One cold day last spring, snow still clinging to the ground and ceding to the warm sun only on the tips of south-facing hillocks, I decided to do something new.
I wouldn’t walk my dogs; nor would I walk with my dogs. I would instead be walked by my dogs. I decided to simply follow my dog Mischa for our whole walk. Wherever he chose to go, well, I’d go just the same. I crawled under logs, I lumbered across frozen wetlands sinking thigh-deep into the granular spring snow, and I paused, quietly, in the lee of a large spruce tree, another secluded location where the snow had melted and the warming ground released delicious scents.
When I heard a twig snap in the distance, I activated. I ran, leaping over stumps and blown-down trees, to join my dog-kin at the base of a denuded aspen. Squirrel! Squirrel! I selected Mischa to be my guide that day, despite six other reasonable choices, for one simple reason: I could keep up with him, at least most of the time. He’s large—so visible—and a senior citizen at age 12. He trots more than he zooms, which describes me as well.
Usually, when I walk my dogs, I set out on one of our walking trails (or if I’m feeling adventuresome, I follow a random wildlife path—I stay in the same area and at about the same time every day, so we’re predictable to our resident wildlife). The dogs charge around at will, returning to me to check in if they want, or if I call them—this is a paid proposition from their perspective, as I always have food on walks. Sometimes a few stay companionably close, especially in the last half of our walk. Mostly, though, they’re off, being dogs and doing doggy things. I love it.
I’ve recently found myself thinking about behavioral choice and autonomy. I’m blessed, and my dogs are blessed, to have access to beautiful wooded areas to walk in. And I’ve worked hard to set the conditions up right to give my dogs a lot of autonomy: recall training, more recall training, and then a bit more recall training. But their autonomy doesn’t start and end with their daily five-o’clock jaunt.
In addition to our off-leash walks through forests, meadows, and (sadly for me, but awesomely from their perspective) swamps, my dogs have a dog door to a large yard filled with farm-ish delights. They have generally free choice to decide when they’ll go outside and when they’ll come in.
Working from home as I do, I find myself just as interested in their goings-on in the yard as I do on our walks together. Who hangs out with whom? Who plays, and when? Who lounges in a snow drift by the garage, watching the world go by? Who is busy busy and who is much more content to snooze by the woodstove? Watching my dogs as a part-time canine anthropologist gives me enjoyment, but it also gives me a good sense of their preferred activities, playmates, and rhythms.
Although I live on a ranch, most of my dog training clients live very much town-folk lives. Most walk their dogs in the same way that millions of dogs get their daily dose of the outside world, i.e. on leash, and according to the human’s schedule and geography.
These dogs love their walks, by and large; there is nothing as joyful as a dog who is anticipating heading out their front door, is there? They might bark or circle or even grab on to their leashes and tug. But once they’re out the door, and especially if it’s during the winter months, the walk might be one following a set route, relatively brief, and very much for the human’s convenience.
On the day I followed Mischa, I wanted to take things one step further than my usual walk. I wanted to see what would happen if I let the dogs take the driver’s seat, and make the choices about where we went, how fast, and why. I’m not sure what I expected (a window into the canine soul?…no such luck), but an interesting thing happened along the way.
I learned that my dogs, given the choice, do pretty much what I do. They trot along, mostly, looking loose and happy, with minor bursts of speed and excitement. They stay close to each other, mostly, and enjoy drinking in the beauty of their worlds (them: nose, me: eyes).
But in learning this about my dogs, I stumbled upon—stumbled quite literally, as you have no doubt guessed—something else. There is a beautiful minutiae of life on our walks that I don’t normally take in, and during my follow-the-Mischa experience, I couldn’t help but see it. One’s face is quite a bit closer to the ground when one slithers, precariously, under brambles, of course.
In the words of canine behavior researcher and author Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, I think I experienced something closer to my dog’s umwelt: “The idea of umwelt, which originated with the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, is that the world of each animal is defined by how he/she perceives and acts on the world.” (qtd. in Kawczynska, 2017).
I focused on the ground, stopping often to examine items and places that Mischa investigated. I looked way up, into the highest branches, and stopped to smell the air or listen carefully, catching and holding my breath so even the softest of sounds could be heard. I examined the signs left behind for us from many woodland creatures, big and small: deer prints in the mud, delicate and defined. An alder sapling, rubbed bare by a passing bull elk. An explosion of feathers from a spruce grouse unlucky enough to be someone’s supper. Owl pellets with tiny, perfect, bleached bones, gently disintegrating on last year’s cast leaves.
As I followed my dogs, I saw what they were paying attention to. When I saw what they paid attention to, I paid attention as well. And as I paid attention, I learned about my dogs.
Linda Green CTC is the co-founder of Unidos Para Los Animales, a dog rescue based in Guatemala. She and her team carefully prepare the dogs in their care for new homes, and they focus on setting up the dogs, and the new adopters, for success. Green regularly walks her foster dogs and other dogs in the rescue loose in a large, secure, hillside farm, strolling under a canopy of coffee trees and through rows of newly-sprouted corn plants. What does she learn about the dogs during these loose walks?
