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Take Your Dog for a Structured Walk

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

owners walking with their dog on a loose leash

This young Boxer is walking along nicely with his owners. No pulling on the leash or stopping to pee on trees.

A structured walk is not done as a means of exercising. It's a special leadership-building experience between you and your pup. (I recommend that he be at least 5 or 6 months old).

It's deceptively simple. Your pup simply walks beside you. Left side or right side doesn't matter, but once you've chosen a side, that's the side he should stay on for that particular walk.

  • He doesn't pull on the leash.
  • He doesn't drop his head to snuffle along the ground like a hound following a rabbit trail.
  • He doesn't stop to go to the bathroom. Before you even put on the leash to start the walk, your dog should have been allowed to relieve himself in his own yard.

tricolored dogRemember, this is not for exercise, a potty break, or a sightseeing tour. Your pup is simply going on a walk with YOU  and he should pay attention to YOU.

Don't worry, depending on how far you go, there will be a chance during the walk when he can  sniff around and eliminate. You'll give him that freedom when you come to a good spot for those activities. Once we start the structured walk, you'll see how that works.

But first, is your pup ready  for a structured walk? Let's see....

  • If you attach his leash, then stand still, does he keep the leash loose? In other words, does he hang around close enough to you that the leash doesn't get tight?
  • If you sit in a chair while he's on leash, does he still keep the leash loose?
  • If you stand up and walk in any direction, does he still keep the leash loose?

To do a structured walk, your pup needs to be able to walk on a loose leash.

If your pup is fine on the leash, great job! He might be ready for a structured walk. Just two more questions....

  • Does he sit politely (no barking, no jumping) while you attach his leash?
  • When you open the door to go outside, does he wait for your permission before going through the door?

If yes to all these questions, your pup is ready to do a structured walk.

You might be wondering why those last two questions were important. What does sitting politely and waiting for permission to go through a door have to do with going for a walk?

Only everything!

The most important part of the structured walk actually comes before  you start to walk. In fact, the structured walk begins inside  your house.

dalmatian dogIf you have trouble getting your pup to stay still while you attach the leash.... if he jumps on you... if he barks and won't stop when you tell him to... if he tries to forge through the door when you open it... he isn't ready for a structured walk.

His body isn't calm. His state of mind isn't calm. A pup with an excited body and mind indoors  will have the same excited body and mind outdoors.

These are the pups who pull on the leash, bark at other dogs, jump on people, and get distracted by everything they see and hear, instead of paying attention to YOU.

If your pup is out of control before  the walk, it will be much harder to get him under control during  the walk.

So you should get those behaviors under control before you try a structured walk. To teach calmness and Wait  at the door, and to control any barking or jumping, see my complete training program.

Let's be optimistic and assume that your pup passed the tests, you've given him the "Okay" to go through the door, and you're both ready for a structured walk!

Once you get outside with your calm  pup, give the signal for a structured walk.

pit bull puppy wearing a leash

Calm puppy waiting patiently for the walk to begin.

Outside, have him Sit  beside you. If he doesn't know Sit  yet, use a little upward pressure on the leash and downward pressure on his hindquarters to guide him into a Sit.

Right side or left side doesn't matter, but once a side is chosen, that's the side he should stay on for that particular walk.

Ready to go? Say, "Jake, heel" (or "Jake, close")

Which word to use? If you might do obedience competition with your pup in the future, use "Close" (as in "Stay close") for your structured walk. "Heel" is typically used in competitive events to mean a very precise type of walking. If competition isn't your thing, pick either word.

"Sit" and then "Heel" (or "Close") will be the signals to your pup that you're going on a structured walk.

white shepherd walking nicelyDuring the structured walk

Remember, a structured walk is not meant for exercising or pottying – it's a focused leadership-building experience between you and your pup.

So, first and foremost, you and your pup should be together.  He shouldn't be pulling or walking ahead of you, looking at everything but you. The relationship you want to build is one in which you are the leader and your pup is the follower.

If he tries to forge ahead, don't forget the Opposite-Direction  technique! It's one of the best ways to teach a dog to stay close.

dog walking with owner on loose leash

This is how your dog walks with YOU, rather than charging ahead to "more important" things.

Besides staying pretty close to your leg, your pup should keep his head up. No sniffing the ground, which is just one step removed from eating things off the ground. Stay alert. Scan the ground ahead for bits of trash and be ready to correct sniffing.

Your pup shouldn't be looking for places to eliminate. Dogs who want to pee against every vertical object often become obsessed with "marking their territory".

Try to choose a route that doesn't offer tempting places to eliminate. Or walk in the street, if it's safe. If your pup suddenly eliminates anyway.... oh well.

Your puppy should walk quietly. He shouldn't bark or lunge at passersby or other dogs.

Break time!

Plan a route that includes a safe "potty break" place. Here you can say the magic release word: "Okay!"

This means your pup is free to romp about a bit, sniff the ground, find a place to pee, etc. If the area is large enough, you might be able to replace the leash with a 15- to 30-foot leash or cord so the puppy has more space to stretch his legs.

Bring along a ball or toy so you can interact with your pup. Make yourself interesting, make yourself a source of fun and play, as well as a source of guidance and direction. Then your pup will gravitate to you as someone he both trusts and enjoys being with.

JRT sitting on a loose leashThe break needn't be very long. Five or ten minutes is fine. Then get your pup sitting beside you with a loose leash. Say, "Heel" or "Close" and continue with the structured walk back to your house.

You might be wondering, "Can I sometimes take my puppy for a non-structured walk? Where he can wander around on the leash, sniff the ground, and pee when he wants to?"

My answer is "Maybe."

  • For puppies under 4 months old, I don't do structured walks. In fact, I don't walk puppies off their own property at this age. Until vaccinations are complete, we practice general loose leash walking in our own yard.
  • For puppies over 4 months old, we do some structured walks, and some non-structured walks where I simply say, "Let's go" and start walking without having the pup start out in a Sit (remember, that's one of the signals of a structured walk).

    On these walks, I do allow moderate sniffing and reasonable bathroom breaks, but no pulling whatsoever. That should always be a no-no... unless you're sitting on a sled and your Husky pup is all harnessed up for towing you across the snowy plains.

  • If you have an older pup or adolescent, and he has behavior issues, structured walks are a must for developing and reinforcing your leader-follower relationship. Until those behavior issues stop, a structured walk is the only  kind of walk you should take with this pup.

My book covertraining program is for puppies 2 to 18 months old. It explains, step by step:

  • How to establish good patterns and routines that govern everything your pup does.
  • How to teach your pup to be calm and to look to you for guidance, direction, and permission.
  • How to make yourself important – the most important thing – in your puppy’s life. How to show your pup the clear, black-and-white rules and routines he is to follow. And how to make sure he does.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

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If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
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book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.