The Outdoor Experience - 'Equipment' Part 1
This article is a two part look at the basic equipment needed for any type of outdoor activity; greatly depending on the situation.
Safety should always be a consideration.
While I have addressed proper housing before, I am attempting to go a little more into detail.
Collars and Leashes
There is no big difference between tying your dog out temporarily or permanently, or walking your dog; a good restraining 'device' can mean the difference between life and death.
The most commonly used and often cheapest collar is a adjustable collar with plastic 'buckle'. While this collar works great with young dogs (For safety reasons (to prevent strangulation) I personally do not use any collar on a puppy under ~4 months, unless walking the puppy or taking it to the vet.), a older and more determined dog can either pull until the adjustable part gives in or simply break the plastic buckle. A metal buckle will prevent that, but such collar has to be tight all the time to prevent the animal from slipping out of it; often making it hard to allow for the two/three fingers worth of slack (You should be able to fit two/three fingers between the collar and the dog's neck to ensure it is not too tight.). It is also of great importance to regularly test these collars to make sure the dog didn't outgrow them. Left on a growing dog for too long, they can grow into the dog's neck and cause major and very painful injuries.
Strong and/or willful dogs will often fair quite well with a horrible sounding but not painful (if used correctly) choker chain. This chain collar hangs lose when not in use, but can be pulled tight if the dog struggles or tries to escape. There are several different varieties available to suite everybody's style and taste; and if the chain is not the owner's choice, a nylon version is also available. The nylon version however does tend to stretch out (at the adjustable part) if meeting a strong will and determination. Personally I use the nylon version for my 'teenagers' (~5/6 month to ~1 year) and then graduate them to the chain version; should they be mature enough to not endanger themselves (A dog regularly trying to fight its way through fence or bushes should either be under supervision or wear a non-chocking collar.).
There are many other options of collars and halters. Halters do well for small dogs or those that have a smaller head than body; and thus lose the collar simply by lowering their head. Halters mend to tighten when the dog pulls can help controlling the dog, but should never be used to restrain the dog permanently. Head harnesses are also great tools for controlling an active dog during a walk, but should never be used as permanent restrained and require extra care when pulling on them (a sharp tug on the leash can cause injuries to the dog's neck). A prong collar or electric collar (including bark collars) is a tool that only belongs into experienced hands and should NEVER be used as permanent restrained.
Good leashes have a similar standard than good horse-leads or rains. A good leash is sewn, not stapled and has a solid hook rather than a look-alike. While the better leashes are often expensive, they can actually be easily replaced by horse leads that can be found in most farm stores for less than $10.
The Comfort Zone
Walking a dog is similar to riding a horse; both need to be comfortable with their surroundings and handled at the appropriate experience level for the dog or horse!
A 'newcomer' will approach the situation with either fear or excitement; especially when learning to 'master' the walk as Cesar Millan calls it (http://www.cesarsway.com/tips/thebasics/master-the-walk). One of the most important rules I learned by following his shows and reading his articles/books is the 45 min rule. But lets look at some stages/challenges first:
- The puppy, new to the big mystery of 'walking on the leash' will need patience and clear instructions when stepping into the 'grown-up's' world. I have found that using a experienced dog as 'leader' will speed up the process. A dog is a pack animal and especially a puppy will follow a 'higher-ranking' dog almost automatically. If one does not have a second dog, asking a friend or neighbor for help can not only help the puppy, but offer advise or simply company for the 'handler' (owner).
A puppy should be started young on the leash (but old enough to be able to physically endure a walk) and should be slowly and patiently made comfortable with any kind of surroundings. Also: teaching a dog early on to keep a safe distance to roads and vehicles can possibly save its life some day. Making it used to traffic, loud noises and sudden movements will also allow the dog to stay calm and not panic; preventing it from bolting for safety and being hit by a car instead.
- The shy dog (for example: a rescue that is lacking social skills) needs to be slowly introduced to the 'scary world' around it. In this situation it is especially important to be 'calm and assertive' as Cesar Millan calls it, since the owner's/handler's mindset will either spook the dog further or allow it to calm down. A calm handler will reflect this calmness to the dog; the dog looking for the handler for guidance. When the handler panics, so will the shy dog! A more self-confident dog may consider that panic either as an opportunity to challenge the handler's position or become defensive; attempting to protect the handler from threats!
Walking a shy dog calm and assertive and slowly raising the distraction level will not only give the dog security, but also allows it to learn new 'skills' at a level comfortable to the dog. And again, a second more experienced dog can be a great tool by leading by example.
- The self-confident dog will often approach a new situation with the means of 'an elephant in a porcelain shop'; head-on and ready to go. Teaching such a dog control and controlling such a dog is very important to prevent accidents and injury. Walking a dog is also a great opportunity to establish one's position within the hierarchy. A handler walking the dog is obviously higher ranking than the dog. A dog walking the handler is clearly outranking that handler and can show unwanted and dangerous behavior to enforce that position.
Necessary control doesn't only pertain to traffic, but also to other pedestrians, dogs, cats and cyclists. This is especially true for any dog that is prey driven. A dog giving chase to any 'prey' will not pay attention to its surroundings. And the 'prey' may not expect or appreciate such 'drive' or encounter!
Teaching a self-confident and willful dog control will ensure a peaceful walk for the owner/handler and those surrounding them. It will ensure the safety of any creature sharing that 'space' and also will prevent the dog from being injured by those sharing the 'space'.
