Aha! Moments – 3 Lessons That Made Me a Better Dog Walker

Have you ever had an Aha! moment on a walk? Where you suddenly understand something new about walking with your dog and things click into place?

I’ve had three. And they’ve made my relationship with Honey even stronger.

Have you had any of these Aha! moments on a dog walk?

Honey the golden retriever walks nicely on leash.

I’ve got you well-trained. You always remember to fill the treat pouch before a walk.

Your Dog Doesn’t Have To Walk By Your Side

My first dog, Christie, pulled so hard she gagged. People from blocks around wondered why we were killing our dog.

While walking Shadow, my next dog, my hands often bled from pulling back against her.

Starting off with Honey as a puppy, I insisted she walk right by my side. After all, isn’t that what golden retrievers do?

I didn’t realize how unfair I was being to Honey until I read the words of a trainer I don’t recall right now. That trainer wrote that it didn’t matter if your dog walked ahead of you, behind you, or right by your side. The important thing was that the two of you were walking together. And that one friend wasn’t pulling other one down the street.


Life got so much easier then.

I learned to walk with my dog instead of being a bossypants who insisted she stay by my side in a lock step.

When it is important for Honey to walk by my side, like when we pass people on a crowded sidewalk, I say, “With me.” And she plasters herself by my knee until I give her release cue, “Go sniff.”

Honey the golden retriever waits with her leash dangling.

Don’t get too far away from me, woman. I worry that you’ll just wander off if you’re not attached to my leash.

Teaching Honey to walk by my side became much easier once she realized I didn’t expect her to do it all the time.

And being more relaxed about where Honey walked in relation to me paired with two other Aha! moments made walks more fun.

Be More Interesting Than Anything Else

I’m rather dull. But not where Honey is concerned. She finds me fascinating.

For this Aha! moment, I thank Victoria Schade who wrote Bonding with Your Dog: A Trainer’s Secrets for Building a Better Relationship (affiliate), one of my favorite training books.

Schade wrote that if you want your dog to pay attention to you on a walk you have to be more interesting than other dogs, squirrels, stinky urine spots, and anything else that catches your dog’s nose.


Now I’m full of surprises on a walk.

Honey the golden retriever puts her paws on a log.

Okay, my paws are up? Where’s my treat?

I always carry treats. I’ll stuff a ball or tug toy in my pocket. I stop every so often to train a trick, like having Honey circle through my legs or put her front paws up on a tree. Sometimes I’ll pick up a pine cone or stick for a quick game. Or drop her leash while she’s sniffing and hide behind a tree until she comes looking for me.

Admittedly, this is more challenging with a nose-oriented hound than with a people-oriented retriever. But it was the key to stopping Shadow from dragging me down the street. And it keeps Honey wondering what I could possibly do next.

My final Aha! moment is one that most dog walkers never learn.

If Your Dog Pulls, Walk Faster

This was a slap-yourself-in-the-head-and-say “Duh” moment, actually.

Humans get frustrated walking with someone at an uncomfortable pace. Why should dogs be any different?

Whenever I visit New York City, I feel relieved. Finally, I’m surrounded by people who walk as fast as I do.

I can only imagine how much better Honey feels when I stop dawdling and match her level of excitement on a walk.

Some trainers insist your dog always match your pace. If you’re disabled and they’re a service dog, this is common sense.

But if you’re two friends out for a walk, why should only one of you get to set the pace?

Honey the golden retriever plays at the playground.

Keep up, woman. I beat you to the top.

This Aha! moment came to my on my porch where I see dozens of people walking with their dogs every day. I remember watching one woman continually jerking her dog’s leash to keep him from pulling too far ahead of her. But the dog wasn’t an insane puller. He just wanted to walk a little faster than she, talking on her cell phone, felt comfortable.

I kept wondering if she picked up the pace if he’d stop pulling.

And then I tried it with Honey. On a day when the warm breeze got her particularly excited, I just picked up my pace. I’d swear she looked over at me gratefully.

