent games instead.

Scent work can be incorporated easily into walks. You could throw a handful of moist highly scented titbits into the grass for your dog to seek, or perhaps lay a track by marking a trail with liquid stock poured on the ground, placing the odd biscuit along the way. Scent games should be interspersed with ‘natural’ sniffing time so encourage your dog to explore his environment. Nose work engages both mind and body and if time is of the essence, your dog will still benefit from a ‘sniff ’ around the block. Scent games are also ideal for tiring a puppy who is too young to go for long walks and a very simple foraging enrichment game is rolling your pup’s kibble (dry food) into a towel and letting him sniff out his dinner.

Quality exercise includes sustained smooth movement, which produces the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin and releases pleasure endorphins helping to offset stress. Given freedom, most dogs will divide their time between walking, trotting and sniffing, of course. Vary your dog’s exercise over the week with some on and off lead work, play dates and swimming, longer hikes and shorter strolls.

Whatever type of exercise your dog enjoys, there is one common skill he needs to master for everyone’s peace of mind: a reliable recall.


Teaching a reliable recall is one of the most valuable skills your dog can learn and recall should be taught in puppyhood to build strong foundations for the teenage years. In my experience, it is not practiced nearly enough especially around distractions.

Recall often falls on deaf ears due to the dog being put back on the lead, admonished for running off, distractions such as other dogs to play with, squirrels to chase, rabbit scents to follow, and genetic traits.

Recall has several components: breaking off from an engaging activity, orientating towards you and returning. The reinforcer for returning must be strong enough to compete with environmental ‘attractions’ so find an activity that your dog highly favours. If using treats, choose highly scented titbits – homemade liver or sardine cake are firm favourites in our house. To increase the value of the treats, bowl them along the ground for your dog to chase to bring out his predatory chase drive or scatter a handful on the grass to forage for. If your dog isn’t food motivated, use play as your reinforcer and always have two balls or tugs to hand to entice him back with one.

Blowing a whistle rather than shouting your dog’s name can improve recall as the sound carries further than a voice, is unique to recall and is not potentially over-used like a name. It’s also consistent in its delivery and holds your dog that the whistle sound means he gets a reward, start at home by blowing the whistle before mealtimes and/or play sessions until your dog is anticipating a reward on hearing the sound. Test his learning by whistling when he is absorbed in another activity. Does he come running to you? If so, you are ready to take this ‘on the road’.

Please remember to practice recall on every walk, call your dog back often, and always reward. Your whistle is a promise - don’t break it.


Merlin my collie is in his 80s in human years and our walks are slow but highly pleasurable. The herding of his youth has been replaced with meandering leisurely along the grass, finding scent ‘treasures’, stopping here and there for more information, then walking a few paces and perhaps scent marking.

Scent is his roadmap for which

direction to wander in and influences his decisions. When we reach home he slumps contentedly into the armchair and dozes. Does he dream of scent, I wonder? For our dogs, walking is so much more than exercise.


Bekoff, M PhD (7 February 2019). Allowing Dogs to Sniff Helps them Think Positively. Available from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/animalemotions/201902/allowing-dogs-sniffhelpsthem-think-positively?fbclid=IwAR3KsJZ1rkMZtN63nXsesOgIPDymMwvjJ ehPkN-v9C860dVSa0HGTW0HkBk

Dobias, D DVM (October 2016). The mysterious connection between your dog’s neck and the internal organ health. Available from https://peterdobias.com/ blogs/blog/why-women-rule-and-howthisconnects-with-your-dog-s-health

Hill, D (2013). Exercise in Dogs: how much is enough? www.dogvideoindex.blogspot.co.uk

Laurence, K (unknown). Loose lead walking. Canine Online Learning and Resources online course, Learning About Dogs. www.learningaboutdogs.com

Laurence, K (unknown). Recall workshop. Learning About Dogs Ltd www.learningaboutdogs.com

Feature image © Bounders Dog Photography.