Everyone says dogs need a job and they’ll be less stressed, reactive and over stimulated…but what does that even mean? I’ve known lots of dogs with jobs and they still do all of those unwanted behaviors. The difference comes when you have more influence over their decisions. That’s the secret. I think sometimes we struggle saying those things out loud and trainers try to find gentler ways to say things, but they aren’t being clear. Bottom line, when your dog has a job that involves you, it creates focus, a bond, impulse control, an outlet and those are all things that make it easier for your dog to listen to you in situations where they are emotional and stressed. Basically, it gives you more influence over their behavior, good or bad.
For anyone wondering what I mean by structured, it means when your dog is next to you on a loose leash. They only potty, change direction and move away from you to smell something with permission from you.
Let me just answer a simple question; How is a structured walk a “job” for my dog?
A structured walk is where you can really bond with your dog and set a relationship with them. It teaches them to follow your lead and lets them know that outside, things are permission based. This means no jumping on the neighbor, barking at other dogs, pulling your arm out of socket or demanding to potty or sniff in other areas where you can’t get them to move on. Two of the most important reasons is it means no charging ahead on a 6 foot leash and getting hit by a car coming out of an alley or darting at a squirrel, taking you with them or getting away and getting injured. A structured walks reduces the likely hood of these things happening tremendously. The dog is focused on your movements and they are keenly aware they can not just mark the neighbor’s rose bush or chase the squirrel. All of that requires a great deal of mental energy and focus. This is where a structured walk is better and more draining then a run with your dog. It’s not always about the physical, it’s about the mental. Their mind is on a difficult task for the duration of the walk. It becomes a long term challenge for them that changes a little with every walk. That is also why a backpack can be a great additive to your structured walk. It causes many dogs to focus even more. They NEED a job and the walk is one of the best places to start. If you can have a successful and structured walk, so many other things you ask your dog to do (or not do) will come much easier. Plus, they are mentally drained from the work and that is a happy dog.
The other benefit of a structured walk becoming your dog's job is they see you as their protector rather than the other way around. (don’t worry, there is a balance with dogs that are actually protection dogs I won’t get into, but this is for most of us). Basically, if you are in charge on the walk and your dog is focused on their task, when something comes around that startles them, it is so much easier to tell them that it’s okay by leading/guiding them through it. They actually believe you rather than feeding into their own impulses (in many cases). They might have a sudden reaction, but you can more easily change that reaction and get them out of that mindset because of the leadership you are practicing out on the walk. This gives you leverage over their decisions, while at the same time a task for them to follow for a length of time, activating the working dog part of their brain and satisfying their need for challenges.
This may make you think my dog never gets free time. Definitely not true, don’t worry. Now if i’m working with a difficult case like severe anxiety or reactivity, it’s true there is no freedom for a little while. But within a few weeks or months they start to earn it back and can actually handle the freedom at that point. For most of you, think of it as reward based. Getting to sniff their favorite spot and say hi to the neighbor is all reward based. This is a result of being given permission during their job, which is to walk next to you and follow you. The more things in your dogs life that is reward based, the calmer and more balance you will see from your dog. It’s similar with people. We need to earn things or we get pretty messed up in the head. Hopefully, I can just leave that statement as is and move on, haha!
Does the structured walk mean your dog will stop being reactive? No, but it does mean you might catch the escalation sooner or when they do bark and you move in another direction they actually follow more easily with practice. It means that you can start to walk in populated areas more comfortably, be more present and in the moment when out with your dog. They will learn more listening skills in the house, naturally as a result of the structured walks. You will feel your dog cares about what you have to say. When you are out with your dog and achieve that same energy wave length, bonding with nature and truly connected, few things feel better and that might even earn you some more confidence in your own life.