Now we take turns setting the pace. Sometimes she meanders with me. Other times I trot from scent to scent with her. And sometimes we start to run. Just because it’s fun and feels good.

Aha! Moments About The Relationship

Fear-mongering trainers warn us that if we let our dogs make independent decisions we’ll end up in a Planet of the Dogs dystopia where they run the world and the Statue of Liberty ends up half-buried on the beach.

It isn’t true.

Dogs want to have relationships with us. We want relationships with them. And relationships go both ways.

Each of the Aha! moments I’ve had about walking with dogs are about remembering we’re walking together, as friends. Friends of different species. Friends who don’t always want the same things. Friends who don’t always understand each other. But isn’t that true of most friendships (except the different species thing)?

And walking with a friend is a great way to build your relationship. At least if you pay attention to those Aha! moments to lead you in the right direction.

Honey the golden retriever waits for a ball.

This is the best part of the walk. Waiting for you to toss that ball you hid in your pocket.

Ramp Up Your Relationship – Win a Solvit Pet Ramp

It’s not too late to enter our giveaway for an XL Telescoping Dog Ramp. Don’t let your dog’s inability to jump into the car (or boat) get in the way of your relationship. Enter the giveaway today.

Your Turn: Can you think of a time an Aha! moment helped you do something better with your dog?

(Disclosure: A link in this post takes you to Amazon. If you buy something after following that link, I will earn a few cents. Thanks for supporting Something Wagging.)



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  1. I can’t remember where I read it, but in an article somewhere I read that the thing dogs want most is the freedom to choose. So much of their lives is spent at our convenience. They go out when we are ready, they eat dinner when we put it down, they sleep where we allow it and so on….So when I am out for a walk, I try to let my guys have as much freedom as is safely possible. They walk and sniff at their own pace, so often I am either standing in one spot for a long time, or racing after a squirrel faster than I really care to go, and if I’m really lucky, they go at a nice moderate pace for several blocks without stopping. Sometimes it even means we don’t go more than a block when it is a hot summer day and all they want is to be back in the A/C.

  2. Ariella says:

    In many ways, Bailey is true to her retriever genes, but hanging out near me on a walk is not one of them. She wants to sniff everything. I’ve tried to be more interesting, but it hasn’t really helped. The one thing that keeps her from putting her nose to the ground is jogging. When we jog, she’s right by my side. When she does catch a whiff of something, it’s easier to call her away from it. I can tell she’s having a lot more fun when we pick up the pace (not that it’s a very fast pace).

    • When I run (or jog–I’m no speed demon myself) with Honey, it feels good. So many people miss out on the joy of running we had when we were kids.

      Good thing you have Bailey (and I have Honey) to remind us.

  3. Torrey has finally gotten over pulling so hard. I do let her walk in front, on or off leash, and she is happy about that. She will “heal” if told to, and “stop” when I tell her. She loves walking with me because i walk really fast, but the hubby frustrates her I think.

  4. It’s true, on days when I am in the mood to train, Donna immediately becomes more attentive versus those days when we just meander about mindlessly.

    • It’s amazing how many dogs just light up at the thought of training. Somehow I don’t recall having the same reaction when I was studying for exams in college. But maybe if I had had a dog… :)

  5. I noticed the same things when walking my dogs…I couldn’t figure out why trainers always insisted the dog didn’t get to sniff around…and yet, were supposed to walk them because the world of smells for them is like a movie for us…exciting, fun! How’d you like a movie if you got hauled thru the movie theater from entry to exit without getting to sit down and actually watch the movie?

    • Trainers who don’t let dogs sniff on walks are trainers who don’t like dogs very much.

      • Wow, my thoughts exactly! It’s hard to view trainers dispassionately, because they have the aura of professionals….but…actually, I believe there are trainers who are in it for the power trip, failing to desire to enter into a relationship with a sentient being, not an object.

