Walking the dog is seen by most new owners as a given in their list of responsibilities, right alongside feeding the dog, buying toys for the dog, and housetraining the dog. The part that is really easy for any of us to forget is, Why we are walking the dog? Asking yourself this question before every walk only takes a few moments, but can make your walks more productive for your dog and more pleasant for you.
There are actually a few questions you can ask yourself before you walk out the door. The first—and arguably most important—is, "Who is this walk for? Me or the dog?" Your answer could go either way. If you are going for a run in order to exercise yourself, and inviting the dog along because it is a nice thing to do, that's OK. You can then ask yourself, "What do I need? What does my dog need? And how do we find balance?" In this instance, the pace and expectations of your dog's behavior will be primarily about what makes your run good for you. However, it wouldn't be fair to drag your out-of-shape dog for 10 miles, or for your dog to keep jolting herself against the end of her leash because she hasn't learned good manners yet. Before deciding whether runs with your dog are a good idea, you'll want to have considered your dog's fitness level and training experience. If I want to run a marathon and my dog is nine years old, it might be better to leave him at home. If my dog doesn't walk on a loose leash yet, a head collar or front-fitting harness will make the run much more pleasant for both of us—after all, I don't want to be focused on training when I'm trying to hit my next fitness goal.
Most walks fit into the latter category: We walk our dogs to meet their needs. So, if the walk is for my dog, the next question is, "What does my dog need from this walk?" Usually, the answer will be a distance, a pace, or a balance of both.
Sometimes, a dog's needs are boring. I'm really not as interested in my neighbor's bushes as my dog is. While it is easy for us to think about a successful dog walk in terms of miles or minutes, and our dogs do need physical exercise (some breeds need a ton of it!), mental stimulation—using their noses, exploring their environment—is equally important. Some dogs need a brisker walk with less sniffing. Others get overstimulated by too much speed, and need to work on shorter, calmer walks. The shorter your walk is, the more important sniff time is for your dog. If I only have 15 minutes to get my dog out for a walk before work, I'm better off only going to the end of the street and back at my sniffy dog's leisurely pace than I am going around the block.
You, too, likely have a need in terms of pace. If you aren't a runner, or have joint problems, your walk will have to be a pace you are physically comfortable with. For most dog/human pairs, the solution will be an amount of time that fits into your schedule, and the distance will best be set by how much time your dog needs to check out the neighborhood news.
There will also be a handful of you whose answer will have nothing to do with distance or time. Some of you with newer dogs will need some of your walks to be "training walks," perhaps a walk three houses down with no pulling, done using the loose leash walking techniques you just learned in your training class. Those with a fearful or anxious dog will walk for as far or as long as your dog is comfortable, and you may have specific goals set for yourselves, such as passing the scary fire hydrant halfway down the block, or five minutes without your dog starting to pant or pace.
Owners of "leash gremlins," dogs who bark and lunge whenever they see other dogs, will find that their walks are transformed by shifting their expectations to be about successfully passing one dog at a particular distance calmly. If you keep going and your dog blows up at the next dog, you'll likely feel defeated. However, if you turn around and go home, you will walk through your front door feeling a huge sense of accomplishment, and your dog will be much better equipped to move on to the next step of her training plan.
Taking an extra few seconds to ask yourself who your walk is for and why you are going can transform neighborhood walks for both you and your furry friend, leaving you in a better mood, and your dog more pooped when you get home.