“I learn a lot about body language, I suppose, and local enhancement/social facilitation,” she said. Local enhancement refers to how dogs draw each other in, when they’re exploring something that they simply find delicious. Social facilitation is closely related. Dogs tend to do some behaviors in groups, and if one dog is doing a behavior that is subject to social facilitation in dogs, others will readily join in. This includes howling, which is adorable, silly, and enjoyable for most people, but also behaviors found on other pages in the canine ethology dictionary, and which can be dangerous on loose walks, such as hunting.
Karolin Klinck CTC of Team K9 LLC in Ithaca, New York hikes daily with her own dogs and her clients’ dogs. She had this to say when asked what she learns about the dogs on these loose walks: “Taking my [dogs] and my clients’ dogs for off-leash hikes provides so many opportunities to find out what makes each dog tick; what each dog truly loves to do. Some love to take big laps, running as fast as they can, taking wide strides. Some love to follow their nose–and maybe eat some ‘treasures’ along the way. Some love playing with a buddy. Some just walk slowly and take in all the sounds and sights. And some dogs, they just do a little bit of everything.”
This game—observing and learning from dogs granted the freedom to simply be dogs—is something that appeals to many. For example, Nickala Squire CTC of Carefree Canine in Grand Forks, North Dakota is also committed to helping her clients allow loose time with their dogs, if appropriate.
“It’s really illuminating to see what dogs spend their time doing,” she said. “It gives me insight into what kinds of enrichment they enjoy and what motivates them. For instance, some dogs spend their entire time searching for and scenting critters while others bounce around and run in big circles, stopping only for a particularly good scent. I get a kick out of the dogs who spend their time collecting and comparing sticks or rocks.”
In her securely fenced farm in Guatemala, Green is free to let the dogs communicate and interact as they choose, an enriching experience for a social species like dogs.
“Watching them be dogs in a safe place (where I don’t need to interrupt or intervene as often) makes me more conscious of how much we control almost every facet of our dogs’ worlds and daily lives,” she said. “I feel like it is important for them to just run and sniff and ‘be dogs,’ without human micromanagement. I have learned to trust them more, even when they disappear for good chunks of time between checking in (always in the relatively safe space of the farm, of course).”
Green notices what grabs her dogs’ attention, too: “I’ve learned how incredibly ‘blind’ humans are to their olfactory world,” she said. “So this has led to me to ponder how perception changes, depending on what senses we are using to process the world. It makes me admire and respect dogs more. I really enjoy watching them experience the world without my intervention.”
Added Klinck: “It’s the wide, free strides that you never get on leash, the free movement, and the big smile that is…just not possible on leash. It’s pure joy to see dogs do what they love in a safe way without too much of our influence. That is the ultimate mental and physical enrichment.”
Although it can feel worrisome to allow dogs the freedom of a free choice, loose walk, Squire allows the dogs themselves to ease her clients’ fears. “The first thing I learned was that most dogs really do want to be with the group,” she said. “Even if at a distance, they’ll stay close enough that they can hear us and check in without prompting. When I first encourage people to drop the leash, they’re often shocked at how close by their dog stays. They’re worried that given the opportunity, their dog will take off and never come back.”
My own clients often want their dog walks to be easier, and they want their dogs to be more “obedient.” They have, through either design or default, acquired the habit of the “lock-step march” style of dog walking, created and maintained with the dreaded collar pop. Some of my clients have fallen prey to the narrative that it is a moral failing of both human and canine if the dog puts their nose to the ground, an idea so infinitely disheartening that it should be immediately consigned to the history books!
My clients ask for easier dog walks, and like all positive reinforcement trainers, I offer them something even better, i.e. a dog walk that is companionable, shared, enriching, and brings joy to both parties. Through gear changes and training, even the most rote dog walk can become more interesting for the dog. And for those dogs who are suitable, and clients who are keen, off-leash training or even heading to wilder spaces with a long-line leash can feel like magic.
The good fortune to be able to watch dogs on a free choice walk is, in part, what makes many trainers orient towards training safety behaviors like recalls (see Resources), and encouraging our human clients to allow more freedom and choice, where possible.
Squire likes to put things in perspective for her clients: “Dogs live the majority of their lives in sealed buildings that provide very little enrichment, entertainment or exercise,” she said.
“A few boring chew toys or stuffies pale in comparison to the variety of TV shows, books, radios, phone apps, computers and other electronic devices we have for ourselves. Then, we take them out to walk in the environment of our choosing, in the direction of our choosing, on a short leash. I can’t even imagine having such little freedom to do what I enjoy in life. This is easier for people to understand now I think, with the pandemic. Even with everything we have access to, all that intellectual and virtual freedom, a lot of people felt really desperate when lockdowns began.”
Klinck makes use of all this technology to whet her clients’ appetites to provide more loose walks for their own dogs. “I let my clients be part of it by taking lots of pictures and videos,” she said.
