“Dogs have been following humans for a very long time” is something I often say during my coaching sessions. I want the dog owners to see the walk not as a “trick” that their dog needs to be trained to do, but a natural behavior that, in a sense, doesn’t need to be taught. Following a leader is a primal behavior just like barking when a stranger arrives at the door (alerting the pack to a possible threat) or displaying submissive behavior when approaching an unfamiliar pack (head low, ears back, tail down, allowing others to sniff first). The only thing that we need to do is provide the structure that allows our dogs to fall into this primal behavior, which I like to call “travel mode”. I wrote about this concept a while back in my “Dogs are Born Perfect” post, but I’d like to break it down a little further specifically as it relates to the leashed walk here.
Most humans have fallen into “travel mode” themselves. Have you ever gone for a long run and at some point realized that you’d been tuned out for the last ten minutes and completely forgot that you were running? It’s not that you weren’t aware of what was going on around you, just that you were only passively engaged in your activity. This is our goal with our dogs when we take them on a leashed walk.
I’ve been lucky enough to witness groups of dogs traveling in this manner over thousands of miles during my sled dog years, and learned that this “travel mode” is an incredibly fulfilling experience that most domestic dogs never get to have. When sled dogs are traveling long distances, it’s to their benefit to zone out and save energy. Not only that, but they are on a mission, they don’t WANT to do anything other than pull the sled and are annoyed by anything that disrupts that. For those who don’t know, sled dogs LOVE to pull a sled. You can run a well conditioned team for fifty miles and if you stop the sled, after about thirty seconds of eating snow and rolling around to cool off, they will start barking and lunging in their harnesses, trying to get the sled moving again. Once they begin to move again, they are satisfied: their heads are down, their ears are back, and they trot along. If a moose jumps out of the trees, they’ll react, but they are not actively searching for moose in the manner that many domestic dogs see their walks as an active hunt for squirrels, cats or other dogs. One of the things that bumps me most about movies with sled dogs in them, is that the dogs always seem to be barking while running. This almost never happens! Almost all of the time spent traveling with a dog team is totally silent, only the the panting of the dogs and the sound of the sled runners on the snow; the dogs are passively traveling.
Sled dogs are a great example of dogs falling into a passive, following state naturally, but it’s not only proper working dogs that exhibit this. Our current dogs’ not so distant ancestors lived a more primal life that allowed them to be a more natural version of themselves as well. It wasn’t long ago that they were trotting along side a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail exhibiting a perfect following state or passively accompanying a group of farmers as they worked in the field. These predecessors of our modern dogs didn’t have leashes, and may or may not have had names (often dogs had different names given to them by different people, usually more descriptive than the names we choose for our modern pets). They slept outside among the other animals and were not offended by this. Their owners didn’t hire a dog trainer to come to the house and teach them to walk their dog on leash properly, the dogs just did it due to a healthier lifestyle. There is little I love more than spotting these dogs in historic photos or even in modern photos of tribal people today.
Most of us live a different lifestyle now, but that doesn’t mean that our dogs have to, too. Our dogs can still live primal lives regardless of how small our apartments or how dense our cities. Giving our dogs at least an hour (two if possible) of primal following per day, is a great step in the right direction.
It’s important to know our goal before we begin to work with a dog. The vision we’re going for with the leashed walk is not that of a show dog, or a dog that has been through a lot of training, but a dog that looks like our modern dogs’ ancestors, traveling the way that they have for as long as dogs and humans have been living together. As I state during my coaching sessions, the walk is serious business. Our eyes are looking forward at the path ahead, confidently assessing any potential risk, charting our course, as our ancestors’ eyes would gaze toward the horizon in their direction of travel. Our dogs are and always have been our reliable side-kicks. We are their protectors and they are ours. They don’t want to be “trained” into walking properly on a leash, they are not circus animals, they want to be part of our mission, whether that’s long distance travel across the Great Plains or the far north, or a morning walk around the suburbs.