  6. Walking a Poodle is like dragging an empty leash. It’s in the genes to make people look good while walking. But I had an Aha moment when I realized I was not giving her a chance to catch up on the neighborhood news and as Ann said I was pulling her through the movie without giving her a chance to be entertained. From then on we took turns setting the pace. When it is her turn, I see things I would never have noticed going at my pace. If humans could get the pleasure of the heightened sense of smell that dogs have, we would have very different kinds of dog walking.

    • Sometimes I actually try to catch some of the scents Honey notices. Although humans pick up fewer scents, we could probably do more if we just tried.

      BTW, I’m definitely considering a poodle the next time around. I’ve never had a dog that made me look good just by walking beside her. :)

  7. My only rule with Silas is that he isn’t hauling me, and even that I’ll allow in the right circumstances. Sometimes this means I make him slow down, sometimes it means I speed up. We’ve mostly met in the middle these days. He will always and forever walk out in front, though. He knows how to heel and he’s pretty good at it, but it’s a trick to him, not a lifestyle choice.

  8. We have a similar consideration for Moses (not necessarily an ah-ha moment, I wouldn’t say), but, for him, rather than pull, he drags, so we slow down to match his pace. Or, I do when I’m just walking him alone. If Alma’s with us, she requires a faster pace, so we compromise somewhere in the middle (to Moses’ dismay).

    But I find there’s a big difference between “taking the dog for a walk” and “going for a walk with your dog”. I didn’t realise that until after transitioning from the former to the latter after lots of dedicating training.

    • I find very few people “go for a walk with their dogs.” But you make a find distinction. One is a chore and one is time spent with a friend.

      BTW, have you ever considered getting Moses a cart that Alma could pull? Then they’d both get what they want. :)

  9. Jack is a wonderful walker. He wasn’t but just a few days of the ‘go in the opposite direction’ trick worked wonders with him. Now he’ll go off and sniff if given the allowance, but usually just walks right next to me. Maggie is our challenge. She loves to be off on her own so I give her some leeway, but she’s stubborn and likes to go in the direction she wants to go in.

    • I tried the “go in the opposite direction” trick with Shadow but she pulled so quickly I ended up walking in circles. Once I got so dizzy I slipped and fell on the ice.

      Maybe it’s a technique that works better with California dogs. :)

  10. YES! That first one was a lightbulb moment for me with Cooper. Once I realized that he would walk on a nice, loose leash if he walked a couple feet in front of me… our daily battles, er, walk because much more pleasant. Somehow that idea that there’s a “right” way to walk gets ingrained, so any fluctuation feels like a failure. But you’re so right: better walks mean a better bond, even if he’s a couple feet in front of me!

    • Cooper was probably so relieved when the light bulb went off for you. Dogs must think we’re so dense sometimes.

  11. I’ve learned many of these same lessons in walking with Blueberry. When she first started picking up her pace I fought it but it just stressed me out and frustrated her. So I figured, “Hey, I could use the cardio” and we walked at a faster pace, almost a near jog and it turned out to be fun and a good way to get those endorphins flowing for both of us!

    Blueberry gets a lot of leeway from me on our hikes with the 20 foot training leash (don’t worry, not a flexi) and I love that she’ll let me stop every now and again to take pictures or check out something I find fascinating and I do the same for her when she wants to stop to stare down a bunny/coyote/deer/jackrabbit/etc. She knows to slow down when hikers are coming up so I can reel in her leash as a courtesy to others and she knows once we pass them I will let her walk ahead again. About the only time she lets me lead the hike is when she is unsure of a new trail – and then she’ll follow close on my heels. It’s a beautiful thing to be that in sync with a dog. :)

    • You used just the phrase that came to mind reading your comment: “in sync.” It’s almost like a dance, isn’t it?

      And Blueberry must be thankful that you get it.

  12. Yep, I relate to your first and last points especially!! Especially since my dogs are trained to heel for rally – that’s not something I expect them to do the whole time on a walk… it’s boring. So I have a cue that indicates to actually do a heads up heel and I’ll use it, like you said, when walking close by people or other dogs, but generally on a walk I let them bop around and sniff and do whatever.