“The joy I see in my clients’ faces when I pick up their excited dogs bursting with happiness is priceless. Typical comments are, ‘He never smiles like this on our on leash walks,’ ‘I just love seeing all of them being so happy,’ and ‘You are his/her favorite person in the world. He loves his adventures.’”
Free choice and loose walks take preparation and training, along with a new orientation. Green often prepares the dogs in her rescue for a free choice life long before they board the plane to their new homes. “For our dogs who go into adoption, we make sure to install a strong recall before they go,” she said. “Since 90% of our dogs who are adopted in the U.S. go to the Bay Area, [California], pretty much all of our adopters are very much on board with off-leash and beach hikes in appropriate areas before they ever get the dog.”
Green wants to prepare the dogs to competently handle freedom, and she wants to prepare the humans as well.
“So for these guys, I explain how we teach and reinforce the recall, send handouts on fun recall games, remind people to never call their dog for something unpleasant, and so on,” she explained.
“I encourage adopters to take the dog to a fenced dog park and practice recalls with high value food to get them trusting the dog, and then off they go. I know the dogs pretty well, because we are a small rescue and have most of our dogs for a good length of time. Plus, we don’t have too many runner-types like your sleddies and huskies. In my pre-adoption Zoom calls, I do make a comparison between parents and teachers bossing kids around, structuring every moment of their days, and how important it is to give them some unstructured time to just be kids…and how we do the same thing with our dogs. It is equally important to let them have some time to just go do dog things and roll in stuff, sniff, run, hump, and chase.”
Not all dogs and not all contexts allow for loose walks, and there are absolutely ways to give dogs more freedom and autonomy in these cases. I encourage my clients to follow their dog’s lead, for at least part of their walks. It can be such a relief for them to hear that they aren’t failing their dogs by allowing them to do what they want to do in this way.
Allowing dogs to stop and seek information about their community of peers through scent or to explore their environment as they choose is a sign that a client is a good partner for their dog. There are also gear changes that can allow dogs more freedom. Squire uses long lines to bridge the gap when it’s unsafe or illegal for dogs to be fully off leash, although she does encourage off-leash activities wherever it’s appropriate.
“I recognize there are risks, as there usually are with fun activities,” she said. “I start by teaching a rock solid recall [(see Resources)], adding in various distractions such as throwing high value food, then test and practice their recall in multiple environments on a long leash. Using that long leash (the 50-ft biothane is my favorite) in various environments, I get to see the dog’s reaction to a variety of alluring stimuli like bikers, dogs and even critters before they earn off-leash time. I look for proactive check ins, not just a hesitant cued response. Staying aware of our surroundings is also a must, to prevent a dog from giving unsolicited or unwelcome greetings to people and other dogs (which includes calling them back when turning blind corners or going over hills). Using natural barriers like cliff faces and rivers for nonswimmers, can be helpful for dogs new to being off leash.”
Going back to the beginning of this article, on my own free choice walk that day, I found myself exhilarated to not have to consider if the walk was long enough (the dogs decide!) and what I’d make for supper when I got back to the house (who cares about that stuff? There’s a squirrel in that tree!). Every time I paused, I found myself very aware of my canine companions, head swiveling to catch sight or sound of them, in case they came across something exciting over the next rise, and I’d be off at a gallop, following Mischa.
Usually when I walk, I stay aware of my dogs’ location and activity in order to police their behavior, even if it’s a gentle policing. I want to ensure they don’t stray far enough to go into a neighbor’s field or cross another imaginary (from their perspective) behavioral line.
And although, of course, I will continue to keep my dogs safe and sound, I have vowed to give them more autonomy and freedom going forward, and to use my platform as a dog trainer to give my clients’ dogs more freedom as well. I wanted to share the news far and wide: there is a kind of beautiful clemency in following a dog’s pace, a dog’s curiosity, and a dog’s bliss.
Budzinski, C., & Budzinski, A. (2019). Dog Field Study: At the Heart of the Walk
Budzinski, C., & Budzinski, A. (2020, November 13). At the Heart of the Walk [Paper Presentation]. Geek Week (Online). (n.p.): Pet Professional Guild
Kawczynska, C. (2017). Alexandra Horowitz, The Canine Mindseeker. The Bark
Shao, T. (2020). Maintaining a Rewarding Relationship with Your Dog. BARKS Blog
Tudge, N. (2020, May). Training Recall: A New Standard. BARKS from the Guild (42) 38-44
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2021, pp.12-20. Read the full article The Essence of a Dog: A Free Education from a Free Choice Walk.
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About the Author
Kristi Benson CTC PCBC-A is a student coach and mentor and handles special projects at the Academy for Dog Trainers, where she helps to shape the next generation of canine behavior professionals. She is an honors graduate of the Academy and is also accredited through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. She lives and works in the Parkland Region of central Manitoba, Canada, where she works with dogs and their human family members in private consultations – both in-person and via video chat – for a full range of dog behavior issues, from basic manners to fear and aggression. She writes extensively about dogs, for her own blog and the Academy Blog. She is also a special correspondent for Companion Animal Psychology.