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At Lugaru K9 Training, we do a lot of what we call “real world training.”
This means that, while we definitely appreciate, respect, and practice teaching behaviors in a sterile environment, we also want to prepare our client dogs to go home ready for what they will actually experience in their day-to-day of life with their people.
We take our board-and-train dogs on “field trips,” or outings to stores and unique places, we hike with them, we take them on car rides, we bring them to the park, and we do all the regular day-in-the-life-of-dog stuff with them.
That’s “real-world training.”
But given that we’re out in the real world, and not (always) in a cozy no-distraction environment, we as handlers have to take precautions about everything that goes on in that real, real world.
Going out into the world gives dogs access to much-needed exposure, practice for learned behaviors around lots of new distractions, and allows them an energy outlet that they otherwise might not have access to.
They also get access to a lot of real-world hazards that need managing. These hazards are just the facts of life, and it takes some awareness and preparedness to secure the safest possible outing for you and your dog.
When I work on transferring this skillset to my clients during lessons, I tend to put it this way: you can’t control other people, so you have to control what you can on your end to ensure that you’re doing best by your dog. In essence, it’s “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you head out, to ensure you are prepared for the real world and are keeping yourself and your dog as safe as possible.
What Risks are Involved When Walking Your Dog?
When you go out into the real world, you get introduced to a lot of things that don’t exist in the control and safety of your home environment. Understanding what to look for in your specific “real-world” and being prepared is the best way to prevent unsavory encounters and dangerous situations for you and your dog.
There’s no way to really get past it. Sometimes, other humans just suck.
I’ve had people stare at and distract dogs I’m working. I’ve had people follow me to harass me about touching a dog I’ve already said “no” about, or to give me crap about a training tool they don’t like. I’ve experienced hostility from people over boundaries and gotten unwanted attention from people who aren’t mentally sound, and had to manage a dog in the middle of it.
A lot of the time, people are perfectly pleasant. But that smaller percentage of people who aren’t cool is still definitely something to be on the lookout for!
Be aware of who’s around you, what they’re doing, and what their body language might say about their intentions.
For more information about why I almost always decline people interacting with my training dogs, check out my article, Reasons to Not Allow Strangers to Pet Your Dog.
With the not-very-coolness of a good chunk of humans, so comes with them some not-very-coolness of their dogs.
If you’ve ever handled a reactive dog, you understand this all too well.
There are people who will take unreliable dogs off leash and let them run up on you. There’s people who allow dogs off-leash when the dog has entirely unacceptable behaviors, even really extreme ones like aggression. There’s people who will happily walk right towards you, being towed by a dog they couldn’t control if they wanted to. There’s people that think every other dog in the world exists to entertain their dog.
And because of this attitude, their dogs never learn any better.
Of course, dogs under poor supervision are one thing, but then there’s dogs that exist entirely independently of bad dog ownership.
I’ve had dogs run up on me that had just gotten loose or escaped their yard. Dogs that pulled or lunged so hard that they broke free of a leash or collar. I’ve encountered dogs out in the real world that had no supervising human in sight, and where they came from or went off to is still a mystery.
That’s the reality of it.
Further along in this article you’ll find ways to protect yourself against these kinds of things, but dangerous situations with other dogs aren’t the only thing to prepare for.
Do you have a good idea of what would happen if a dog ran up on you? Are there ways you can prepare for that to make it a better outcome for you and your dog in the end? Are there known areas where these kinds of things are likely to occur?
Consider these things before you head out, and plan ahead!
Other Animals and Wildlife
Depending on where you live, you may encounter other kinds of animals or wildlife, and should prepare accordingly.
If your dog is a cat-chaser and you know you could encounter stray cats on your walk, make extra sure that your leash tools are secure and that you’re backing them up to a second tool. This is true whether your dog loves to chase cats or has a high prey drive for squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, etc.
If you’re in an area where you could end up up-close with larger animals like horses, deer, moose, cows, etc, you’re also going to want to make sure that you not only have your dog under control but also have a means to startle off animals that get too close.
In the Pacific Northwest, we don’t typically have to worry about venomous snakes, but if you live in an area where a snake bite is a real concern to you or your dog, know where you’re likely to find snakes (or scorpions and other venomous animals) and keep an eye out for them in and around your path.
Extreme cases are wildlife like brown bears, mountain lions, bison, alligators, which may or may not be a concern depending on where you live. While most wild animals can be dangerous to some degree, certain kinds have more of a reputation for being particularly nasty with humans and domesticated animals.
Know what you could encounter based on your environment, and know what to do if you encounter them.
Urban Life and Vehicles
I’ve trained dogs on farms on the Olympic Peninsula, and I’ve trained dogs that are living the city life out in Seattle. Just as wildlife can be a hazard, so can urban life.
Cities are filled with cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and come with their own special environments like bus stops. transit stations, public parking garages, and other various forms of public transportation.
Because cities are so population-dense, dogs need to be extra reliable because so much more can happen in a smaller space.
That said, I’ve also noticed that city dogs out and about, at least in Seattle, tend to be under better control because of the expectations of co-existing with so many people. They’re not out here off-leash running up on strangers, because of the many types of hazards that come with city life.
Triggers and Distractions
This type of hazard is entirely about your specific dog and how well you can keep them under control in your current environment.
