By Jenny Persing, organizer Seattle WalkABulls
As a dog walker and the guardian of a dog-reactive and occasionally human-reactive dog, I deeply understand the frustration and embarrassment that comes with daily life in public with our anxious or fearful furry friends. Working daily with dogs has given me experience with mitigating reactive behavior during walks and redirecting the dogs attention to get more acceptable public behavior, but until I had my own “whirlwind at the end of the leash”, I didn’t really understand the emotional anguish that a dogs reactive behavior causes for the human members of the pack.
You desperately want to be able to be out having fun with your dog, doing exciting stuff like going to the off-leash dog run and visiting busy city parks and events - taking them everywhere you go! It takes a bit of time to see that for sensitive, traumatized or anxious pups, some of these environments are WAY too stimulating, unpredictable and downright scary. Dogs rushing at them, people reaching for them, loud noises, distracting smells. They react, not because they are “bad dogs” or you’ve failed them in your training somehow, but because they are afraid and overwhelmed. You realize that you need to adjust your expectations of them and protect them from situations that cause them to lose control. You need to find ways to be out in the world, socializing and having a good time, without so much intensity.
When I discovered Seattle WalkABulls, I’d never heard of group walks before, but the concept made a lot of sense. The rules were that the dogs in attendance were not to have contact with each other, we’d walk in a line giving each other plenty of space, and if our dog freaked out and couldn’t regain control, we could either drop back, or drop out and try again next time. The idea is that since dogs are pack animals, they understand the group dynamic and work to be a part of it somehow. Because of the structured nature of the walks, the dogs would know what is expected of them and their stress levels around other dogs would lower in time. Also they’d have the chance to take their cue from the other dogs about how to behave, which is why having neutral, calm dogs on the walks also is incredibly helpful.
I signed up for a walk and immediately started worrying that my dog would be “the worst one there”, lunging and barking at everyone and making a scene like she sometimes did on our neighborhood walks. Admittedly, the first few minutes were challenging. We met up in a field, giving ourselves lots of space, and introduced ourselves and our dogs, mentioning what we might be working on behavior-wise during our walk. Some of the dogs found this few minutes of waiting tough, but once we started moving, something magical happened and they all just seemed to fall into line. My dog had absolutely no problem understanding what we were doing and after our first walk, only very rarely reacted to another dog in the group. As a matter of fact, after a few months of walks she started to function as one of our neutral dogs, and could take a place in the lineup as a buffer between more amped pups.
I noticed a difference in her public behavior after only a few walks. She did less barking and lunging at other dogs on our neighborhood forays. She seemed a bit more confident with both dogs and people, and even seemed to want to walk with some of them, lining up behind random dogs at the park like she was on a WalkABulls walk! It took time, but she became much calmer and happier out in the world and I was able to include her on more varied activities in public without as much fear for either of us. I’ve always needed to manage her contact with other dogs, and she’ll never be as relaxed around them as I would like, but we’ve both made incredible progress and I think the group walks had everything to do with that. I’m such a convert that I started to help organize walks for Seattle WalkABulls along with a few other members and we’ve been going for about 7 years now!
The benefits are many, and here’s why I think that structured group walks work so well. First, the structure itself makes for a safe environment for our dogs to learn in, both from us and the other dogs. It’s non-confrontational, so they can let down their guard a little bit and just enjoy the company of other dogs. They sniff what the other dogs sniff and engage in social behavior that makes them feel normal. They know what to expect and know that it’s less likely for challenges to come flying out at them from left field on these walks. They learn to trust us as companions when they’re not in such a fearful place. They can relax and be a good influence on each other. And there are SO. MANY. TREATS!
And it’s not just the dogs that benefit from group walks! These walks create an incredibly supportive community of people who help each other overcome their challenges with their dogs. It was HUGE for me to be around other people who knew what I was going through with my dog, and could recommend things, and didn’t judge when we sometimes lost our composure. There is a wealth of dog knowledge and compassion in this community - it is an amazing resource for any dog owner, reactive or otherwise. I’ve formed some of my closest friendships on these walks. The structure may not be for everybody, and everyone has their unique approach to managing their dogs behavior, but if you are struggling with reactivity and want help, I highly recommend trying out a group walk to see if your dog could benefit from it.
If you’re in the Seattle area and want to try a group walk, check out Seattle WalkABulls: https://www.meetup.com/seattlewalkabulls/. We meet approximately every other weekend for a walk of about 1.5 hours with a rest break in the middle. You will need to attend your first walk without your dog so you can see how the group operates and give us a helping hand with managing the group along our route. We use a variety of pre-scouted routes around the city, all with plenty of room to maneuver, good sight lines, and a place to stop to rest. You’re always welcome to send us a message at the Meetup page with any questions or requests that you might have, or to request addition to our membership. Every type, breed and temperament of dog is welcome to join. We can’t wait to see you on a walk!
A dog walker since 2000 and a pet photographer since 2006, Jenny has joyfully based her professional and personal life around Seattle's pets. She is an organizer for social dog walking group Seattle WalkABulls and donates photographic services via Raindog Photography to the Seattle Animal Shelter and various other pet rescues. In her free time she enjoys climbing, kayaking, hiking, reading and spending time with friends, her husband Scott and dog, Rain.