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How to Walk Your Dog While Social Distancing

June 12, 2020

Even though some states may be reopening in phases, you should still be social distancing with your dog. The CDC recommends taking the same precautions with your dog as if they were a person, which means maintaining 6 feet of distance between them and other people and animals while you walk them outside. 

Social distancing while walking your dog can come with some challenges, but here are some tips for staying safe while getting in your pup’s daily exercise.

 

Getting your dog used to face masks

Some dogs may be apprehensive or scared around people wearing face masks. This makes sense given how tuned into our facial cues dogs are. Face coverings cut off a major channel of communication between humans and dogs.

With most dog training, a positive reward is key. A face mask is no different. The School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University recommends counterconditioning your dog by pairing things your dog likes (toys or treats) with someone wearing a face mask. Start feeding your dog or playing with them while wearing a mask. Over time, your dog will start to form a positive association with it. It’s also a good idea to show other people in the household wearing masks so your dog knows it’s not exclusive to you. Be patient and take the training slow at first, spending no more than 5 minutes wearing a mask around your dog.

If your dog doesn’t accept treats because they’re too fearful of the mask, veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil at Tufts recommends using systematic desensitization. Introduce the negative stimulus at a low enough intensity (in this case, showing a person with a face mask at a far enough distance). Pair a high-value treat with the person’s presence and gradually move your dog closer to them whenever they show signs of being comfortable.

 

Social distancing your dog from people

It can be tricky to keep your dog from approaching other people while you’re on walks. Whether your pup is a social butterfly or nervous around strangers, they may want to get up closer to investigate. Wag suggests using the “Ignore” method to get your dog used to strangers. 

Enlist a friend to meet you and your dog somewhere in a public place (that isn’t too crowded). Your friend will act as the “stranger.”

Ignore your dog if they show any signs of excited behavior toward the stranger: barking, whining, jumping, pacing, and etc. Stay calm and don’t make eye contact or try to restrain them. When your dog starts to calm down, “have the stranger toss the dog a treat. Neither you, nor the stranger should pay excess attention to the dog.”  Teach them that strangers on walks are a good thing and start carrying treats on your walks to reinforce that training.

 

Social distancing your dog from other dogs

Getting your dog used to other dogs will also require a “stranger” to partner with (which may prove to be trickier than finding a human volunteer). 

Vet Street recommends starting in a neutral space such as an open field or park. Keep the dogs far enough apart at first so they can see each other but don’t react. From there, reward your dog with a treat and audible praise for the following:

  • Looking at the other dog without barking
  • Sitting and facing you on command while the other dog walks by
  • Heeling next to you while you approach the other dog at an angle

Reward your dog frequently at first and graduate to each step slowly, making sure your dog is totally calm around the other dog before moving on.

Your dog’s training is always ongoing. Use each new walk as another lesson to help them stay calm on the leash (and to show them new sights). If you keep up with training, your dog will be a walking pro even after the face masks come off.