So, dog owners, let’s discuss Pokemon Go. If you pay attention to things in the world other than your pet, you might have heard about this smart phone game, which creates a kind of treasure hunt where you need to find Pokemon that will show up on your screen. They are superimposed in your environment. But what you see depends on you navigating to certain public spots, known as Pokemon “gyms.” Sounds pretty cool. I was going to test it out this evening, but then I realized it would involve putting on pants. Instead, I just deeply thought about what playing the game must be like. “aWalking around and collecting things on the street, but things that aren’t real?” thought I. “This would be a very good game for hoarders.”
Apparently, dog walking is sometimes paired with Pokemon Go playing. There are even a few shelters (one in Indiana, one in New Mexico) who seem to be encouraging people to come walk their dogs while they are playing. I am of the opinion that non-vetted volunteers should not be walking rescue dogs at shelters. Too many things could go wrong. So, I’m against the whole thing before they added in the video game element. But I tip my hat to them for getting a lot of PR out of this!
I honestly hadn’t heard of this game until a few days ago when, in the span of just a few hours, I had several reporters and a few clients ask me my thoughts about dog walking while playing this game. My feelings were summarized in a quote I gave to Brokelyn.com: “Shouldn’t walking a dog be fun enough?
I’m sure many would argue that anything that gets dogs to spend more time walking outside is a good thing… But that line of thinking points to a single problem that leads to so many issues: We expect way to much of dogs. If you have a dog who walks right next to you, automatically sits at every curb, politely avoids greeting unknown dogs and skirts new people on the street, has no taste for sidewalk trash and can bag his own poop, then you have earned the right to play video games on your phone while you walk. Congrats.
The rest of us, however, should be playing the video game that is walking a dog. Fact is, almost all the problems that lead to dogs developing issues on leash could be avoided by closer monitoring. We have unreasonably high expectations of our pets; many people assume a dog should know how to behave on leash outdoors, even though nothing in their evolutionary history could possibly have prepared them for Bleecker Street on a Friday night. The first step towards improving street behavior is simply paying attention.
People have been looking at their phones while walking dogs for years, but I don’t blame advanced technology for the problem. Rather, I blame a simple technology that most people take for granted: The leash. I often ask my clients to start thinking about the leash in the same way you might think about a seatbelt. Do you drive recklessly because you are wearing one? Leashes should be there in case of an emergency; they shouldn’t be used to control a dog unless it is a last resort. But it’s easy to trust the equipment, and forget that you should be keeping your dog safe long before a thin piece of nylon gets involved.
A well-trained dog should generally want to walk next to you, even in a hectic urban environment. He should want to look back to check in with you every few steps. This is why I urge new dog owners to have high value treats on their person when they’re outside: Arming yourself with really good edible ammo will help you compete with the exciting environment that is the world outside of your apartment. You won’t have to have deli meat on you forever, but we need to early on fortify the notion that MY HUMAN IS EXTRA AWESOME WHEN I’M ON LEASH OUTSIDE! It is important to not have the good stuff visible at all the times — No Ziploc hands, people! You want your dog to always be thinking it’s possible that salami is in her near future.
With yummy stuff tucked in a pocket or treat pouch, you can play the game of keeping your dog interested in you. Change directions a lot so that he learns that he has to pay attention to you if he wants to know where to go; swiftly present rewards near that magic zone near your knee when your dog looks up to you. Stop abruptly at the curb, cue a sit, and see how quickly your dog starts to auto-sit at every crossing. All the while, you’ll be earning points that might not be countable, but they certainly can be cashed in for cold-nosed kisses and interspecies cuddlefests.
Bad stuff can happen to dogs outside, even if you’re eagle-eyed. I’ve known dogs who’ve nearly been hit by bikes speeding around corners, and others who’ve needed surgery because of street garbage they’ve consumed; dog-dog greetings often can escalate quickly, and people who think they know best (“It’s okay — I grew up with dogs!”) so often bombard dogs inappropriately–a few years ago we worked with a puppy who was killed on 2nd Avenue after he squirmed out of the arms of a stranger who picked him up for a hug. The owner was obviously devastated, but think about how much worse she would’ve felt if the whole thing had happened while she was catching Pikachu.
On her blog, venerated Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell recently wrote about a visit to New York City where she noted how odd it seemed to that people weren’t watching the other end of their leashes.
Very few people looked at their dog while they were walking. I didn’t think too much about that until I was walking my dogs on the farm, and realized that I almost never took my eyes off my dogs, even in a fenced area. There are several obvious reasons for that: All the dogs in the city were on leash and did not need to be “looked after” in the same sense that an off leash dog does…But there’s another reason I watch my dogs so much. I love doing it. One of my greatest joys in life is watching my dogs as they move through the environment.
Virtual reality has its perks. But, given that my non-virtual reality involves tailing the world’s cutest little furry black butt as he earnestly investigates other dog’s urine and garners coos from every passerby as he struts, I am going to stay off my phone. Screens will be around forever. My dog won’t.