Why do dogs walk in front of you? It’s one of those things dogs do that sometimes make dog owners resent walking their dogs: their dog walks in front of them, possibly pulling and dragging them across the road as if they were late for some important appointment. What makes dogs walk in such a hurry? Understanding why dogs walk in front of people in the first place can provide several important hints that will become valuable in teaching dogs the basics of loose-leash walking.
Not Dominance Related
In the past, it was common notion that dogs who were walking ahead of their owners were attempting to assert “dominance” and take charge of the walk.
According to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, rather than dominance, what we are mostly dealing with is “a lack of clear interspecies communication that leads to behaviors we find troubling.”
Fortunately, today with a better understanding of the many mechanisms and subtleties behind many dog behaviors, we can provide totally different explanations for a dog’s walking in front behavior.
A Matter of Pace
Let’s face it, dogs have a faster pace than us humans. Dogs are digitigrades, which means that they walk on the equivalent of human toes; whereas, humans are plantigrades, which means we walk with the soles of our feet and use our toes to help us balance ourselves on our legs.
Digitigrades have the advantage of being able to attain faster speeds compared to us plantigrades, explains Theresa A Fuess, a veterinarian working for Veterinarian at Lakehills Animal Health. It therefore comes natural to dogs to walk faster than us, what’s unnatural is getting them to adjust their pace to ours.
Power of Unconditioned Reinforcers
On top of walking faster than us, one should also consider the effect of unconditioned reinforcers. Also known as primary reinforcers, unconditioned reinforcers are things dogs are drawn to biologically and that do not involve learning.
Dogs for instance, are naturally drawn to food, air, water, and likely, positive social interactions. It’s therefore normal for a dog to want to go sniff a bush, go meet another dog or person or rush towards a hamburger wrapper on the road.
Because reinforcers increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated in the future, granted, dogs will want to continue to rush and pull next time they encounter stimuli they’re naturally drawn to.
It’s therefore normal for a dog to want to reach these stimuli he’s biologically driven to, what’s unnatural is wanting them to stay glued to our side and ignore all these stimuli.
An Overload of Energy
Add to all the above the fact that a great amount of dogs today are under stimulated and under exercised and you have the perfect recipe for a dog who can’t wait to go on walks and get rid of all that pent-up energy.
For many dogs who spend the majority of the day home alone, the walk is biggest perk of the day, besides meal time. It’s therefore natural for them to be enthusiastic about it.
With a powerful sniffer that is millions of times better than ours, it’s no surprise they want to enthusiastically meet and greet the world with its big stimulus package. Again this is all natural, innate behavior, what’s unnatural is us holding them back.
Many Life Changes
Our modern lifestyles have caused drastic changes to the way dogs are expected to behave. Dogs must now wear collars and leashes to abide to leash laws and to ensure their safety and the safety of others.
We also expect dogs to walk at our pace and ignore all the package of stimuli they’re naturally drawn to. On top of that, dogs who were once working in the fields for a good part of the day, hunting, herding, flushing and retrieving, now spend their days confined at home with little to do.
Changing natural dog behaviors requires a whole lot of learning, which is what we call training. Training a dog to stay glued to our sides requires quite a level of constraint and impulse control. Sometimes, we need to think from our dog’s perspective.
As Patricia McConnell states in her book In The Other End of the Leash, walking politely beside a human must be from a dog’s perspective something in the terms of “walking at the speed of death and ignoring everything interesting.” So why do dogs walk ahead of us and pull? Most likely because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn otherwise and who can blame them?
Take the Positive Path
Reinforcing the dog heavily for being next to us can help dogs learn that they can gain reinforcement from us versus gaining it from other stimuli. Start in a low-distraction environment and then build up the levels of distractions gradually.
If your dog manages to get ahead of you and pull, stop in your tracks and encourage your dog back into heel position and resume walking or you can turn the opposite way. Kikopup offers a nice video on this exercise.
Imagine that a tense leash is your break and a loose leash is your accelerator. After several reps, most dogs get the point and will be happy to learn the new ropes of loose leash walking.
Choose the Right Equipment
To train your dog to walk on a leash choose the right equipment. Skip the prong collar, the choke collar and the shock collar. You do not want your dog to get hurt or become fearful for doing something as natural as trying to sniff something. And retractable leashes encourage pulling as dogs are reinforced with more length.
Instead, invest in a front-attachment harness like the Sensation harness, Freedom harness or Walk-your-dog-with-love harness. When teaching loose-leash walking using positive methods, the process becomes a relationship-building experience, points out dog trainer and author Nicole Wilde. A win-win situation for all!
Did you know? Walking with a dog versus waking with a human provides more benefits. According to research conducted by the University of Missouri , the walking speed among people walking dogs increased by 28 percent, compared to a mere increase of 4 percent among those walking with another human.