    And yes – the walk faster thing is such a good point! I get cranky when people are walking slowly in front of me so why wouldn’t my dog? I find if I can get going fast enough that the dog can trot instead of pace, that’s when we really get in “sync” and have a nice peaceful walk. I know some shelters encourage runners to exercise their high energy dogs that pull a lot because they don’t tend to pull when they’re running!

    • One of my neighbors runs his pibble while on his skate board or bike. The dog looks so happy to be running.

      Some dogs apparently have a need for speed. :)

      You’re so right that heeling is a specialized skill and one that doesn’t have to happen on every walk.

  13. I’m loving your first aha moment! Mom likes us to be obedient, to a degree, but she really likes us to have lots of freedom and that makes obedience hard. Mom has been working so hard with Bailie on heel, but last week she decided to give her more leash and not ask her to walk in a heel, and things are going so much better. As for being more interesting, that is a real challenge with us hounds, Bailie more so than me. It is all in learning to work together and being a team. I don’t think Mom could walk faster, though. When she runs with Bailie, Bailie is always by her side, thus the proof that speed could be key.

    • I learned from my dog Shadow that walking with a sniffy dog is a whole different matter. It sounds like your mom is working hard to figure out how to make walks fun for you and Bailie while not letting you run crazy following your noses.

      Bailie is pretty young. She hasn’t learned all your advanced, big-sister skills yet.

  14. I read somewhere that a walk to a dog is like reading the morning newspaper. Some sections you race through and others you read each page front and back. That article was what snapped me out of the rigid “how to” walk your dog suggestions. I run with them, or wait until Harley has sniffed out ALL the latest gossip from the stop sign pole. The walk is for them, and all about them. Once I figured that out and said “A-HA” walks have been so relaxing and fun for all. Thanks for the post – made me smile, again…

    • I like the newspaper analogy. But I’m one of those oldsters who still reads newspapers. :)

      I call sniffy walks checking the p-mail. Some things you quickly check out while others you open and read all the way through.

      BTW, don’t you wish you could learn everything about the dogs who went before you on a walk that your doodles do just by using their nose? It must be fascinating.

  15. A trainer long ago gave up on me making my hounds heel. They sniff, it’s their job – and the walks were/are for them, so they walk their way and I try to keep up, go ahead, jog, but always aware that when a Beagle or Coonhound or Bloodhound stops to sniff, they turn into the weight of an anvil, nose busy. I do ask for “no pulling” by changing directions with new dogs till they “get it.” With the Bloodhounds and now a Pointer, watching them scent differently from the Beagles is fun. Several volunteers come at varying times to walk dogs which is always good for them. My Justus sits to “halt!” spoken in German. I taught him from his puppyhood on so he would sit before we crossed a road or street or when a car came. I LOVE the idea of mixing it up for our dogs on walks; good for their attention and brains as well as exercise – and for us, too!

  16. Another brilliant post and it’s so true. I am now very careful of ensuring walks are key times for bonding and working on the relationship. I walk along chatting to them, let them stop to sniff what they want to sniff. It’s their walk after all!

  17. Laura Hess says:

    One of my aha moments was when I discovered that you have to trust your dog! And to trust them you have to let them have the choice- within reason. We have a big non-fenced backyard which is so much fun to run in, but I was so worried about Kissy going into the front yard where there are cars. It took some trial and error, but now she knows the boundaries. Yea!

  18. I really love these! The first one about letting have a little leeway is great with Maya and Pierson because they love walks more than anything. It is no fun to walk if you’re hampered by all these rules. And it’s no picnic for me either. I should try the second one about keeping the walk more interesting. I generally carry treats with me, but stopping to do tricks once in a while sounds like fun. The third one is one that I’ve used often. When I was trying to make Maya heel, I noticed how hard she tried to keep my pace. But it was difficult. I’ve learned to walk faster and are walks are more enjoyable, not to mention that I get better exercise when I walk faster.

