Taking our dogs for longline walks (sometimes called “Decompression Walks”, a term coined by professional dog trainer Sarah Stremming) has proven to be an excellent way to decrease daily stress and anxiety in dogs of all ages, sizes, breeds, and behavior, as well as a healthy, low-impact form of exercise. The goal for these walks is to take our dogs to a safe outdoor environment where we can allow them to wear a longline, which is a long leash that may be anywhere from 20-50 feet long, so they can perform species-appropriate behaviors, such as sniffing, scent rolling, and urine marking. Going on these walks takes careful consideration to ensure a positive experience that is safe for both humans and dogs.
First and foremost, we want to be sure our dogs are wearing a secure, well-fit, back-clip harness. If our dogs run out to the end of the longline, it is important that the impact is dispersed through a harness, rather than having that impact potentially hitting and injuring their necks. When we attach longlines to our dogs, it is also important that we ensure our dogs are unlikely to back out of their harnesses, as they’ll be further away from us than they typically are. Our two favorite highly secure harnesses for longline walks are listed below, however any back-clip harness can work if your dog is not high-risk for escaping or backing out of their harness.
We also want to be sure that the longlines we use are unlikely to break or otherwise fail while our dogs are on them. Our favorite, extra-tough, weight-tested longlines are from Palomine. Since made of the material BioThane, they will not absorb water, collect sand, burrs, sticks, or other materials that a rope or fabric longline may collect, and are easy to wipe clean after every adventure. Longlines come in a variety of materials, colors, lengths, and with or without handles. Consider where you’ll be going on walks with your dog when looking at all of your options.
Our next topic is longline handling and safety. When handling any longline or rope, it is important to be sure we understand how to handle the line safely to avoid injury to both ourselves and our dog. Here are our tips for safely handling longlines:
- Gather up the slack! If your dog is closer to you, gather up the slack of the longline. As they move away, you can let more slack out. The less slack there is on the ground, the less likely you and your dog are to get tangled, and the less opportunity your dog has to bolt and hit the end of the longline (ouch!).
- Never wrap the long line around your hand. As you are gathering up the slack, or to hold onto the line, some may be tempted to wrap the longline around their hand. The risk with this is immense, especially with larger dogs. If the dog runs out to the end of the line and hits it, the injury to a longline-wrapped hand can be significant, such as broken bones or degloving injuries. Instead, be sure to gather up the line and hold it in a closed hand, where it is easy to let go of the slack if necessary and without any tangling.
- Wear appropriate clothing. Our dogs are fast, and a dog who runs around behind you then quickly past can unintentionally cause rope burns on the backs of our legs. Managing your slack will decrease the risk of this, but regardless, we need to be sure to wear appropriate clothing. Long pants (ideally, sturdy denim jeans) and closed toed shoes are essential when working with longlines. Some handlers will also wear protective leather gloves when handling the lines, especially with larger, stronger dogs.
- Only take one dog out for this type of walk at a time. Multiple dogs are likely to get tangled up or can injure each other with the longlines. As their handler, you can only appropriately manage one longline at a time during this style of adventure.
- When you are taking your furry friend to one of those longline walks, make sure that the wether is appropriate. Too hot or too cold weather can cause health issues if you stay outside for too long.
Learning how to work while on a longline is a skill that must be developed, for both humans and dogs! In the beginning, we want to be sure to choose spaces that will make this process as safe and easy as possible. Ideally, these should be spaces far away from traffic, dogs, and people, out in nature. In more urban environments, large open fields at a local park or soccer fields with no one using them work well, too. Regardless, you’ll want to be sure that even if your dog is at the end of their line, in every direction, there are no safety risks or concerns they may encounter, such as roads, wildlife, other dogs, or people. With an increase in skillset and practice you may begin to take longline walks in more complicated spaces.
Training while on the longline:
The primary goal of longline walks is to let our dogs decompress and just be a dog! This means that unless their safety is at risk, it will be a dog-directed walk, where we are largely letting them dictate what they do and where they go. There are a few training elements we’ll want to consider, however.
