I was walking my dog the other day, and as we walked a path, he began to speed up. So, naturally, I did too. I wanted to cater to his apparent “need for speed” and prevent tension from building on the leash. At this brisk pace, he trotted along next to me, in a seemingly blissful partnership. I could have easily kept it up without thinking twice, but something inside me said “slow down”.
I slowed, and sure enough, he turned, doubled back a bit, and began checking out the nearby scents. He typically uses two strategies to guide me, he turns away from me in the direction he would like to go, or moves ahead of me to impede my motion like a wall popping up in front of a rolling ball. He’s incredibly sensitive to leash pressure (unless he is the one initiating it of course). So it was likely that my speed limited his available options in a few ways:
It required more effort to move sufficiently ahead of me to avoid my now rapidly moving legs, it may have felt impossible or dangerous to attempt.
When I am moving quickly, there is less time for me to notice that he has stopped or changed direction before tension on the leash builds even lightly. If he attempted to change directions, or veer off to sniff he had a greater risk of catching the leash.
He’s an anxious boy with some serious velcro tendencies. If his focus was on staying near me, he may have been distracted from the excellent sniffs along the path.
He seemed perfectly happy, I had no observable reason to pause, but if he wanted to sniff or go a different way, could he? In this circumstance, it didn’t seem to greatly impact him, but that may not always be true. What if we were walking toward another dog (a trigger for him) and he was aware of the dog, but I wasn’t; Would he feel that stopping or changing directions was both safe and accessible to him?
I’ve been preaching these observations to my clients for years, and this experience cemented for me how important it is to get in the habit of verifying our assumptions. Assumptions seem to sneak up on us, so often we are unaware we are making them. If things are going well, there is nothing to be lost by soliciting additional input, and asking clarifying questions of animals, only benefits to be gained.
We can, and often do, lead by accident.
When a dog is taken out on a long line or even off leash, with a greater degree of freedom to move away from the handler and explore, they don't suddenly become unaware of the handler.
If for example, the dog lowered their head to sniff, and the handler continued walking up behind the dog, with the intention of catching up to the dog before pausing, they may be driven forward by the handler's continued movement. It could be that if the handler gains on them, they feel pressured to move forward, it could be that they expect the handler to keep moving, and feel rushed to avoid being surpassed or left behind. The consequences of these actions may be so minimal that they don't even register on our radar, but to our dogs, these small interactions can cause stress at worst, and prevent them from fully exercising the agency we are offering them at best.
Having to hold space for monitoring the human can prevent the dog from truly taking in the environment, and making choices that cater to their needs alone. When they have to consider what we are doing, or what we will do, are we adding unintentional pressure that can change the dog's behavior? Learning to remove that pressure as much as possible, can help us to get to know your pet, who they are with minimal influence, and more often than not, we may be surprised with who is actually walking who.
The direction our body is facing can also provide input that can influence our pet's behavior. When we face one direction or another, we signal the probability that we will move in that direction. When dogs attempt to move in a different direction than the one in which we are facing or intending to go, they may encounter tension on the leash or may become separated from you if you aren't careful to follow. I have found that many dogs are far more sensitive to this subtle and often unconscious dance than we realize. In most cases they quickly acquiesce to align themselves with our direction, and it begs the question how often are they choosing an option lead by us, over an option constructed themselves?
For example, when a dog is sniffing nearby on a long line, and we turn to face away from them, we may suddenly find them coming toward or in front of us. Did the dog move because they wanted to go in this direction, or did we accidentally make a suggestion? Did that suggestion cause them to cut the activity they had chosen (sniffing) short for fear of encountering tension or perhaps being left behind?
Developing awareness of the subtleties of the power differential that exists in our relationship with our pets can make an incredible difference in reducing frustration, arousal, and stress, and help to increase the efficiency of our behavior modification processes by allowing us to more carefully examine motivation and get to know the animals we work with as individuals.
Below are two example videos from my reactivity course in which we examine how giving the dog a variety of tools to control the walk, does not adequately hand over control unless our human behavior becomes consistently predictable and controllable.