Walking the dog has to be one of life’s greatest simple pleasures for both dog and owner. Sure, the die-hards walk their dogs all winter but let’s face it—it’s a lot easier to head out for a stroll once the temperature cracks 50 degrees. Aside from enjoying the warmer weather, you and your pooch can get a little exercise, explore new
neighborhoods and meet others from your own species. Still, while its simplicity may be its biggest draw, a walk isn’t something that should be taken lightly. Before you hit the streets, you need to make sure you and your dog have a basic understanding of dog-walking etiquette before you grab that leash.

Here are a few things that you should keep in mind as dog-walking season begins:

  • Don’t make assumptions about other dogs: Is there any phrase more annoying to the dog-walker than “Oh, don’t worry, he loves other dogs,” which is usually offered about 10 seconds before the unknown canine lunges at your obviously uncomfortable puppy? Probably not. If you feel like your dog isn’t ready to socialize, too old to make new friends or in a particularly cantankerous mood, you have every right to say so. If a dog infringes on your dog’s space in an overly aggressive manner, pull your dog’s leash in tight and let the other dog’s owner know that your dog isn’t in the meet-and- greet mood. Again, you wouldn’t let the neighborhood bully get in your toddler’s face and start pushing him around. He just wants to go down the slide, so don’t let an aggressive dog ruin your day. You can be polite and firm at the same time and if the other owner takes offense and stomps away, well, that’s one less obstacle for your park-loving pooch to get around. 

And it’s proper canine etiquette to let your dog—for lack of a better phrase—sniffbutts. That’s how he or she gets to know other dogs. But if the initial meeting isn’t going well, pull back. Leash aggression is real: Dogs who are on leashes know that their movement is limited so they may be uncomfortable when an unfamiliar dog comes running at them. Once the owner starts pulling on the leash, they react accordingly, knowing that you’re upset. Now, they want to protect you so in many cases, the situation only escalates.

Of course, the flipside to this is that you have to make sure you give other dog owners the same respect. Yes, your dog may be the sweetest Golden Retriever ever but that doesn’t mean he won’t find a reason to snap at the Labradoodle who was perfectly content smelling that fire hydrant before your dog came along.

  • Trust your—and your dog’s—instincts: Is the hair on her neck standing up? Is he entering his low-growl mode? You know your dog better than anyone so react to his or her outward signs of annoyance. As stated previously, don’t dismiss your dog’s instinct to protect you, even the smallest breed. In your Pomeranian’s mind, that Irish Setter zipping across the park is likely headed straight for you. Of course she’s going to be aggressive toward an unwelcome guest. It’s in her nature. And it’s one of the many things about her that you love.
  • Leash your dog: It’s so easy and obvious yet so overlooked. There are numerous places you can let your dog roam freely—the forest preserve, the beach—but the sidewalk on your block or the path through the park aren’t the place for a free- walking dog. Yes, it’s impressive that you can walk 50 feet behind your German Shepherd but it won’t look so admirable if he takes off running after a rabbit, squirrel, leashed dog or the kid playing right field in diamond 3. Why set yourself up for unnecessary conflicts with neighbors, costly legal battles over injuries or the guilt of causing moments of sheer of terror to a child? Put your dog on a leash. It’s an easy solution. And choose your leash wisely. While extendable leashes seem like a great way to give your dog extra freedom, they provide little connection to the owner. It’s hard to pull back a suddenly-lunging dog if your 20 feet away. A nine-foot leash is best. You can control your dog and she still feels the exhilaration of independence. And teach your dog to heel. He should walk alongside you with his shoulders at your legs. You can work on this in your yard or by walking up and down the block. It’s a lesson that will pay off in immeasurable ways through the years.

Dog-walking seems like a simple endeavor but what seems obvious to some isn’t always so obvious to others. Bottom line? Teach your dog to behave, read any outward signs of her discomfort and be cognizant of the temperment of other dogs. Your dog will be safe, you’ll be relaxed and that walk in the park will be just that: a walk in the park.

Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners. 

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