Pack Walks – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Published with permission from Sam Redmond.
Dogs are social creatures by habit. They love company and many love nothing better than to have a good run with their buddies. Those of us who witness healthy, happy play with carefree abandon love to see our dogs mixing happily but unfortunately in most cases that play isn’t always carefree and healthy. I love getting together with other owners and going for a long walk. In my opinion there is nothing better but my friends and I know that our dogs get on and play in a healthy balanced way. I wouldn’t take my dog if there was going to be a dog present that she didn’t get on with. It’s not fair to put either dog through that and it would be stressful for both owners and dogs. Occasionally we meet up with her relatives and have a little reunion and a nice walk but in that situation we are aware these dogs don’t really know each other so we are careful to supervise them properly. So it’s all very well to have an occasional walk but what about the dogs that are sent off to a carer and taken on a pack walk once or twice week, maybe even more? Owners often think their dogs are having a wonderful time and it’s of great benefit to them. Of course some dogs are having a wonderful time but often not in the most appropriate way. But what about the other dogs? Consider this – “Does your dog actually want to be there with all the other dogs, is your dog well equipped emotionally to cope with all that goes with being in a large group all day?” Those of you who are parents will know that when you drop your child off at school or nursery they don’t get on with everyone there. There are dynamics at play, different personalities and sometimes when they come home and are really tired it’s not because they’ve had a good time. The same dynamics are at play in groups of dogs and this can mean trouble. So often in the course of my career I have seen that as humans we expect our dogs to get on with all dogs and all people but actually that isn’t realistic. We teach our kids that they don’t have to be best friends with everyone and yet we expect our dogs to be. So what about the problem with regular pack walks? Well there are a whole load of things that can wrong. Qualified professionals all over the world agree that it isn’t a good idea. Why? Because we have files and files of clients whose dogs have developed problems from regular pack walks and do you know what? The problems are all pretty much the same. Remember the kids in a group with all the dynamics and personalities? Well let’s turn this to dogs and look at just a few of the things that can go wrong. One of the many things we see on these pack walks is dogs struggling to cope with each other and a human carer who is oblivious to their cries for help. Take the dog that is maybe not so confident for example. He’s young, maybe a little hormonal and a little unsure. On his “pack walk” another dog catches his eye, maybe just pushes him a little and he has a pop. Remember if he’s a male depending on where he is at in his hormone cycle and especially if testosterone is peaking he will be much bolder and more willing to take risks. He thinks “ooh that worked, I’ll do that again next time” And so the behaviour is repeated and again it works. What has he learned? He has learned that he quite likes the result and if not handled carefully by his walker he will go from a normal youngster needing help to learn social skills to being a bully. What about the other dog? Well that one may be learning to avoid him and potentially any other dogs like him. Then there is the timid dog that really isn’t massively comfortable around lots of dogs. He or she spends the whole time trying to avoid the bully or dare I say it the walker? Just because your dog comes home tired does not mean he’s had a great time. It’s likely he is exhausted from the stress of either defending himself or avoiding another dog or the walker for an extended period of time. (See note below on cortisol) Now lets’ talk about the dog that is being chased by other dogs the whole time. What if one of the dogs is just slightly drifting into predatory chase? We are now on dangerous ground and if the walker isn’t vigilant and careful we have a serious problem. Chase behaviour involves a flood of neuro chemicals called the “Reward cascade” (adrenaline, dopamine, nor-adrenaline) which is highly addictive to the animal chasing and can cause heightened reactivity. The dog being chased is also flooded with adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) in order to access the survival strategy of flight. Both dogs will be on edge for quite some time and it can take up to a week for levels to subside. But if the dogs are walked together several times per week these levels will never decrease and will remain at a constantly high level. This will have an impact on your dogs’ behaviour and on his health. Now the walker in charge of all these dogs is on their own or maybe they have a helper. If they are oblivious to all of this we have a problem. The chaser needs to be walked separately from the group. The timid one needs to be either on their own or walked with a carefully matched dog and the bully needs help to learn appropriate social skills. These dogs need a skilled professional to help them learn the correct social skills. Now what about clashes and tempers? Yes dogs feel rage, anger and irritation especially at certain points in their hormone cycle. Hormones can make dogs more irritable as can tiredness and the presence of cortisol and adrenaline. Here we have a group of dogs all with different personalities, some hormonal, some not, some uncomfortable, some getting a kick out of throwing their weight around. Under these conditions all the dogs are on edge. The presence of Adrenaline will cause heightened responses and frankly anything can happen. Most of the dogs we professionals see do not have good social skills with other dogs in fact we struggle to find dogs to use as teaching dogs but even those that do have good skills would struggle on these walks. For dogs that find these walks stressful we have the added impact of consistently raised Cortisol levels. The effects of stress on human health are well documented and it’s exactly the same for dogs. Over time these dogs will come to manifest health issues due to constantly elevated levels of Cortisol. Then there is the issue of keeping the dogs under control. Even the most experienced trainer/owner will struggle to keep a large group under control. The truth is that these dogs are not under control, not matter what the walker says. Just as a large group of children is extremely difficult to manage by a single person so is a large group of dogs. In all this we also have to consider the impact of these walks on other walkers in the area. It is entirely normal for someone being approached by a large number of dogs to feel intimidated by it. It is also entirely normal for their dog to feel intimidated. That feeling is even worse when the dogs run up to you and surround you and most dogs will find this uncomfortable. For someone who has a reactive dog for example and has worked really hard to improve their dog’s issues this can be a devastating blow which could undo all the progress they have made. For nervous and timid dogs with elderly owners this is a really frightening experience. My own dog has been a teaching dog. She has fantastic social skills and is confident but even she will be on edge in these situations and is not comfortable being surrounded by unknown dogs. If these dogs are allowed to approach in this way then they are not under control. Finally some of the dogs walked like this regularly will associate all dogs with this crazy play and possible fun. Owners of these dogs often report that when they walk their dogs they are straining on the lead and lunging at other dogs in their frustration and excitement of the anticipation of going to play. They have lost all ability to manage their impulses in these situations. I and others have files full of these kinds of dogs. So if you are thinking of enrolling your dogs on frequent pack walks please consider all of the above. Just because you like the idea doesn’t mean that your dog will love it! My next post will be on how to safely walk with a large group.