DEAR DIDI: My wife and I are having a disagreement about which side to teach our dog to walk on. Which side is correct or does it even matter? -Loving Couple
DEAR LOVING: Excellent question! Thank you for writing in. The side on which your dog walks on definitely does matter for a variety of reasons. You should take into consideration a variety of factors when deciding whether to train the left or right side. If you have any interest in competition obedience you must train the left side. Since most of my readers are probably not AKC competitors, let’s look at other factors.
The side that is best for you is really dependent on your needs. Anyone using a weapon while handling a dog will train their dog to walk to the opposite side of their dominant hand which will be operating the weapon. This is to avoid the dog getting shot. Service dog handlers will generally walk on the opposite side of their dominant hand also in order to keep that hand free for needed activities like signing their name, opening doors, choosing objects from supermarket shelves, etc. Some people have a permanent weakness or injury to one side of their body and may choose to have their dog on their strong side instead. I have a friend who is blind in her right eye, so her dog walks on the right and she says that keeps her from running into as many things. I tend to have my clients follow the traditional route. If you are right handed your dog should walk on the left. Conversely, lefties have their dogs walking on the right side.
So why is it important to pick a side, you may ask. When a dog is first learning leash manners we are asking them to mirror our movements. They have to maneuver differently when we turn right versus when we turn left. If they are on the outside of the turn, they have to quicken their pace in order to keep up and stay in place. If they are on the inside of the turn, they may actually have to pivot in place if it is a tight turn. Pick a side and stick with it until the dog has the task down pretty well or it will confuse them and keep muscle memory from setting in. In advanced training it can be advantageous to teach them, using a different verbal command, to switch to the other side. If I need to pass someone coming the opposite direction who is also walking a dog I may ask my dog to switch to my other side for an added buffer zone between dogs. Dogs training in agility also need the ability to constantly switch sides.
Either way, the point of asking our dogs to learn to walk at our sides is for their safety … and ours. Hundreds of thousands of people each year end up needing medical care for scrapes, sprains and broken bones from their dog tripping them during a walk. A broken hip from an over enthusiastic standard poodle is a life altering event. Our four-legged companions should not pull, walk ahead of us, suddenly switch sides, refuse to walk in order to sniff bushes, or yank us to the right because they see a cat under Mrs. Johnson’s Prius. Additionally, dogs can suffer hip problems, broken toes or sprained backs when we trip and land on them. The costs of veterinary bills and their physical pain are pretty clear. My advice to you and your wife would be to agree on a side initially. When your dog reaches an intermediate level of ability, train the other side. Once both sides are trained you can use whichever side suits you while walking.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. To ask your dog behavior question, email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.