Seven tips for trouble-free walkies

Whatever the time of year, walking your dog in the park or countryside can be pleasant and relaxing - but not if he runs off or gets into scrapes. Victoria Spicer asks experts for advice on how to make walks safe and fun for both of you. From the PetPeople magazine archive

It sounds idyllic - a long, relaxing walk on open ground, your dog at your heel. But what if the reality is far from this? Getting out into the countryside may seem the perfect time to let your dog off the lead, but if he's going to dash off or chase other animals, it can end up being a stressful experience for everyone. It's better to strike a balance between keeping him on the lead and letting him have some freedom at appropriate times. 'Time off the lead is essential to a dog's health and wellbeing,' says Sean Wensley, PDSA senior veterinary surgeon. 'And effective training and keeping him on a lead near potential hazards will help ensure he exercises safely.'

1. Start early
To avoid problems when he is older, it's important to put in the groundwork when he's a puppy. Make sure you teach your dog how to respond to essential commands, such as 'stay' and 'come', in a safe enclosure to pre-empt issues when out walking in the open. As Janet Ardley, a professional dog trainer and qualified behaviourist, says: 'If you don't have your dog's respect at home, you're not going to have it out on walks. Ideally, you need to start training him from an early age.'

2. Dog meets dog
Dogs can react aggressively when they meet other canines, creating a stressful situation for both dogs and owners. The key, according to dog walker Anne Lamb from Herefordshire, is to keep calm. 'You can usually spot possible conflict a mile away by your dog's body language - tail up, head up, ears pricked up. That is the time to get your dog back. Call him instantly - don't wait to meet trouble halfway,' she says.

3. Thrill of the chase
Many dogs can't resist the urge to chase anything small and furry, and once theyve caught the trail of another animal it can be impossible to regain their attention. If your dog does chase wildlife, it's vital to keep him under control. William Wake from the National Trust says: 'Keep your distance from wild animals and avoid getting between them and their young.' Dog owner Nikki Goldup, from Cambridgeshire, advises taking toys out on walks or distracting your dog with treats. 'Little cheese cubes or chopped sausage work well to keep your dog's attention,' she says.

4. Back to heel
If your dog has been enjoying some freedom off the lead, it can be hard to get him back under control. But it's vital you establish a heel routine, in case you have to cross a road, or walk past pedestrians or horse riders. 'Dogs need leadership,' says Anne Lamb. 'When it's time to go back on the lead, they must come back instantly. It takes time to establish this behaviour and get their respect, but start off with a pack-leader mentality and you can't go wrong.'

5. Lead the way
Extending leads can be really useful for dogs that need some freedom but can't be trusted to go off lead, while harnesses are good for dogs that pull. Joanna Way from pet accessories company Dogs & Co also recommends using a police training lead. 'It consists of a long piece of leather with a clip at each end. Along its length is a series of rings that allow you to shorten or lengthen the lead when you need to give your dog the maximum freedom in open country,' she says.

6. Fun on the farm
If your dog chases sheep or cows, it could end in disaster. A dog that worries, attacks or chases livestock could be contravening the Dogs Act of 1953. This is punishable by a hefty fine, compensation and possibly a destruction order - and a farmer can lawfully shoot a dog caught worrying his livestock. Janet Ardley runs courses in Cumbria, training dogs not to chase sheep. 'I have permission from a local farmer to use his flock of sheep. The dogs spend an hour with me walking on a long line among the sheep. I use a firm voice to say 'leave', and if that doesn't work, a sudden noise such as a clicker can be effective,' she explains. Conversely, if a farm animal chases you, it's best to let your dog off the lead so you can both make a safe getaway.

7. Water works
Some dogs absolutely love water and like nothing better than going for a swim. But Mark Bossley, chief vet at the Blue Cross animal charity, advises caution. 'Don't let them near ponds where algae is growing as some types of algae can be toxic to dogs - even deadly. Not all dogs are strong swimmers, so it's safer to only let these dogs near shallow water and keep a close eye on them. Finally, during the winter, never let your dog run onto ponds or expanses of water that have frozen over,' he says.

Safety first