E224: Nancy Tucker - Redefining Your Walks with Your Dog

Nancy shares how she's redefining the way we all think of our walks with our dogs... and why it matters 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Nancy Tucker here with me. Hi Nancy, welcome back to the podcast!

Nancy Tucker: Hi Melissa, I'm so happy to be here. It's been a while. I can't remember what we talked about last time, maybe fearful dogs or greeting behaviors.

Melissa Breau: I don't know. I'm not sure. I'd have to go back and look. It has been a while, so to start us out, do you want to remind listeners a little bit about you, a little bit about Benny, and share a little bit about your background and all that good stuff?

Nancy Tucker: Sure. I am a trainer and certified behavior consultant in Quebec, Canada. My specialty is working with the family dog, helping owners resolve common behavior issues through … now almost exclusively through virtual sessions or online courses. And I have a large clientele of owners who suffer with their dog's separation anxiety or teaching their new puppy how to be home alone.

I have a Border Terrier named Bennigan, Benny for short, who has just turned 4 on June 20, which means, Melissa, that your Levi must also be about 4 now. Is that right?

Melissa Breau: He's 4/20 and your guy is 6/20, right?

Nancy Tucker: That's right.

Melissa Breau: Exactly two months, almost to the day. Awesome. I wanted to have you on today because I wanted to talk about one of those topics I think is a key aspect of our relationship with our dogs … walks. To get us started, what does a "good walk" look like? What are we talking about when we say we went for a "good walk" with our dog when we're talking about it from the human's perspective?

Nancy Tucker: The elusive loose leash walking. We humans have a very specific idea of what walking with our dogs should look like and what it should feel like. We have this mental image of strolling casually with our dog next to us with a nice loose leash that's only there for show because it's not actually serving a purpose. There's no pressure on the leash, because our dog wants to stay next to us, because that's what it looks like in all of the pictures, and we believe that our dogs should know how to do this.

Melissa Breau: Just magically. What about if we were to flip that on its head? What does that look like from our dog's perspective, what their idea of what a good walk might look like?

Nancy Tucker: And there's the rub. From our dog's perspective, walking next to us at our pace, in a straight line with their head up, is not only unnatural, it's also very, very boring, and it can be frustrating for them. To a dog, a good walk means getting out there to explore interesting smells.

That almost never happens in a straight line, and it almost always happens at least a few feet away from us. It means moving at an erratic pace, stopping frequently, and when they're done investigating this one spot, then they move quickly on to the next interesting spot. That involves a lot of zig-zagging, too.

The more that we demand or explore this slow pace, straight line behavior from them, the more we build frustration for both our dogs and ourselves, and that's when we get problem behaviors like pulling, which can become a serious issue if you have a large and powerful dog.

Melissa Breau: If we know what that looks like from the human's perspective, and we know what it looks like from the dog's perspective, are there other factors we need to think about? I guess what I'm asking is are there different "types" of walks we should be thinking about? Obviously sometimes we need to go to a place, so how do you frame that? How do we think about it?

Nancy Tucker: That's a great question. There are times when we do need for the dog to be able to walk in close proximity to us and to easily follow the direction that we need to go in, like when we need to get from Point A to Point B, for example, from our car to the door of a building, or when we're crossing a street, or maybe when we're walking in a busy or in a crowded location.

That's called a destination walk. That's not an official name. I take the time to teach dogs how to do this, how to walk next to us on cue without pulling on the leash and without stopping, but I consider the destination walk to be something that I ask the dog to do very temporarily. This type of walk has a purpose and it's very short-lived.

There's also the exercise walk, where the whole reason that we're out there with the dog is for a workout, usually our own. Not the dog's workout, but our workout. A lot of people like to run or jog with their dog, and that's a perfectly wonderful activity to do together, but it's also something that doesn't come naturally to the dog, because once again we're asking them to move in a straight line, at a steady pace, without sniffing and without stopping.

Unless a dog is on a mission to get from one location to another, that's just not how they move. I've seen them move for long distances when they are on a mission and they're trying to get somewhere, but typically that's just not how they move.

Our going for a jog or a run does not constitute a mission for our dogs, so we need to teach them how to do this through positive reinforcement, and we also need to condition them physically because it's a demanding activity that requires them to be fit. The same goes for us. It's not something that we can just jump into. For our dogs it's the same case. They need to be gradually conditioned to this until they're fit enough for that kind of activity.

