There’ve been days this long, long winter — days when the sun hadn’t been out in weeks, the wind was shrieking and the mercury read 35 but the wind chill was a bit less — that I wondered what in the world I was doing out walking my puppy all over the streets of my town.
Oona is just over seven months old now. She tops 110 pounds. When you touch her, she’s springy and taut with new muscles. She’s an Irish wolfhound, a force of nature now, and she won’t stop growing for at least another two years. Which reminded me very well why I’ve been out pounding the pavement with her. The socialization and training never stop.
It’s important to keep it up with any dog as they grow and mentally develop, but I remember my first giant hound Cuchulain, a wolfhound/deerhound mix. When he was one year old we were stepping off a porch behind one of the buildings on the college campus here and a squirrel that had been biding its time in a bush decided to make a run for it. My first big mistake was the retractable leash. Not only can they gash your hand if your dog bolts but the constant tension encouraged him to pull. They never really learn loose-leash walking when the leash is never…loose. Cuchulain was 26 feet away blurring after that squirrel while my foot was still coming down off that step when he hit the end of the leash. And I cartwheeled down the sidewalk. I saw stars. He was kind enough to come back to check on me.
My first wolfhound, Finn, at age one pulled me airborne off porches, sent me tumbling down embankments and forced me to hang onto trees and sign posts to stop him. I was still using that retractable leash. He was a huge guy, I figured. He needed plenty of leash, I told myself. And he never learned leash walking well until I ditched the thing and used a mountain of treats to condition him to walk beside me without pulling me into next week.
I’ve never had Oona on a retractable leash and never will. I started her out from day one at 13 weeks on a martingale collar and plain nylon web leash and planned to move on to a harness if necessary as she gained bulk. I walked her every day, short walks of no more than 15 minutes, then progressively longer ones as she aged and grew.
She comes from a large litter and I’m in frequent contact with several of the other puppy parents. It turns out that several of them waited until this month to try walking their “puppies” on a leash. It is (I hope) the height of our young wolfhounds’ rebellious stage. At home, Oona restlessly roams from on thing to another, mouthing this, gnawing on that, terrorizing our three other dogs. But walking on her leash… she’s Miss Well Behaved. It’s not gone so well for her siblings. They’ve pulled owners through bushes, dragged them off porches, tugged them down the street to meet other dogs. None of the owners as far as I know has resorted to using prong collars, but I know some wolfhound owners who to my dismay do. Most of Oona’s siblings are on harnesses now with chest straps to discourage pulling.
Meanwhile and I ramble around town. Oona stops at curbs, following my promptings, loads and unloads using her car ramp and even when we encounter squirrels, she doesn’t pull. She DOES get excited and she DOES get the occasional case of the zoomies while on leash. But she knows exactly where the end of that leash is and she stops instead of jerking me into the next time zone. I’m just a little proud of her.
So Oona and I are devoted daily walkers. We train while strolling. I frequently stop for cues like “Look at me,” or “sit” and reward her. She sits when meeting others walkers with dogs. We walk in quiet neighborhoods and along busy streets and she no longer startles when cars whiz past. Our bond gets stronger every day and so do her manners. And I’m assured that despite her growing bulk and notable strength that we’ll soon be able to take her anywhere we wish. Walk your dog, a little every day when they’re young and longer as they develop. I know I was surprised by the benefits from just one simple day regimen.
To learn more about canine behavior, dog training and so much more, head to Tampa, Florida on November 11-13, 2015 for the Pet Professional Guild’s inaugural educational convention, the Force-Free Summit – Reaching for a Higher Standard: https://petprofessionalguild.com/Force-Free-Summit.