Sommer is ten months old and is in the full-blown teenage years, I mean, months. The joke’s on me, because now I have an actual human teenager in the house, plus a canine one to boot. Sommer is becoming a free and independent thinker, just like her 15-year-old human brother. She is by turns enthusiastic and stubborn. One minute she is tearing around the house with a case of the “zoomies,” as we’ve come to call it, and the next she is fearful and skittish. She’s getting more clever in her attempts to buck the system, whether that means trying to sneak up onto our bed at night (she is installed on her dog bed in our bedroom, but that doesn’t seem quite close enough to us for her liking) or staring at me blankly as I call “Come!” and then turning her back on me and calmly trotting off in the opposite direction. On the more positive side, she is bright and happy and loves to learn new games. We’re currently working on “fetch,” because although she does have some Labrador retriever and some golden retriever in her, the concept of retrieving the ball and then bringing it back to me so I can throw it again seems foreign to her. The chasing the ball part? Well, she’s a natural at that. And she’s fast. Which brings me to the topic of needing to get her plentiful exercise by walking.
At ten months, Sommer is no longer a little puppy. She’s nearly full grown, and has started to fill out regarding her muscle tone. Even now, she weighs only 17 pounds. We thought she might be as big as 25 pounds, but it turns out that she takes after her 15-pound mama more than her 35-pound daddy. That’s fine by me! But it does pose some interesting challenges concerning aggressiveness, as she is well aware that she’s smaller than most dogs she encounters. And the time when we notice this most is when we go out for a walk, which seems to alternate between happy sniffing and terrified high-pitched barking when another dog charges us from its yard, barking like it wants to kill us both (even though I can see its tail wagging!).
In other words, walking with Sommer is great fifty percent of the time. The other fifty percent could use improvement.
Problem number one is that as a puppy, Sommer has no concept of regulating her walking pace to mine. Then there is pulling and jerking as she trots off to the side to sniff something particularly tantalizing in the grass, and next thing you know, she’s walked around my legs, and now I find myself standing there immobilized, like a potted plant abandoned in the street. As a small dog, fortunately, she isn’t strong enough to pull my shoulder out of its socket, and for that I am grateful. Still, the worst leash-walking habit that she has is randomly and without warning crossing in front of me, causing me to attempt to come to a halt, usually on my tiptoes with my arms stretched outward as if to break an impending fall. And as bad as that habit is, the worst walking incident we’ve had so far had nothing to do with Sommer and everything to do with our Minnesota winters. Last winter, I hit a patch of black ice that was camouflaged under a fresh layer of fluffy snow and as if in a cartoon, my legs went flying out from under me and I landed flat on my back. Now, the blessing of this was twofold: One, no one was around to see my humiliating slip; and two, I was bundled up in a massive puffer coat, including a hat and giant puffy hood, which cushioned the fall. But the point of the story is that Sommer thought this was hilarious. Far from coming to my rescue in canine concern, Sommer jumped all over my prone body, thinking this was a game. So in any case, if I can fall while walking when Sommer was behaving on the leash, imagine what could happen if she cut in front of me on one of those snowy days.
I decided to consult Google to get some expert advice on my dog-walking dilemmas. What I gleaned from leading trainers was that leash training was a pain, but well worth it in the long run, and is part of training that does have a considerable safety component – both for you and your puppy. I learned that I should be the first one out the door, reinforcing that I am the leader and that I should also be the one back in. Another expert advised that you should train your puppy to sit patiently while you take off your shoes and hang up the leash. That sounded a whole lot like something Mr. Rogers would do, and I immediately implemented it. A nice meal or treat at the end of the walk was another recommendation to reinforce to Sommer the message that she has worked for her food. The experts recommended morning as the ideal walking time, for a period of 30 minutes to one hour. This is where having a small dog is nice: Thirty minutes is plenty long for her.