Last is the meandering walk. This is the type of activity that most resembles a dog's natural movement in any given space. This includes sniffing, moving at various speeds, moving in various directions and then stopping frequently to get a closer look or a closer sniff at something.

In order for these two other types of walks to be possible, the destination walk and the exercise walk, or at least in order to make it easier to teach our dogs how to do this, how to offer us the behaviors that we're looking for during those types of walks, we need to prioritize the meandering walks so that we can start by meeting our dogs' needs.

And they do need this. Exploring the environment through a meandering walk is extremely important for their mental health and wellbeing. The really cool thing about prioritizing this type of walk for our dogs is that allowing them to meet their needs this way will almost always translate into better behavior at home or better focus during training.

Melissa Breau: A lot of people think of walks as a "foundation behavior" just in and of themselves. It's one of the early skills we need to teach our dog so that we can do all the other things we want to do with our dog. But that maybe is a little bit of lumping, so are there foundation skills that we should consider before the full walk itself? Break it down, make it a little bit easier to help achieve walks that make both handler and dog happier together?

Nancy Tucker: It's funny how we just expect our dogs to know how to walk on leash. A lot of us get dogs because we have this mental image of being able to get out there and do things with our dogs, and this often involves a leash, of course. We immediately zero in on trying to teach them a sort of heeling behavior, as though this is the way dogs are supposed to walk with us, when in truth, we only need this heeling behavior once in a while and usually for a very short period of time.

We don't need for our dog to heel for a solid twenty minutes or for a solid hour if we're out there walking with them. We should instead be focusing our efforts on building some solid behaviors that help to keep the dog connected with us through means other than the leash that literally ties us together.

At the top of this short list of skills that lead us toward achieving a nice, harmonious walk with our dog is the check-in behavior. That's when our dog offers us eye contact or even just a glance. However short it may be, he checks in with us. I like to heavily reinforce my dog checking in with me because it is a handy behavior to have, even outside of the walking scenario.

Having this connection with my dog makes moving forward together so much more enjoyable.

You know how when we're walking with a friend and you're both moving forward, and maybe you're talking or your chatting, and every once in a while you throw a social cue, like glancing over at them. That shows the other person that we're listening, that we're still here with them in the moment. This is how I view the check-in behavior. It's a social cue that keeps us connected.

Melissa Breau: It sounds like that's something you want to intentionally teach before expecting your dog to figure it out.

Nancy Tucker: It would be the first thing that I teach, outside of the context of walking, even. The check-in behavior is the first thing that I teach to encourage that connection, which becomes super-handy in all kinds of scenarios, but especially in the scenario where we're walking on leash with our dog. If we have that check-in behavior off the bat, that will make all the other aspects of walking together possible.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little about check-ins, but we all know the secret is really about the equipment. I'm just kidding. More seriously, what do we need to think about when we're considering our gear?

Nancy Tucker: You do need highly specialized, expensive gear to achieve the harmonious walk. Seriously, you don't need anything complicated. The one most important piece of gear in my view is a long leash. The standard 4- or 6-foot leash is useful for a destination walk. This is what I might use when I'm taking my dog to the vet, for example, and I just need to be able to get him from the car into the clinic, and then for him to stay close to me. Other than that, for all walks, I use a long line, and that can mean anything from about 8 to 10 feet, to 15 to 30 feet, depending on where you're walking and how much space you have.

If I'm walking in a suburban neighborhood, I might give my dog 8 to12 feet even, depending on the safety aspect of where we are. If we're in an open field somewhere or I'm on a beach with him, then I might pull out the 30-foot lead and just let him explore to his little heart's content.

I don't like retractable leashes for a whole bunch of reasons, even though I did use a very sturdy one for a very long time and without any problems whatsoever, and I know that there are people who use them regularly without any issues. But it's not my thing, and I would advise against it. I don't need to preach about the dangers or the negative points about these types of leashes, because honestly that stuff's really easy to find with an online search. And I won't judge anyone who chooses to use one, because I know that they can be used successfully and they can make harmonious walks very pleasurable.

But in the end I like a long leash, and I have both a 15-foot one and a 30-foot one that I use regularly. I would say I think the 15-foot one is probably my favorite. And I use both hands when I use a long line. This is going to be hard to describe without using my hands, but one hand is through a handle. Even though it's a long line, I get one with the traditional handle. One hand is through the handle, and that same hand holds the rest of the leash in a loose loop. That's my right hand.

