Old dog training books were all about dominance, and one of the best ways to show your dog who was boss was by training her to heel. Whenever my dog and I left the house, the books instructed me, she was to walk sedately on my left, the leash hanging loosely between us, her nose level with my knee. Not in front of my knee (that was forging) nor behind (that was lagging) but precisely at my knee.
Whether the walk lasted five minutes or thirty, and whether we were walking on a city street or in the woods, this was how it was supposed to be. Frivolities such as greeting people or dogs, or sniffing bushes or lampposts, were categorically verboten.
I tried to train seven dogs to heel: three German Shepherds, one Irish Setter, one Cocker Spaniel, one Shihpoo—and Bisou, a Cavalier. Even though they were all good dogs in other ways, none of them ever heeled properly. Our walks were an unpleasant contest of wills. There was tugging on the leash; there was forging and lagging; there was cursing on my part. The same dogs that, when left to run free in the woods, would happily and reliably respond to my call never achieved that ideal loose-leash, nose-at-knee walk.
Now, not a moment too soon for Bisou and me, the dog training tides have changed. There is less talk of dominance and more emphasis on treats and play. And that military-style heeling has given way to a different philosophy of dog walking. The new dog walks are supposed to be walks for the dog, outings that approximate as much as possible what a dog would do if she were able to roam on her own, i.e., mostly sniffing.
Sniffing, given dogs’ gazillion scent receptors, is crucial to their mental and emotional well-being. Dogs that are allowed to sniff to their hearts’ content are calm, confident, and well-behaved. Sniffing gives a dog exercise, both mental and physical. One strange study even proved that the freedom to sniff increases a dog’s optimism.
The one problem with this philosophy is that we humans tend to grow impatient as our dog endlessly stops and sniffs and sniffs again. If you are one of those multi-tasking types who views the dog walk as a chance to get your own daily exercise out of the way, this approach will drive you mad.
Bisou and I, for our part, have taken to it like ducks to water. After decades of failing to properly leash-train my dogs, I have shed that compulsion with a sigh of relief. And Bisou, always an enthusiastic leash puller, deserves in her twilight years to win this one battle. (The other battle, that of moving her dinnertime from 5 p.m. to 3:15 p.m., I will not let her win.)
So we set out on our rambles, she wearing a harness and a retractable leash, me armed with patience and poop bags. Before we even reach the end of our driveway, she veers to the right to sniff that one particular spot of grass that looks to me no different from any other spot of grass. Then she veers to the left to examine the base of the lamppost on our neighbors’ yard—this appears sniff-worthy even to me, since I can see the dried drops of urine that some animal has deposited on the metal. Next she pays her respects to that canine cliché, the fire hydrant, and proceeds to an urgent investigation of the ground under the white pine, where I assume that unknown creatures hold nightly orgies.
And so we wander on, I having abandoned all pretensions to alpha status and wrestled my A-type personality into submission. Contrary to all my expectations, I enjoy these random walks. It’s a case of “let go, let dog.”
I have even discovered one way to pass the time while Bisou sniffs. When she dives under a bush, or pauses, her tail wagging slowly, to inhale the scent of invisible angels in the breeze, I practice standing on one leg. And as I wobble I reflect that letting Bisou be her canine self and giving up the quest for control have turned our walks in this dark season into just the kind of spiritual practice I need.