When you listen to training experts, all of them seem to have picked a side on which kind of walking is best: structured (aka heeling or training) or unstructured (aka loose-leash or leisure). For some reason there’s only a binary choice.
As I’ve consumed books and videos about this subject and walked Jocko multiple times a day, a question occurred to me: Why only two? Why not three or four? Then it occurred to me that maybe there’s only really one way to walk a dog. That’s what’s called the hybrid walk — employing walking methods from the broad spectrum of approaches that are appropriate for where and how you and your dog are walking, all kind of at the same time. That is, using a full toolbox of techniques and tools that are adaptable to fit any circumstances.
As I see it, hybrid walks have a default setting, the structured walk technique: your dog is heeling closely at your side or trailing slightly on a short leash, you being much more in control of their movement. Your commands are succinct and proactive. This is how you and your dog would walk on the sidewalk of a busy city street. You and your dog need to have the structured walk down. You then turn off into a subdivision where there’s less traffic and no sidewalks. It’s an easier, less intense place to walk. You reach into your toolbox (a backpack or duffel) and take out a good, sturdy ten foot leash and replace the short heeling leash with it. Things are looser, and your dog has a little bit more freedom. There’s still some cars that go by and every squirrel in the county seems to be on either side of the two of you. You let your dog selectively deviate from the walking setting, but you’re still in control of the situation. Your command is now something like “stay with me” rather than “heel”. You then turn down a dirt path that meanders through a small park. Time for an even more relaxed walk. You again reach into your toolbox and take out the mother of all leashes, the thirty footer, and snap it on. (You may even have a twenty foot leash with you.) Because you’ve trained your dog in how all the different leashes work, he knows that he can roam more and enjoy being a dog more.
The idea is to train a full range of practices that would be suitable for any circumstance. When Jocko and I walk, I use the command “Follow me” as the command for him to break off whatever he’s doing and come walk with me or along with me whether he’s on a short, tight leash or a thirty foot long line. Also, if he needs a correction (“No”, pop the leash, “Follow me.”) that would be the same command no matter the circumstance. (another important command is ‘stop’.)
In other words, use the tools and techniques that are appropriate for the situation. One size does not fit all, neither should your approach to something seemingly as simple as walking your dog.
There are two important pieces of human training to go along with this. First, walking your dog should end up being a comfortable and enjoyable activity. If it’s not, you’re doing something wrong. (Remember, everything that goes sideways with your dog is your fault and your responsibility to fix.) Until your dog walks perfectly, (which they never will) it’s your job to get it to go right. And in the case of them not being a great walking partner yet, you have to learn how to train them to be. Second, when on any walk, all smartphones should be put away. All attention should be squarely on the dog. If nothing else, you need both hands free. If you’re using a long leash (I honestly do use 10’, 20’ or 30’ lines.) there are many times when you must pull in the line like a short leash to keep your dog out of some difficulty. (Disclosure: I do not use a retractable line.) A hybrid walk is not an out of control walk. It allows freedom with constraints. It is essential that Jocko is fully trained and able to perform well during a structured walk to make a hybrid walk work.
Having different kinds of collars in your toolbox is also helpful. For instance, Jocko LOVES snow. When I take him on a walk after a snowfall, I know he’s going to go bonkers. I put his harness on him so he doesn’t pull his head off like he would with a simple flat collar. I then keep him on a ten foot leash so he has a little freedom to play, but not so much I can’t keep him in check.
Fyi, of the five dog trainers I follow, Zak George is the only trainer that promotes a hybrid walk. He even calls it that. One of them promotes a loose leash walk, and the other three all primarily promote close-in structured walks.
Jocko and I walk a lot — three times a day for almost three hours total. We enjoy it, and being able to get the most out of it by being proactive about it makes it all the better. It gives Jocko a maximum amount of safe freedom and helps me to feel that I’m doing more than just me taking my dog for a walk. Instead, we’re going on a walk together.