I remember a conversation I had a while back with a friend whose dog Charley, a 3-year-old Lab, is a big lug of a sweetheart. On walks, she proudly told me, Charley walks right next to her. Whether they’re on the street, at the park, or in the woods, it doesn’t matter; Charley is always right by her side. That paints a lovely picture of companionship, and from a training standpoint, it’s impressive. Clearly, she’d put in the work to teach Charley what she wanted and had worked with him so that regardless of who passed by or what happened around them, he stayed at her side. But is that level of strict obedience necessary on a constant basis when walking our dogs?
Let me contrast that with something that happened not long ago during one of our morning walks at the park. I had Bodhi with me. As we passed a man I knew, Bodhi was out at the end of the leash ahead of me. The man said good morning and then chuckled, “Who’s walking who?” Now, this is a nice man who was just trying to be funny, and no, Bodhi wasn’t actually dragging me at all. But, again, it begs the question: does your dog really need to walk next to you all the time?
It’s a strange thing, if you think about it. We train dogs to sit and to lie down on cue. Those are things do naturally anyway, so it’s not a big stretch. But nowhere in dogdom do dogs purposely walk shoulder to shoulder like some four-footed militia. Remember West Side Story? I can’t help but imagine a gang of leather jacketed dogs striding ahead shoulder to shoulder singing, “When you’re a pet…” But I digress. Learning to walk by a person’s side must seem strange to dogs. Besides, the tradition began with hunting dogs and police dogs, because it was necessary for the dog to be on the left so the gun could be held in the right hand. Seems to me if you’re walking down the street nowadays with a gun in your hand, you’ve got bigger problems than which side your dog is on.
Although I don’t require my dogs to constantly walk next to me, they do it when asked, because that’s what I trained them to do. If they’re happily sniffing and exploring at the ends of their leashes and I say, “With me,” they know to immediately place themselves by my sides, Sierra on the left and Bodhi on the right, because that’s easier for me. Alternately, sometimes I ask them both to walk on the same side because we’re about to pass another dog or some other distraction. Flexibility is key. I love that my dogs can wander a bit and immerse themselves in the fascinating scents that surround them, sniffing plants and grasses and places where other dogs have been. I think how I would feel if you took me down a street of shops that had the coolest clothing, and then told me I had to walk down the sidewalk and not explore a single store. What fun would that be? The bottom line is, it’s up to you where you want your dogs to walk. But one thing is always true: the better trained your dogs are, the more freedom they can have. And that will make your walks, as well as the rest of your life with your dogs, a lot more pleasant for both of you.
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