Taking Time to “Heel”

Growing up in Southern California I’ve been used to seeing dogs on leashes at all times, unless I’m at a dog park. I knew there were other parts of the world where people were able to walk off-leash with their dogs, but I had only seen it in the movies—until I visited Austria, that is.

On my first day there, sitting in my first café, I noticed an ordinary enough man walking at a regular pace towards me. Then I saw the astonishing part…his dog was walking right next to him, calm as can be, and there was no leash in sight. I tried not to be obvious but I was staring, and watched them until they were out of sight. Neither man nor dog seemed at all surprised at the situation. It was just like an every day occurrence to them…because it was an every day occurrence.

Turns out that Austrian folk talk their dogs into restaurants (where they happily lie at their owner’s feet), on trains (where they are required to wear “cages” or muzzles), on busses, you name it. People rarely, if ever, bother with leashes.

How is this possible, you might ask? Well, it all starts with the basic “heel” training you are likely familiar with but rarely enforce. Many people these days opt for the retractable leashes (I used to use these before I knew better) because they have so little time to exercise their dog that this serves as their only form of exercise, so why not let the dog run back and forth a little?

Yes, I can see the logic in this…however, before you give your dog this kind of freedom, you need to establish some rules first. Your dog needs to know that his place when walking out in public is by your side, not in front of you and not behind you. This is important for several reasons. Dogs need to have rules in place, and feel more comfortable when they know what the rules are, what their role is, and when you expect it of them.

[pullquote]Teaching your dog that the proper place to walk in public is at your side will give you more control over your dog, and give your dog more security about where his place is supposed to be.[/pullquote]This does not mean that you can never let them wander on a longer lead…this comes later. Teaching your dog that the proper place to walk in public is at your side will give you more control over your dog, and give your dog more security about where his place is supposed to be. You may love dogs, but not everyone feels this way, and they will appreciate that you keep your dog close at hand and not have to worry about whether or not your dog will come in contact with them.

Other dog owners will appreciate it as well, because they will know that you have control of your dog and they don’t have to worry about an unwanted dog encounter. They may be training their dog, or their dog may not be friendly towards other dogs, so when you are walking down city sidewalks, especially, this is the most courteous and responsible course of action.

Your dog may respond well to your holding the leash close, or it may be a chore to keep him held back, in which case you will save yourself from a lot of arm strain by investing in an easy walk harness, which has a clasp in front of the dog’s chest rather than on the dog’s back. The same company also makes a head harness, which some people prefer, but I find the chest harness is sufficient (I’ve also had dogs pull out of the head harness). Connecting the leash at the chest causes the dog to turn himself around if he pulls too hard, so eventually he gives up trying to pull.

off-leash heelingSince your dog’s instinct after being cooped up all day long in the house will be to want to run, you may want to play a little ball with him before going out for your walk. I recommend setting a routine where you keep the dog on a fairly short leash so the dog stays beside you when you are on city sidewalks, and then when you get to a park or a grassy area, give him more leash and let him sniff around as much as he wants to. You may also let him sniff and mark bushes when he his on a short leash, but only within the constraints you have set for him.

Remember that you dog looks to you to know what is appropriate, and when he knows the “routine,” it will be both reassuring and something he looks forward to. Ideally you should walk your dog once in the morning and again in the evening, so he has something to look forward to, and you will get a bit of fresh air in the bargain.

Photo Credit: Johan Appelgren (top), redteam