One tool used for this training that I have found most successful is the 45 min walk rule by Cesar Millan:
As a young teenager in Germany I walked the neighbor's dogs. While most of them knew me since they were puppies and grew up to my often unspoken 'wishes', I was 'blind' to the consequences and naively followed instincts long lost. I trusted them and they trusted me. While this trust may have led to the mind-set Cesar Millan mentions in his teachings, it has long been lost to adulthood. Aware now of what can happen when one walks sometimes up to 15 dogs without use of a leash, I seemed to have lost those abilities. I can still walk selected dogs within my pack with seven at the time, but it took a lot of training, determination and a strong will to protect my position as pack leader towards dogs that way between 45 and 80lbs.
After watching Cesar's shows for a while, it was like a whole Christmas tree full of lights coming on. Yes, I do mention him a lot, but I credit him with my now much more peaceful life! As simple as it sounds, the 45 min walk takes the brat right out of my dogs; and myself!
Having started with large dogs as my own (and all of them rescues), I met the climbers, diggers, fear biters, possessive and sometimes even aggressive ones! I had always walked my dogs for often hours at the time and as much as 10 Kilometers far. And one of my greatest adventures besides the (Dog) Volksmarsch (large groups of like-minded people meet for a long walk; often organized by Dog Clubs) was the 20 Kilometer Endurance Test conducted by a German Shepherd Club. The owner/handler rides the bike and the dog has to endure a 20 Kilometer bike ride with good vital signs and no health issues. The oversight by vets and such is as great as any for any human Marathon! The fun for a well-trained dog just can't be described! If you have never had three agile and fit German Shepherds go full-speed and effortless down a German 'Waldweg' (path in the forest), you haven't had fun! They will enjoy their own strength and a freedom only beaten by a day in the country and without a leash! And the only one tired was always me!
Years later in the States my neighbors would look at me funny when I would take my bike and a couple of dogs down my neighborhood roads. Sadly the U.S. is not as bike-friendly as Germany. Most roads in Germany are public and one can go for hours on a bike or on foot and even enjoy picnics with their dogs.
But why is that rule so successful? ...Ever seen a tired dog get in trouble; other than sleeping on couch or bed?! When walked regularly, my dogs would seize to dig, climb, fight with each other! A dog is a domesticated wolf; an animal that naturally covers a wide territory and runs for several miles a day. A well exercised (but not over-exercised) dog is a happy dog! A happy dog has a happy owner!
Life outside the 'pack' & 'den'
While I wish that every dog can be part of his 'human' pack and enjoy a life indoors, I understand that there are certain circumstances that may require otherwise. I am not here to argue the decision for a dog to live outside, but to provide some basic information on what will make that dog's life a bit better.
I am a firm believer of two rules: Think large and think pack!
A 10x10 run or kennel for a domesticated wolf sounds horrible to me; despite that it may be lessened by multiple daily walks or even time 'outside'. I have spend hundreds of dollars on buying two, three or more 10x10 runs/kennels for those dogs that I couldn't keep inside (may it be due to their unwanted feelings towards my cats and dogs or issues that made a life within a house and family impossible or unsafe) or build large fenced-in areas for them. I will always look at it seeing it as their home for life and I personally would wither and die in a tiny kennel restricting my freedom. I rather lose a large portion of my yard than have my dog live his/her life in a 'tiny' kennel/run!
The same goes for a dog house. If you have a large dog, take a close look at the large dog house you are thinking of buying! I personally stretch out across my entire bed (as much as my critters allow). How does the dog sleep? I found that going with one size larger than recommended will allow comfort, but still allows for the dog's body heat to provide enough warmth in the winter. A wooden house also seems more energy efficient; and the addition of hay/cedar bedding (cedar for comfort and flea prevention) and a flap (semi-truck mud flaps are teeth-resistant and the perfect size) will provide comfort and protection. And again, attempt to provide a minimum amount of shade to protect your dog from the elements!
When choosing the right fence, take your dog's personality in consideration! A intelligent and agile Pitbull may make quick work out of your chain-link or wooden fence (especially when lacking exercise and mental stimulation) and the addition of electric fence (avoid the nylon wire that fails often and use the slightly more expensive metal wire) may be necessary. If possible the fence should be dug into the ground or secured with concrete on the bottom. And it should be high enough to meet your dog's agility level. My 80 lbs gentle giants will easily jump a 5ft fence and my 40 lbs/5mo old Pitbull mix pup will practically walk up and over it!
My personal choice now more than ever is a privacy fence! My dogs love chasing along the fence of my 2.5 acre 'front yard' to 'greet' the bikers and joggers! >>>Out of sight, out of mind!<<<
Why is their home so important? Because it is all they will often know and a unhappy dog can get injured escaping; especially in high-traffic city life. Besides, would you want to live like your dog?
Another important rule is 'Nature'!
Your dog is a domesticated wolf, thus a pack animal! If you are unwilling or unable to provide that pack environment but don't want to give up the dog, I strongly recommend, urge and beg you to get a second dog (ensuring that the living space will grow with that addition)! A 'friend' will ease the dog's separation from its human pack, provide a social life and can provide warmth and comfort in bad weather.
Equally as important, yet again, is exercise. Having volunteered for several no-kill shelters before I have witnessed how a once happy and healthy dog can deteriorate when confined to a small space and lacking the freedom and exercise a ancestor of the wolf needs. Kennel deterioration can lead to health- and behavioral issues such as aggression. A dog that has spend his/her life in a kennel lacks social skills and learned behaviors needed outside of the kennel environment and can be territorial and aggressive to any 'intruder'. I have seen beautiful dogs having to be put to sleep because the rescues were unable to provide what was needed to prevent and 'treat' the problems. Dogs pulled or escaped from a kennel environment can also often be considered unadoptable due to their 'lack of skills' and will be overlooked by rescues and adopters; ultimately replacing a life in 'jail' with short-lived freedom and eventually death either by car or similar dangers; or by euthanasia in a Animal Control Shelter.