Teaching your dog not to pull:
Even on a longer line, we’ll want to ensure our dogs are not practicing pulling us. Pulling on the line is unsafe for both our dogs and ourselves, so we’ll work on teaching them that pulling does not result in them moving forward, with the goal of eliminating any pulling all together long-term. If your dog goes to the end of the line and is pulling, plant your feet and do not continue forward. You can verbally encourage your dog to move back towards you and when they do, praise them, and move in the opposite direction. In general, we find pulling is much less likely to happen when they have room to move more freely, but we will need to be consistent if and when pulling does occur.
We can also support them with learning where the end of the long line is by calling out a word like “careful!” as they approach the end of the line. Soon they will begin to learn that this word means the end of the line, and therefore the room they have to run is near, resulting in them slowing down or pausing during the walk.
We recommend taking a full treat pouch of treats with you every time you take your dog out into the world, and we’ll recommend the same during longline walks. While we want the dogs to explore and sniff as we largely follow their lead, we will recommend reinforcing a skill called check-ins. When a dog “checks in” (offering any attention to us, whether that be running over to us or simply raising their head to look at us), we can and should praise them and offer them a few treats. This is not something that we’ll ask for or cue! Resist the urge to call their name or make attention getting noises. Instead, calmly watch them as they explore and enjoy themselves, and if the occasion arises where they turn to look at you, immediately offer praise and reward with treats. For some dogs, they may not check in at all during a longline walk! For others, it may only happen once or twice. That is normal and just fine! We want to be prepared, however, to support our dogs with learning that engaging with us is a positive choice they should make repeatedly! This can be an excellent foundation to teaching a reliable recall. To increase the likelihood of check-ins occurring during the longline walk, offer your dog a few treats before the walk begins, before they even step out of your vehicle. This way your dog begins the adventure knowing you have valuable rewards on you that are available to them.
If your dog is showing no interest in the treats you have when you first arrive at your walk location, you may need to have a higher-value of treat with you going forward. You can test your dog’s interest in different foods prior to your walk by offering your dog a treat sampling at home. This taste testing can include fresh deli meats, freeze-dried meat treats, peanut butter, etc. Whichever treat your dog is most enthusiastic about having more of should be one of the treats you take with to reinforce check-ins during your longline walks.
Going for the first longline walk:
Once our dog has an appropriate harness (with identification on them), we have appropriate weight-tested longlines, we are wearing the right clothing, have a full treat pouch of tasty treats, and a perfect spot picked out, then we’re ready to go for our first longline walk! When you begin, resist the urge to give them the full length of the longline right from the start and be sure to keep slack gathered up instead of letting it drag on the ground. As they begin to sniff and explore, you can slowly give them more and more line. If they offer a check-in (glancing at you), praise and feed them, then continue walking. This type of walk is a quieter and more relaxed activity than many of us are used to, and it may take practice to settle in and begin to appreciate the quiet beauty of watching your dog take in their environment. Remember, this walk is about giving our dogs what they need for their own emotional and mental health. If they want to sniff the same patch of grass for several minutes straight, go ahead and let them- there is no need to rush them along or feel as though they need to move quickly through the space with you. If anything, the slower the better! If your dog is struggling to slow down and simply wants to charge ahead, you can encourage this calmer behavior by periodically scattering treats in the grass for them to sniff out and find.
We typically find that 20-60 minutes of this activity produces significantly more exhaustion than a walk of the same duration around your neighborhood, as the mental stimulation is exponentially higher. This activity is an excellent option for all dogs- shy dogs who need to build confidence, active dogs who would benefit from more physical and mental stimulation, elderly dogs who move at a slower pace, puppies who are acclimating to the world for the first time, and more! Remember to keep a close eye on your environment and steer clear of roads, wildlife, other dogs, and people. Most importantly, be safe and have fun on your walk!