Long walks in the countryside with the opportunity to sniff and explore are the perfect way to bond with your dog. Dogs love to be part of the family and are at their happiest when out and about with ‘their people’. Many puppy owners are desperate for the day that they can take their pup for a long country walk but here is just a little word of caution regarding the perils of too much off lead running too soon...
Allowing your dog unlimited freedom on your daily walks can, in certain circumstances, severely impact your dog’s reliability off lead and in the worst case can be a recipe for disaster. Whether or not these circumstances apply to you personally depends very much on the breed and individual temperament of your young dog.
New spaniel owners are often lulled into a false sense of security during the first few months, only to find control of their dog slipping horribly through their fingers towards the end of the first year.
Think about it like this:
When you set off for a walk, you – the human being – are simply going ‘for a walk’. You are looking forward to enjoying the views, the fresh air, exercise and of course to watching your dog enjoy his freedom.
However, your dog is not going for a walk at all. He is not interested in the ‘views’ and does not have an opinion on the virtues of air – fresh or otherwise. What he is doing is going on a ‘hunting mission!’
Hunting for food (predatory behaviour) is part of a dog’s natural survival instincts for all breeds.
Modern day dogs have been selectively bred over decades to exhibit certain parts of the 'predatory sequence’ to do the jobs that people wanted them to do. Sight hounds such as the Greyhound and Saluki are skilled chasers, while Labradors and Spaniels are adept at flushing and retrieving birds and other small prey animals. Herding breeds are adept at eyeing, stalking, and chasing their 'prey,' but they seldom attack and kill the animals they are herding. Terriers on the other hand were originally bred to find, chase and kill vermin, such as mice and rats.
Forewarned is forearmed, as your puppy grows up, sometimes before he is even four or five months old his in-built desire to seek out, chase and hunt prey animals will start to emerge. This part of your young dog’s personality is largely determined by his genetics and rest assured he is highly motivated to indulge!
Whilst he is very young, once you set off for a walk your puppy will naturally want to keep close to you, but as he matures he may begin to range further afield as he tries to pick up the scent of a prey animal for the two of you to catch together…
If you were to behave as a leader now and take charge of the ‘hunt’ your dog would follow your lead with great enthusiasm. But you’re not going to do this are you? You aren’t going hunting at all but your dog does not know this. As far as he is concerned, someone needs to find dinner and, if you’re not up to the job, it had better be him.
Some dogs – those with lower levels of drive or motivation will react to this state of affairs by staying fairly close to you. They are born followers and feel no need to take on the responsibility of controlling the pace and direction of the hunt. This kind of dog will not cause you any bother on your strolls together. The owner of this dog often thinks dog training is a complete pushover and cannot understand why others have so many problems!
However, if your dog has an abundance of drive and initiative, within a very short space of time, your dog will be taking on the roll of leader in all your hunts (walks) together. He will try and set the pace, and will do his best to try and provide a kill, repeatedly finding good scent trails for you to follow together, maybe even successfully chasing and catching some game.
Because he is a friend and he likes you, your dog will keep coming back to you from time to time to encourage you to join in the hunt. With a very confident dog who has a strong hunting drive (which is a good description of many well bred working dogs), it won’t be long before he gives up on you as a contributing member of the hunt and comes back less and less often, especially if every time he does so, you keep putting him on a lead and taking him home again. If he had an opinion about your behaviour, you would not be very flattered by it!
If your dog is clever enough to catch and kill a rabbit, or find an interesting ‘dead thing’ to contribute to the dining table, and still looks upon you as his friend, he may even bring it back to you with great pride as you are clearly unable to feed yourself.
If punishment then ensues he will be totally dumbfounded. Communication between the two of you will have broken down. Your dog has discovered that out-of-doors you are not a leader at all, but a slow and incompetent member of the hunting pack, whose behaviour is completely erratic and unreasonable. Needless to say – this is not a good thing!
So….here is the hard truth folks. Owners need to be aware that predatory behaviour is self-rewarding for dogs, fulfilling this natural desire feels absolutely great and therefore most dogs need an outlet for their hard-wired instincts in order to stay healthy and happy. Too much freedom too soon may have your dog ‘out of control’ so you need to think through how you exercise your dog very carefully. You must be his leader out of doors as well as in the home – his guiding light. Everything the two of you do together should be chosen and directed by you. Failure to observe this simply fact can colour every aspect of your relationship with your dog.
The answer then to avoid recall problems, the dog chasing game, bogging off and generally learning that the best fun is to be had anywhere than close to its owner?
Controlled Exercise (best established from the beginning of your pups life)
This doesn’t mean you need to take your dog hunting (and many owners would seriously object to that!) but it does mean that most dogs relish hard work and having a job to do that involves owner interaction, controlled stalking, chasing/flushing and retrieving and this is why I recommend you teach your dog to play fetch-based games and scent-work games out on your walks.
This is especially useful with spaniels, teaching your spaniel to search a field for tennis balls will engage him very happily and reduce the chances he will learn to go free hunting on his own.
As your puppy grows up and you start to notice him wandering further from you – you need to take charge of the situation and organise a huge amount of interaction with the dog during the ‘walk’ with fetching games, scent games and heel work exercises - keeping your dog in a ‘zone’ of control so that he is never more than 20 yards from you at any time. This is arguably more of a training session than a walk but if your puppy is pushing at the boundaries before he is six months old you need to adapt to the temperament of your dog.
A waterproof long line is your friend and your dog should wear one for an extended period to the point where he/she doesn’t even realise it’s there. Only pick up the end when you need to so your dog doesn’t see it as a method of control.
To summarise then here are the rules for a happy dog and happy owner!
Rule One: Keep your dog close
I can’t emphasise this enough. You need to keep your dog close to you. Distance erodes control.
Rule Two: Thorough obedience is essential
It is vital to get your foundation obedience flawless in the absence of distractions, and then go on to ‘proof’ that obedience thoroughly around distractions of all sorts.
Rule Three: Be the centre of your dog’s world
He needs to believe that you are his best chance of all the activities that float his boat! Everything utterly brilliant in his world needs to happen where you are.
All of this leads us nicely to the topic of playing controlled and safe fetch and scent games in Exercise 1.9 - Shaping a ‘Fetch Object’ and Exercise 1.10 – Field Searches coming up next!