  19. Something I learned from you was letting my dogs choose the walk. Of course there are days that I do guide them in a certain direction, but most days they set off with their own idea of where the walk will go. It is a good thing for me, someone who is usually in control, to let someone else make that decision.

    I will have to remember to do something fun on our walk tonight. Delilah will be up for learning a trick. :-)

  20. I love your article. I have to admit I’m still having a very hard time being more interesting than squirrels, though 😉

  21. This really hit home for me. My dog adores me but if it isn’t in his best interest he pays no attention to me. We compete in obedience. He will dance on the head of a pin for our trainer. For me, IF he is so inclined, he may consider a recall. If I ask him twice. I bought the book you suggested. If you have any other ideas I would love to hear them. Oh, I was the one who commented that you have your dog on a no pull harness. I notice these things because I’ve bought & tried every tool known to mankind to walk my dog. Don’t laugh – he’s a miniature schnauzer. He’s the one pulling me down the street, screaming at kids and cats and squirrels. Literally screaming. I walk him on a prong now. Best regards, Helen

    • Some dogs are certainly harder to harder to keep interested in you on a walk. Sounds like you may have one.

      I got the Easy Walk harness by Premier to help me walk my last dog, Shadow. She pulled so hard my hands used to bleed. Most dogs tolerate the Easy Walk harness very easily and it gives instant results.

      But the harness was only the first step (and the one that kept me from getting killed). The training class we attended told me about clicker training. By clicking and giving Shadow a treat in a quiet setting (like indoors), she built up her attention to me bit by bit. Eventually, I rewarded her for paying attention to me outdoors which really improved her walking.

      Sounds like every walk is an adventure with your pup. Maybe your obedience coach will also have some words of wisdom for you.

  22. I agree with you on all points – there’s been such an emphasis on “commanding” our dogs, and insisting the humans dictate every detail, that we’ve lost too many opportunities to bond with, or just enjoy the company of, our walking companions.

    However…walking faster doesn’t change much for CindyLu. She has me well-trained. Me, a woman who walks with a fast pace in the first place. I can’t keep up with the little girl! We still enjoy our walks though :)

  23. I have a Bernese mountain dog/ standard poodle who spent the first year of his life (not with me) locked in a hallway, when I adopted him, I knew I was adopting a big personality and a big energy level. But I also knew that I was bringing someone home who needed a chance to really be a dog. However, I admit I fell into the “he’s hyper you must use a training collar and keep him under control” advice given by well meaning fosters. Well, that’s all well and good, as I got to know him. I quickly learned Finlay loves me more than anything (its mutual) and running up and down hills is a close second. We now walk with just his flat collar, and he’s leashed when he needs to be, but he gets to set our pace and , as I like to call it “practice being a real mountain dog” as often as possible. The sheer joy on his face (mine too I imagine) as we race through the woods is unsurpasaable. And in return I have a companion that needs no command to be at my side, no pulling, no resistance just “okay mom, whatever you say, we did my thing”. People always ask how I got such a well behaved dog, it’s easy, I let him be a dog and he thanks me by listening to me as well.

  24. I absolutely love this post and agree with every Aha! moment you shared. We mostly walk more than one dog so having them walk by my side isn’t easy or practical, but I always felt that I had to do it. Once I relaxed and just enjoyed our walk, it became enjoyable. I love your comment about “walk faster” so very true. I’m there for exercise too.

    My Aha! moment as a dog owner is that the dogs can go in the door before me. I’ve had trainers tell me to make them wait and follow me in or out the door. We have a pack and I know that we can train them to do that, but I like staying behind so that I can count 1 2 3 4 and make sure all the dogs were in the house.

    Yes, one has been left outside.

  25. I started jogging with Cricket, and found out it’s the perfect pace for her. It doesn’t have to be a fast jog, so it’s still easy on me, and I’ve noticed she seems much less intense when we’re out now. I think she just wanted to go a little faster. Sometimes she’ll be slower and get behind me too, but we just kind of work with each other and set a pace that we’re both happy with, alternating between jogging and walking. It really does work for us!