Does your dog go ballistic at the sight of another dog, or lose their cool if a human squares up and stares at them too long? Will a cat crossing your path result in your dog suddenly darting, forgetting all training in the presence of a fun and exciting game of chase? Does your happy-go-lucky dog lose sight of commands or get a little to distracted passing by the pet store?
Know where your dog currently is in their training program and what can realistically be expected of them. You don’t always have to keep them in their perfect just-under-threshold spot (though that is, of course, awesome if you can!). After all, dogs learn through new experiences, little by little.
But do understand that past your dog’s threshold, they won’t be reliable. Slightly past threshold and you might be able to turn it into a training experience. But more than that and you may be looking at managing the situation.
And since you can’t control the real world, you’ll have to do that managing in the worst-case scenario. Be prepared to do that every time you step out, just in case.
What Do I Bring With Me on a Dog Walk?
There are a lot of hazards and distractions out in the real world, and knowing what to expect is half the battle. The other half is knowing how to prepare, and what to bring with you on a walk to keep you and your dog safe.
Before I training dogs professionally years ago, I was a dog walker working part-time at an animal shelter (where I also, shocker, walked dogs). There were a handful of things I always brought with me, and still do to this day. They’re a part of my every day carry for being out and about with dogs, and they can make a great addition to the average dog owner’s arsenal as well.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. You’ll need the normal dog walking things that you basically will need to even get your dog out the door:
- A leash
- Poop bags
- Bait pouch, backpack, or small bag for small items
- Your dog
On top of your basics, I think one of the best things you can have for being safe out and about with your dog is a good pair of shoes.
I always go for something durable with steel toes. My Solovair derbies are a true worker’s shoe and could probably last me a lifetime. They’ve protected me from ankle biters and blocked off-leash dogs that dared to run up on my group while on one of our pack walks. If there were a perfect dog trainer’s shoe, I swear it would be the Solovairs.
The reason you want good shoes is because, worst case scenario, if you end up in a situation where you’re fighting off a stranger dog with your hands full, you want your feet as protected as possible.
A walking stick is an inconspicuous self-defense tool while out on the trail. While the obvious is that you could strike an aggressing person, dog, or wild animal with it, I recommend walking sticks for other reasons as well.
Poorly-handled dogs off-leash are not always aggressive, and I know that with a large stick pointed to the ground I can create a circle of space around me to keep off dogs that are being too in-your-face to a dog under my supervision. This can be done without ever touching the other dog, and is sometimes enough to buy you some time while the owner comes and finally gets their dog.
This is another defense tool that is really helpful in a number of situations because of the ways you can use it, some without ever coming into contact with another dog.
Setting off the crack on a stun gun is very loud and startling, and can easily scare off wild animals and dangerous dogs. It’s easy to do a “warning shot,” so to speak, to deter an animal from coming any closer.
In extreme cases, you can of course actually use the device to incapacitate an animal that is aggressing on you or your dog, or to get an animal off your dog.
Trying to break up a dog fight can be very dangerous to the handler, so having an option that allows you to keep some distance and stop it effectively is incredibly helpful, even if the likelihood of it happening is slim.
Similar to cracking a stun gun as a deterrent, using a designated compressed air system like a Pet Corrector or a Pet Convincer can scare off wildlife and stray dogs.
These devices work by letting out air that is completely harmless to nearby people and animals but will create a burst of air and a startling noise.
It is sometimes used in behavior modification to stop unwanted behaviors, and it is also a favorite for dog trainers to scare away off-leash dogs when telling the owner, “please get your dog,” just isn’t enough.
In any type of event out in the real world, from a person harassing you to a dog running up on your dog to a freak accident, always have a reliable means for getting assistance in the event that you need it.
Is It Safe to Take My Dog on a Walk?
Now that you have an idea of the items you want to bring with you, here are some other things to think about to help you with the timing of going out with your dog.
Is it safe, right here and now, to bring your dog out for a walk? Meaning, is the environment suitable for you to be taking your dog out in this moment?
We already talked about other humans, dogs and other animals, vehicles, dog-specific triggers, and more. Are any of those going to be predictable on your chosen walk path?
Weather can be one example of this. Right now, the Pacific Northwest is in a heatwave. I did a pavement test today for one of my board-and-train dogs and could barely hold my hand to the ground for five seconds. Not suitable for sidewalk walking.
Consider these things when getting ready to head out.
Is the pavement scorching with heat that could quickly leave your dog’s paws burned? Is the fog so thick that you can’t see potential dangers out in front of you? Is the snow piled so high you may have a hard time getting back home?
“Weather permitting” is definitely a factor when taking your dog out, and it comes in kind of a spectrum of intensity and management.
Maybe the weather is hot, but you know a grassy or dirt trail that will be easier on your dog’s paws and could get away with a short walk with some water.
Maybe it’s been snowing but you know you can break out the proper attire and still have a safe walk.
How much you decide to manage the environment and how much you bend to it will depend a lot on how prepared you are for those situations, and what is suitable to you and your dog specifically.
At this time, are there special hazards that you can anticipate? For example, do the neighborhood kids come back from school and harass you to pet your dog when they see you? Does your troublesome neighbor walk an aggressive dog they can barely hang on to at a certain time of day? Does everyone in your area get home from work at a certain time, and bring with them a flood of cars that are difficult to avoid?
Your hazards and the hours in which they’re present will be different for every person. It’s simply a matter of understanding what those things are and how to avoid them.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to consider these things. But unfortunately, they are something we can’t really control. Instead, we have to weigh them out and take whatever precautions we can for safety.