“I would walk my dogs more often if they acted like that!” the man said as Lucy, Baxter and I passed him on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. Both dogs were walking calmly, one on either side of me. They were relaxed, their leashes were loose, and it was a pleasant walk for all of us. While I was dogsitting for them, I was happy to take them out for two long walks a day and some round-the-block-to-pee outings.
It’s fun to take dogs out when they are well behaved, but the sad truth is that if it is miserable to take dogs out for a walk, those walks don’t happen as often as they should. That’s especially true if multiple dogs are involved. After all, it’s one thing to have a single dog pulling you around the neighborhood, but it’s far worse when it feels like a complete sled dog team is putting their muscle into hauling you around. It’s no fun and it’s not safe, especially in winter if you live where there is snow and ice.
The good news is that there are various ways to improve your experience when walking multiple dogs. I like to place the options in two different categories in my mind. Some are short-term solutions and others are for the long term.
One way to make your walks with more than one dog more enjoyable is to change the equipment you are using. Just adding head collars such as the Gentle Leader or the Snoot Loop can make a huge difference. These collars fit over the nose of your dog and act very much like halters on horses. When fit properly, it’s like having power steering for your dogs, and they have helped many people have control over their dogs in a gentle humane way. Another option is the Easy Walk Harness, which also puts physics on your side so that dogs are unable to pull as they can with basic flat collars. I don’t recommend prong collars or choke chains because they can injure and scare dogs.
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Before taking all your dogs out on walks with any new equipment, I recommend taking each one alone at least once. These various collars and harnesses are not difficult to use, but it’s sensible to get the feel of walking each dog with something new before trying it en masse. Taking dogs out one at a time allows you to concentrate on how each individual is adjusting and reacting to the change. If you need to make an adjustment to make it fit better, it’s easier to handle that without the rest of the crew.
Walking one dog is easier than walking two, three, four or more, and another short-term option is walking the dogs one at a time. While this is less efficient and results in either more time walking for the humans or less time walking for each dog, it is still preferable to nobody getting a walk. There are people who adopt this strategy permanently, but for most people, it’s just a way to give dogs exercise while working up to walking dogs together once again.
Working towards group walks means training! It may not be intuitive, but if dogs are to be expected to walk nicely on leashes, they have to be taught to do so. Just like any other skill, it takes practice for your dogs to learn and perfect. It is best to work on training each dog in individual sessions before working with them all simultaneously.
The first step in training a dog to walk nicely beside you is to encourage him to be by your side and reinforce him when he’s in the right spot. In an open area with no other dogs present such as a fenced-in yard, let your dog know that you have tasty treats (or a ball or squeaky toy if your dog prefers toys over treats) and then help him earn them every time he walks beside you. Click your tongue, smooch, slap your leg, or wave a treat next to you, and let him have the goodies for taking a stride or two next to you. If he gets ahead of you, turn around and treat him for catching up. Make sure to give him the treats when he is next to you rather than in front of you since you are teaching him it’s fun to walk next to you, NOT that’s it’s fun to be out in front. The goal is to be interesting to your dog so that he wants to be next to you. Changing your speed and direction will make you more interesting to most dogs, so make sure you speed up, slow down and make a lot of turns.
Once the first step is going well, the next step is to teach your dog that it’s fun to pay attention to you and that wonderful things will happen if he decides on his own to join you and walk next to you. In a safe open area, walk in big circles. Resist the urge to help your dog attend to you. The idea is to teach him that he will be glad if he decides to walk next to you, and he can’t learn that lesson as effectively if you encourage him in any way. The goal is for him to learn that choosing you over everything else in the environment will result in good things for him. It’s important to use high quality treats and reinforce your dog for making good decisions about his behavior and attention.
The third step is to add a leash and go on a walk to work on this behavior. Shower him with treats every time he is in the right position. If he is behind you, encourage him to catch up and reinforce him for doing so. If he gets ahead of you, turn around so that he has the opportunity to catch up to you and receive treats. This is a good time to add in the cue “heel” so that eventually you can cue him to perform this behavior. Say “heel” every time you move forward when he is by your side. Heeling is not easy for dogs, so make sure to give a lot of treats in these early stages of training. Giving too few treats is one of the most common mistakes of novice trainers. Remember to be generous like experienced trainers are! Later, you can reduce the frequency of treats. Intersperse short sessions of heeling on the walk, relying on your equipment in the interim periods to prevent your dog from pulling. Most dogs require lots of practice before perfecting this skill, and many short sessions are more effective than a single longer one.
The last step is to put your dogs together and walk as a group. If you have many dogs, you may need to start with pairs of dogs, then triples and then work up to the whole canine family walking together. Some people find that walking all of their dogs on one side works best, but others have an easier time with one dog on one side and one or more dogs on the other. Only you can decide what is best for you and your dogs, but it’s a good idea to observe your dogs to help figure out the best option. Sometimes a dog is uncomfortable walking beside a particular dog and it makes sense to honor that and adjust positions accordingly.
I enjoyed all my walks with Lucy and Baxter, and that’s what I wish for anyone, whether they have more than one dog or not. The combination of equipment that helps eliminate pulling and training dogs to heel should make walking your dogs a recreational activity instead of it feeling like a grueling endurance event.