Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why I Don't Do Pack Walks (Very Often)

Something growing in popularity in my area recently is taking several dogs at a time out for "pack walks". Having done a whole lot of dog walking growing up, often with multiple large dogs with various behavioral issues, I feel I can safely file this concept under the heading "things that only look like a good idea".

The "pack walk" can take a number of different forms, most involving leashes. Some of my local rescue and advocacy groups organize large "pack walks" for their adopters and volunteers, which are basically just groups of people all walking their own or various shelter dogs together. I think these are pretty cool because they are highly visible and attract a lot of attention. The ones in my area tend to center around bully breeds, and I think it's great for the general public to see a bunch of people walking a bunch of well-behaved pit bull type dogs. It's great for the dogs to practice keeping their cool near crowds and other dogs, and presents a great training opportunity when approached properly.
This is obviously proof of my awesomeness.
What I don't like are "pack walks" that involve a small number of people walking a large number of dogs on leashes. These also attract a ton of attention, but it's not always the right type of attention and I think people often do it for the wrong reasons.

As far as I can tell, the benefits of walking a group of dogs solo are:

1. Being able to exercise multiple dogs in a time-efficient manner.

2. Feeling like a total badass when people are amazed that you are walking five/nine/etc dogs at once.

Note that only one of those is beneficial for the dogs. Meanwhile, from personal experience I've found the drawbacks are:

1. My attention is divided by the number of dogs. When I walk just one dog, it's a lot easier to devote my full attention to monitoring them for signs of trouble and use those to train better responses to things like bicycles, skateboards, loud trucks, etc. With five dogs, it's much more difficult to notice when someone is looking stressed about a sight or sound.

2. Many training opportunities are lost. As above, with one dog I can click and treat them for looking at the scary track team or focusing on me instead of the dog across the street. With a pack of dogs, there's no way I can mark and reward or distract individual dogs with any sort of decent timing.

3. Management takes the place of training. So instead of training, I am forced to rely on management strategies that merely prevent unwanted behavior rather than directly address it. This mostly means hauling my pack of dogs off the trail and hanging on as the mountain bikes pass us, or carrying the most dog-reactive monster by her harness until we're past the people with the poodle. Even then, my dogs are likely to practice a certain amount of lunging and barking.

4. Safety is often sacrificed in favor of management. Some of my local "pack walkers" manage to walk half a dozen or more strong, reactive dogs at the same time, but I cringe every time I see them. Usually each dog is loaded down with a heavy backpack, which is nice because it makes them work harder and get more exercise. What's not nice is that they are also each equipped with a head halter, and most of their leashes are tied to the backpacks on the other dogs rather than being held by a human. This means that these precision training tools with the ability to seriously injure the dogs' necks can be yanked any direction at any time if the backpack wearer moves suddenly.

Ru is in this picture, I couldn't get him out from behind everyone.
This week I am babysitting two Australian cattledogs, and I have a new foster, so I have ventured out with up to five dogs at a time once or twice. This particular group of dogs are all very familiar to me, they all get along very well with each other, and are mostly older dogs with a large amount of training. To make sure everyone survives a "pack walk", I have a few guidelines I follow:

-Space. If I'm going to walk five dogs at once, I'm taking them somewhere open where it's relatively easy to avoid other people. Low-traffic trails and beaches are cool, busy city streets are not.

-Training. Everyone needs to know how to walk on a leash already. If they routinely cross around behind me, orbit and wrap their leash around me everytime we stop, pull like a sled dog, or plant their feet in steadfast determination to sniff that really interesting thing even though nobody else has broken their stride, then they can stay home.

-Harnesses. If I'm going to be potentially dragging dogs around to put some distance between us and the track team we are sharing the trail with, I want to do it as humanely as possible. Nobody deserves to be dragged around by their neck just because they weren't paying attention when we needed to jump off the trail. Likewise, I don't use precision training devices like prong collars or head halters because I know I won't be able to afford them the attention they require to use responsibly. If I can't walk a dog safely on a regular back-clip harness, then they can stay home.

-Brakes. I have to be able to stop everybody all at once, even if a bunny runs across the trail right in front of us. I need to be able to stop hard, and stand firm without giving even a step because that might be all the distance the hooligans need to be able to grab that unlucky skateboarder. I need to be able to do this with everyone wearing comfortable pulling-friendly harnesses. If I can't do that, I need to bring fewer dogs.

The vast majority of the time I prefer to take one or maybe two dogs so I can give them my full attention, use the training opportunities that present themselves, and maybe even relax a little. Getting everyone the maximum amount of exercise in the minimum amount of time means sacrificing training, enjoyment, safety, and pretty much everything else I value. It's worth noting that every real dog person (and by that I mean dog nerd) I've asked has said basically the same thing. If they can't take their mob of dogs for a nice off-leash romp in the woods, they stick to taking one or two dogs at a time on walks.


  1. I have gone to a few walks that was set up for reactive dogs (ie single file, dogs never meet, etc.) and it worked well. I've also seen some crazies on instagram where they somehow walk 20 dogs at once. I've seen its popular in SF to go to the beach and unleash your pack, that's super worrisome to me especially since they are not your dogs, anything can happen!

    1. I like the leashed single-file pack walks with one person per dog. The dog walkers with tons of dogs on leashes seem to be walking them in very urban areas and the dogs seem to be pretty comfortable with the whole arrangement, I seriously doubt they could manage that with reactive or difficult dogs. I can't imagine turning a whole pile of dogs loose anywhere we might meet other people though, yikes!