In the spirit of last week's Kentucky Derby, I thought I would impart some of my horse training knowledge as I feel it applies to dogs. Very often people on the street comment on how Gatsby reminds them of a racehorse, and today on our walk someone commented, "your dog looks like a very powerful thoroughbred." Of course that flatters me since I admittedly do treat Gatsby more like a horse than a dog sometimes.
For example, most dog handlers lead dogs from the right side (dog on the left of the handler), but I typically walk Gatsby from the left side (Gatsby on my right side) - this is the side from which you lead a horse. I "click" and "kiss" to Gatsby on our runs to ask for a change in gait - kiss equals canter and click equals trot. When I walk Gatsby with his head collar, instead of keeping the leash in between us, I actually have it lay across his back so it turns his head away from me instead of toward me - in horse training this is similar to riding with the outside or indirect rein.
One horse training method that is shared by most disciplines of riding is commonly referred to as "join up" (made popular by Monty Roberts aka the horse whisperer), and I realized today that this is actually the theory that has helped me train Gatsby to ignore distractions and focus on me even when he is off leash at the park. The general idea behind "join up" is that you create a bond / relationship with the horse that makes them want to follow you wherever you go, makes it possible to lead your horse without being physically attached or encourages them to come galloping to the gate to greet you. I won't go into all the details as I'm sure you can find plenty of information via a quick Google search.
How does this apply to your dog and relate to the title of this blog? Gatsby and I play a game at the park, on the beach and other places where there are plenty of distractions. I place Gatsby in a "sit" "wait" (my version of stay), and then I proceed to walk away from Gatsby repeating "wait" over my shoulder every few yards. People in the area are always amazed at how well Gatsby remains seated and focused on me regardless of how far away I get or how many distractions are around him. Gatsby will hold this position until I give his release command, "ok," and then he comes sprinting like a racehorse out of the starting gate to catch me. Sometimes I get as far as 100 yards away before I release him, and all that time he sits poised and focused on waiting to be invited to come greet me.
We have turned this into a fun game and because I have always rewarded Gatsby with tons of praise, rubs and occasional treats, he gets excited to come "fetch" me. In this game we have replaced the stick or the ball with yours truly, and it's quite a strong testament to the bond Gatsby and I have formed. This bond also allows me to maintain Gatsby's attention on leash when I need him to heel or ignore something that I know is very tempting to him.
Build the bond with your dog by making visits to the park fun, and keep your attention on your dog when you go for a walk; I promise that your dog will reward you with greater focus and attention to your requests. Start by:
- Turning off your cell phone and interacting with your dog instead.
- Playing hide and seek.
- Climbing a tree to see if your dog will wait at the bottom for you.
- Racing your dog from one end of the park to the next.
- Changing your pace on a walk: run for a couple yards and then come back to a walk
Always keep it fun and give your dog plenty of reasons to watch you!
I just got home from Gatsby's last walk of the night, and I realized that he and I walked a total of more than five miles today. That's actually a pretty standard day for the two of us though. Gatsby is now sound asleep on my bed while I type this entry, and I can't help but be proud that he seems to be relaxed after what I think he would agree was a rewarding day of playtime and exercise.
As a dog walker, there are many days I consider slacking on the time I take Gatsby for a walk. Let's face it, if you walked a minimum of six miles with clients each day, would walking another five or more really be at the top of your list? I've tried sending Gatsby to doggie daycare to lighten my walking load, but that seems to stress him out too much. So ultimately I suck it up and make sure that Gatsby gets his exercise each day regardless of how tired I might be because I realize it's good for his body, mind and overall well-being.
On the days I consider skipping some of Gatsby's walk time, I think of something I recently experienced. At my previous apartment I attempted to make it a daily routine to take the stairs to the 22nd floor (my floor) at least once each day. One day I came home with a 7 or 8 pound bag of cat food and decided it was the appropriate time for my 22-story climb. By the time I reached the tenth floor I was already exhausted. What does this have to do with skipping Gatsby's walk time?
I got to thinking after that 22-story climb about how much of a role that additional 7 pounds had on my ability to exert myself, and it made me think about the extra 20 pounds I was carrying around on a daily basis due to my huge appetite for good food. There's nothing wrong with eating, but it needs to be balanced with the right amount of exercise. Then I got to thinking about how 7 pounds is roughly 3.5% of my total body weight...how would that 7 pound bag of cat food relate to an overweight dog? Here's what I concluded:
My 7lb bag of cat food on Gatsby (about 80lbs) would be the equivalent of him gaining only 2.8 pounds. Take that one step further and apply it to the majority of my dog walking clients (average around 20lbs), and my 7lb bag of cat food on a small to medium dog is only 0.7 pounds!!!
Some people may think that skipping their dogs' exercise is not a big deal. I can't stress enough how important it is for your dog to get regular walks and exercise (as well as a reasonable diet), and I'm not talking about the quick run out the front door for a potty break - just because the leash is attached does not make it a walk by default. And as an added bonus, everytime you take your dog for a walk, you're also exercising yourself, and the average one-hour dog walk burns about 250 calories for a normal person (compare that to 80 calories burned while sitting watching tv).
I completely understand how hard it can be to get motivated to take the dog for a walk after a long day at the office...that's exactly why I started Get Pet! I want to make sure that people with more demands on their time than me still have a way for their dogs to get exercise to stay fit, healthy and happy!
Growing up in the country in Pennsylvania gave me tons of experience with animals from a very early age. I later pursued a career in horseback riding and also have experience as a veterinary technician. I have a strong passion for animals and have an uncanny ability to connect with all sorts of furry friends.