My left hand holds the extended line that is attached to my dog's harness. I use that other hand as sort of a pulley to let the leash slip through it as my dog increases his distance from me, and I also use it to grab the leash to stop him from going further, if I need to. So I've got two hands on the leash at all times, and I think that's the secret to using a long line. You've got to have both hands on the leash to use it properly.

I use a Biothane leash because I can drag it through mud and snow and water and it's like brand new as soon as I'm done, but for years I used a soft leather leash, which feels really nice in your hand. Right now I have a little dog, so a thin Biothane leash works just fine for us.

When I used a long line with my previous dog, she was a bigger dog and she had more pulling power, and she also had some reactive behaviors towards other dogs. I used a nice, thick, soft, leather leash, so I felt like I had a better grip on that, if I needed to have it. But Biothane, I sing the praises, the advantages of Biothane constantly. I just love that stuff.

On the dog, I like to use the most comfortable harness I can find, and that's relative for each dog. Different designs will work best for different dogs, but the key is comfort.

I clip the leash to the back. If you have a strong puller who hasn't yet learned to temporarily walk next to you for the destination walk, for example, and you want to use a front-clip harness, I would only use that front clip for those short walks.

For the meandering walk with the long leash, I would really advise against attaching the leash to the front clip. Definitely use the back clip, and never on a collar. A long leash on a collar — you can imagine what that might look like if your dog bolts to the end of the leash and then suddenly comes to a stop. You don't want his neck to take the brunt of that.

Melissa Breau: We talked about harnesses and we talked about long lines. I know a lot of this stuff is wrapped up into a project, a webinar that you're working on, that will come out on Thursday, and the podcast will come out on Friday. So technically the podcast will come out the day after, but the webinar should still be up for sale. You named the webinar "Harmonious Walks: Redefining Loose Leash Walking," so it only seems fitting that I ask: how are harmonious walks different from loose leash walking, and how are we defining our terms here?

Nancy Tucker: I think I touched a bit on that in the very beginning when I described what most of us envision when we talk about walking with our dogs on a loose leash. What we imagine is a dog strolling casually next to us, close to us, on a relatively short leash, with his head up, basically ignoring his surroundings and keeping pace with us.

A harmonious walk represents our prioritizing the dog's needs during this particular type of outing. This particular type of walk isn't about us, the human. It's about the dog. It's about making sure that he gets to do dog things. He gets to do things that are important to him, and we're making sure that he has access to an activity that contributes to his wellbeing.

That's how I would define a harmonious walk, because meeting those needs makes the walk easier on us too. I don't know if that makes any sense. Making sure that we're meeting his needs actually makes the walk easier on us as well.

Melissa Breau: I can see that, and when you think about the picture of walking a dog on a long line, they're naturally going to have more pauses and more breaks you're less likely to get on a 6-foot leash. Often you will get the dog who's going to pull the entire walk no matter how long. Whereas once you've got a longer line involved, it naturally encourages the dog to do a little more stopping and sniffing.

Nancy Tucker: It does. And you know what? It also encourages us to stop now and then. I find that when I walk on a long leash with any dog, even if I'm helping a client teach their dog how to walk, the minute we're on the long leash, until they experience it, I don't think they realize the difference of how their dog moves on the long leash, and how it also gives us the opportunity to stop and wait when the dog is smelling something. It's actually very relaxing for us too.

Melissa Breau: Pause in the moment and be present.

Nancy Tucker: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want folks to know about the webinar that we haven't covered or stuff you want to share?

Nancy Tucker: Yes, because in the webinar I answer the very common question, "Why do we even need a leash at all? Why don't we just let the dog do these important dog things off leash?" It's a very valid question, and there's a super-interesting and unexpected answer to it. I spend some time talking about that in the webinar.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To round out our conversation today, if you were to take everything we talked about and drill it down into one key piece of information that you really wish folks out there understood about this stuff, what would that be?

Nancy Tucker: I think if there's one concept that I want listeners to really let sink in, and it's a tricky thing to accomplish because it will go against what we have come to understand as common sense, but it's this: for better behavior on leash, less restraint will get you there faster than more restraint. It's opposite of everything that we've ever learned about walking on leash, and it even represents the opposite of all the equipment that exists on the market to resolve these leash-walking problems. But less restraint will get you there faster and easier than more restraint. That's the bottom line.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Nancy!

Nancy Tucker: Thanks for having me, Melissa, and I hope that I've given listeners some inspiration, if they've been struggling with how to enjoy walking with their dog.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week with Jessica Hekman to talk about where good dogs will come from in the future.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training! 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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