About two months ago, Odin and I were walking downtown to go to a local outdoor store that also sells dog products (harnesses, leashes, toys, etc.). While we were there, the store associate who was helping us told us about a dog walking group that she organizes. At first I told her my concerns about bringing him to a dog walking group (his reactivity) and she assured me that the group would accommodate any needs that Odin and I required. I was very nervous bringing him to the first walk. My treat bag was loaded with various high value treats ranging from hot dogs to blue cheese. He did great that first walk. He was calm and relaxed when being introduced to the groups dogs and the members gave us the space and structure we needed to ensure that the group socialization was a success. We now a avid members of the group and attend every walking event.
Odin, as most reactive dogs, needs extra space while walking and this dogs walking group provided us with the structured socialization opportunity needed for success. We were able to enjoy the company of other dogs and reap the benefits of group socialization. While with the group, Odin is learning to stay calm and is able to stay under his threshold while he is on these walks.
Practice, practice, practice is the key to successfully managing reactivity and by exposing Odin to other dogs and socialization while walking side by side during the on leash walks has increased his confidence around other dogs. I have even observed a decrease reactivity while we are on our own daily walks for a handful of days after the group walks.
Group walks can be a great opportunity to expose and socialize your dog with other dogs in a controlled environment. You can control the introductions between dogs and work on managing your dogs reactivity in a controlled environment. Also, joining a group walk creates accountability and motivation for owners, so it is a win-win situation for both you and your dog.
Whenever Odin and I get home from a group walk, he is completely pooped for the next handful of hours (even if the walk was shorter than his daily ones). The socialization and engagement he gets from being around other dogs fulfills his mental needs much better than his daily walks. The group walks break up the normal walking routine and provide dogs with a new and exciting experience.
The following are 3 tips I encourage dog owners to consider prior to joining a group:
Learn the groups rules and the temperaments of the other dogs
Ask whether or not it is an on leash walk as off leash may not be the best for shy dogs, or those that need extra space. Also, ask about the temperaments about the other dogs. For example, having two reactive dogs in a group may cause issues/distractions/stress while walking.
Know your dogs limitations
Do not force a group walk if your dog is not ready. Also, you may need to leave the group during the walk due to trigger stacking or if your dog is not up for the task for the day (and it is OKAY!). During our last walk, Odin and I had to bail out early as there was a person on a scooter behind us that was catching up to our group. I needed to run ahead with Odin and remove the scooter from his sight line. In addition, you may need to scout out the walking path prior to the group walk. I know Odin would not do well walking near a skate park or a place where off leash dogs play.
Inform the group of your dogs needs to see if they can be accommodated
Some groups may not feel comfortable or may want to ensure all members are okay with a reactive dog joining the group. In addition this will ensure that everyone in the group will understand if slow introductions are needed and if your dog becomes reactive while on the walk/in presence of another dog.
If there is not a group in your area, consider starting your own! Put up fliers at your local dog parks and create a Facebook group/page organize events. Chances are there are multiple people in your neighborhood that would enjoy an opportunity for socialization for both the owners and the dogs!