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Dr. Bonnie Franklin: Tips to Keep Your Dog — and You — Safe on Your Walks

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Does your best friend go a little crazy when you put on their leash? Is there a mad dash to the front door, a leap out of the car, a sprint to the beach and a race with a big tug to meet a another dog?

In any year, more than 50,000 people will experience a dog-related injury, and those over age 65 are at the most risk for hurting themselves when they are walking their dog and accidentally get pushed or pulled over by their overzealous companion.

Our best friends can literally drag us into the emergency room.

“In the past couple of years, we’re seeing an exponential increase in people falling while walking their dogs,” according to Dr. Mark Cohen, an orthopedic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Some of the injuries are quite serious.

“We frequently see these dog walking-related injuries in the emergency room,” said Dr. John Torres, an emergency room physician and an NBC News medical correspondent.

“They involve them getting tangled in the leash or trying to avoid stepping on their dog, and usually result in fractures to the wrist and forearm. But it’s not unusual to see someone with a hip fracture from falling during a dog walk.”

A dog yanking on a leash when your arm is outstretched can cause “Shepherd’s Strain,” which can be painful or even cause a shoulder dislocation and sprained wrist.

Then there is “Tail Wagger Wrist” that results from wrapping your wrists and fingers around your dog’s leash or tucking them under their collar. It can be painful or even cause a shoulder dislocation, a sprained wrist and damage to your fingers.

You know that these are not an uncommon dog walking injuries when physicians refer to them in dog terms.

I asked Wency Elaine, a trainer/behaviorist and owner of Wency’s Dog & Puppy Training in Santa Barbara, for some tips. She has studied dog behavior from a dog’s point for more than 25 years.

She said dogs walk with a pack mentality. They walk to hunt. They have a sense of smell that is least 100,000 times greater than humans’.

Our dogs follow one scent to another. Between all the scents and what they see on a walk, our dogs often forget about us at the other end of the leash.

From a dog’s perspective, we walk far too slowly. To follow interesting scent trails and get where they want to go, dogs will drag their people behind them as fast as they can.

One of the most common responses we have to a dog pulling on the leash is to pull back. However, this rarely gets the desired effect of a loose leash. Instead, we end up in a leash tug-of-war, and with a large and strong dog, chances are we will loose this tug-of-war.

Especially if you have a big dog, the injuries from this sudden burst of speed can be even worse. This sudden pulling can pull you to the ground or in front of a car. It may cause other injuries, especially to middle-aged necks and shoulders.

Wency suggests using a tight leash with your dog at your side with their head, neck and shoulder up against your leg. A shorter leash means your dog can’t gather up as much speed if he or she starts to run. A long leash means that once they reach the end of the leash there will be a lot of speed.

To teach them to walk by your side with a loose leash, change directions when your dog stops watching you. Start your walk in your backyard or in front of your house, use a six-foot leash and when you dog moves forward just before the leash tightens you change direction. The correction will be away from you.

Use treats and praise when the dog is next to you. Repeat changing direction over and over until the dog settles in and walks at your side. If you have a more free-spirited dog (dominant), the dog will take more repetition to get it to understand that it is not going anywhere if you are not in front and in control of the walk.

Some harnesses help keep a dog from pulling, especially with smaller dogs, and are much safer for a dog’s trachea. Wency recommends the original Easy Walk Harness by PetSafe, which gently discourages your small- to medium-size dogs from pulling on the leash.

When your dog pulls, the harness steers your dog to the side and redirects its attention toward you.

Avoid retractable leash devices. They seem like a great invention, but they are known to cause injuries to both people and dogs.

Injuries happen because the dog can run too far away and get into trouble, and when you try to stop your dog in a run you can get hurt. It is very easy for your legs and your dog’s legs to get tangled up with this type of leash.

Wency said head halters may help with your dog pulling while on a walk but be careful because many dogs scratch at the halter and damage their muzzles and eyes. She also advises against walking your dog on a flat or choke collars because they can damage a dog’s trachea.

A trainer and classes can always help. A trainer/behaviorist can guide you and your dog to walk with a loose leash by your side. We also need to be trained to stay alert to our surroundings, especially by staying off our cell phones during our dog walks.

By training your dog, helping your dog to decrease distractions such as a squirrel darting across the road, and using the correct leashes, you and your dog can enjoy your walks safely.

We all know that dog walks are good exercise — for us and our dogs. What a better way to get rid of stress for you and your best friend.

— Dr. Bonnie Franklin is a relief veterinarian who grew up in Santa Barbara. She earned her doctorate of veterinary medicine from a joint program of Washington State and Oregon State universities, a master’s degree in wildlife biology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and does consulting work with the U.S. Forest Service.

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