Dog walkers: the good, the bad and the ugly
by Prescott Breeden
What to look for in Dog walkers and canine professionals
Dog walking is a big business. A lot of people own dogs and a lot of them help their pooches get extra exercise by hiring a dog walker. It’s a great thing however some dogs might be paying the price. With images of Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, exercising “thirty-five dogs off-leash,”[i] people have come to look at a person commanding high quantities of dogs as a sign of their skill. However, the truth is that skill is unrelated to how many dogs you can hang onto at once; skill comes from scientific knowledge, application, practice, and always respecting a dog’s needs.
The other day, I was talking behavior down at Volunteer Park with a friend and colleague of mine when we saw eleven dogs walking straight down the middle of the street with a dog walker. Shaking our heads as we watched cars trying to maneuver around them, my friend said, “I guess he can’t fit them on the sidewalk, huh?” As they walked past us, different dogs began reacting to different things. One dog began barking at a stroller, while another started to show protracted warning signs (stiff body, glare, growl) towards a dog on the sidewalk. As each one reacted, the dog walker gave a sharp jerk on their leashes (known as a leash-pop) and said, “no!” in his sternest dog-commanding tone.
There are a lot of things wrong with this picture, but the core issue is that every dog has individual reactivity thresholds, exercise requirements and training history, so every dog has completely individual needs. Some dogs are pullers, some are reactive and growl at men with beards, others at bicycles, some have very little exercise requirements while others need continual high energy exercise. Sharon Bachel, owner of Seattle Canine Solutions, says, “I exercise a dog based on their individual needs and rarely can that be accomplished on a group walk. If a dog walker has too many dogs then many of those dogs could be getting reinforced for undesirable behavior.”
To make matters worse, many dog walkers run their business by picking up multiple dogs and herding them all down to the dog park at once. Sharon comments, “I feel it’s important owners know the dog park is not a Chuck E. Cheese’s ball-pit for dogs. Dog parks have the potential for eruptive situations, especially when hired ‘dog excursions’ make the dog to human ratio five to one. I’m being hired to exercise, give leash manner training and take amazing care of a dog, not let them run wild and hope nothing happens.” (see related article: Dog parks, friend or foe?)
The fact is, unless you have gone on a walk with your dog walker, you don’t really know what they’re doing while your pup is out of sight. You hand a very excited Fido off for their walk and when Fido comes back he curls up in his favorite spot for a nap. But out on the walk, many dog walkers spend more time trying to replicate what they see on TV then applying proper knowledge of animal behavior. In the example I mentioned earlier of the dog walker at Volunteer Park, it is inhumane to punish a dog for having an emotional reaction. It is the equivalent of striking a person for reacting to a spider. But despite this basic behavioral principle that any qualified professional understands, leash-pops and alpha-rolls are commonly used tools when an unqualified dog walker needs to gain control. Dogs do not have the elaborate cortical brain-space of humans and using punishment as a primary tool leads to behavioral and emotional consequences. Numerous studies have found conclusive results to this effect:
“… punishment may increase fear and arousal, particularly in an already-defensive dog, and perhaps teach the dog to bite without warning (Landsberg et al., 2003)”
“Techniques such as forcing a dog down by the collar or by pushing on its neck and back-as, for example, in the ‘dominance down’-are associated with increased physiological stress (Beerda et al., 1998).”
“While it may be effective as a momentary interruption, correction or punishment alone does not selectively reinforce desirable behavior and is an inefficient way to train an animal to perform a specific behavior (Mills, 2002).” [ii]
It is absolutely imperative when looking for a dog walker to look for someone with credentials. Experience and expertise are not the same thing, so be sure you look for someone with a canine behavior certificate of some kind. There are dozens upon dozens of certifications out there, so if you see some letters behind a person’s name, it is important for you to inquire what those letters are and how they were earned. This is the only way you can weed out the enthusiasts from the professionals. Some enthusiasts are fantastic dog walkers and are just starting out on a new career, but not always. A true professional like Sharon does more than just love dogs; she always respects the dog and their individual needs, even if it’s more cumbersome for her schedule. They make sure that Fido gets the correct amount of exercise based on their age and fitness, they avoid situations that cause emotional stress, they do not punish a dog for reactive behavior, and they continue to teach or maintain proper leash skills.
It is these qualities that distinguish dog walkers from the good, from the bad, and the ugly.
[i] Milan, C. (2006) Cesar’s Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems(pp. 9). Crown Publishing Group.
[ii] Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., Reisner, I. R. (2009) Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, Applied Animal Behavior Science, 117, 47-54.