Being a responsible dog owner is more than just picking up after your pup and stopping them from stealing sandwiches at the picnic. Alexandra Fraser clues us in on her experiences in the first few weeks of dog walking.
I used to think dog walking was so simple.
Slap on the lead, grab the poo bags, release the hound once you’re off the road and maybe put some headphones in. Walk for a bit, throw a stick for a bit, head home. Done.
My family got their first dog when I was six – I wasn’t privy to the ins and outs of how Claire turned from adorable chocolate puppy to walkable dog. All I knew was that I had a fluffy dog toy to match her for Christmas and not to pick her up by her legs.
More confusing is the fact that I can’t remember how our second dog, who came into the family when I was twelve, adjusted to dog walking. Both my brothers were at boarding school and it was just my mum and I, surely I should’ve picked up a tip or two?
‘”Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” are perhaps the most unhelpful words a dog owner can utter. Yes, your pup might be friendly, but theirs may not.’
My mother’s third dog, Nala, is no mystery. She was a nutcase, it was Covid and I didn’t live at home. She’s almost one now and honestly, I’m still not convinced that she’s an upstanding member of society.
It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there’s a lot more to dog walking than you’d first think. There are the obvious things – training a puppy to listen to voice commands so that it doesn’t run for the hills the second you take the lead off, cleaning up their mess, keeping them in eyesight. But there are plenty of other things to bear in mind when you release your dog on the world for the first time.
The first is reactive dogs. There are plenty of dogs out there that haven’t had the best start in life, as well as dogs that through no fault of their own just don’t like other dogs. Often the owners have put a lot of work into making their pooches as comfortable as possible, and a puppy running full tilt at a dog on a lead is a recipe for disaster.
‘Don’t worry, he’s friendly!’ are perhaps the most unhelpful words a dog owner can utter. Yes, your pup might be friendly, but theirs may not.
The second is judgement. A helpful tip here and there is all well and good, but when you start a sentence with “I assume he’s off the lead at this age because..?” with raised eyebrows, you do yourself no favours.
There’s a stigma to letting puppies off the lead early that needs to be squashed. Young dogs for the most part will stay close to their owners, especially on their first few walks – it’s an inbuilt safety response. Once your pup passes four months, this safety response will exponentially diminish, meaning that if you let them off the lead for the first time when they’re old enough to do without you, you’ll have a much harder time of it.
‘Seeing Wilf grow in confidence and explore his surroundings on walks is one of the purest things I’ve ever experienced.’
The best time to let your dog off the lead is when you know they’ll come back when you call. I spent Wilf’s vaccination isolation training him to respond to ‘here’ and to a whistle in our garden, so by the time he could go outside, I was confident in his recall abilities. He stayed close to us, but we let him off leash from the beginning, and even now that he’s more sure of himself he won’t go more than ten paces away from us without turning to check out whereabouts.
Seeing Wilf grow in confidence and explore his surroundings on walks is one of the purest things I’ve ever experienced. I don’t need my headphones – in fact I left my phone at home (admittedly, accidentally) on our last walk. Nothing keeps you in the moment like a puppy.
That’s not to say that I’ve ditched Taylor Swift completely. Wilf likes it when I sing in the car.
The ten (previously) unwritten rules of dog walking
The best time to let your pup off lead is when you’re confident in their ability to return to you. Don’t feel pressured to keep them tethered for longer than that!
Pick up after your dog. This one should be obvious, but somehow it’s not. If you don’t like carrying poo bags around, find a walk that had plenty of bins along it, but do pick up. Every time.
You absolutely must ask how old a puppy is when you meet them on a walk. It’s the law.
Be wary of leaded dogs. They might be completely fine, or they might be reactive dogs who don’t want to be fussed. Make eye contact with the owner and make sure that you can grab your pup before they get too close.
Don’t let your dog steal a ball. Honestly, this should be illegal.
Similarly, do all you can to help an owner retrieve a lost ball. I almost fell into the Itchen saving a drowning tennis ball for a whippet the other day. Worth it.
Don’t judge. They might be wearing a doggy waist coat, they might be drooling enough to flood a kitchen, they might be waving a stick around like a maniac. Unless you see a dog being abused, live and let live.
Ask before you pet a dog. Wilf is a confident pup, but if an adult lunges down at him, he’ll get spooked. Even if you ‘have one exactly like him at home!’, check with an owner before you touch their dog.
Ask before you feed another dog treats. What if they’re allergic to your salmon fishies?
Chat! Don’t do anything that makes your uncomfortable, but honestly, you’re missing out on a whole world of social interaction if you ignore other dog owners. If your dogs look like they get along, ask their dog’s name, laugh a bit about failed training habits, tell them how gorgeous their fluffy friend is. Dog owners are often the salt of the earth, go forth and make friends.
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