How to Safely Walk Your Dog
Leash walking doesn't come without risks; learn how to lower that risk so you don't have to press 'paws' on your walks
Dogs offer their people numerous health benefits, including getting them to move more. Studies show that dog parents are more physically active than those without dogs and more likely than non-dog people to hit the government's recommended amounts of physical activity.
Yet, despite that health boost, walking a leashed dog isn't without risk. A new study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that injuries from dog walking can be severe and are more common in certain populations than others.
"We noticed that patients were coming in nearly every day to be treated for shoulder or elbow injuries that happened while walking their dogs."
That shouldn't surprise anybody who's walked a dog. After all, you can't predict any dog's behavior, no matter how well-behaved a dog is, and one jerk of the leash could be all it takes to send you to the emergency room. Here's what you should know to stay safe.
The Leash Life Has Risks
At an orthopedic surgery clinic in Baltimore, Maryland, experts began to see a common trend. "We noticed that patients were coming in nearly every day to be treated for shoulder or elbow injuries that happened while walking their dogs," says Ridge Maxson, a fourth-year medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead author of the study.
Surprisingly, when Maxson and his colleagues began looking for studies on dog walking injuries, they couldn't find a complete summary of injuries related to leash-dependent dog walking. Hence, they began investigating on their own. What they found was telling.
Between 2001 and 2020, an estimated 422,659 American adults went to emergency rooms for injuries related to walking their dog on a leash; the annual incidence of leashed dog-walking injuries during this time was more than quadrupled.
Although women and adults aged 40 to 64 were the most prone to injury, the most serious injuries were experienced by women and adults aged 65 and up.
Three injuries emerged as the most common in this order: Finger fractures, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), including concussions and non-concussive internal head injuries, and shoulder sprains or strains. Although women and adults aged 40 to 64 were the most prone to injury, the most serious injuries were experienced by women and adults aged 65 and up.
Women were 50% more likely than men to fracture a finger while walking their dog on a leash, and compared to younger dog walkers, the older crowd was three times as likely to have a fall, more than twice as likely to sustain a fracture and 60% more likely to suffer a TBI.
While somewhat surprising, the results made sense to Maxson. "Since the leash connects the dog to the dog walker and is usually hand-held, a dog's sudden or forceful movements can pull and twist the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers," he says. "The leash can also be responsible for a fall by causing a loss of balance when a walker is pulled or the leash becomes wrapped around the legs."
But why were women more impacted than men? Possibly sex-related differences in bone strength. "Women older than 50 years have been shown to be more likely to have osteoporosis (lower bone mass and strength) than men of the same age, which puts them at greater risk of fracture," Maxson says.
Training Your Dog to Walk on a Leash
This should go without saying, but the first step in preventing injury while walking a leashed dog is to train your dog to walk on that leash. How much training your dog will need depends on the dog, as highly distractible pets may take longer than others.
No matter the dog, "I advise at least one year of fully engaged leash training," says Amber Walker, KPA-CTP, an animal trainer with Animal Intuitions in Batavia, Illinois. "This amount of time allows you to evaluate areas the dog may need further training or recognize places to avoid while walking."
Women older than 50 years have been shown to be more likely to have osteoporosis than men of the same age, which puts them at greater risk of fracture.
Start by teaching your dog that you're higher value than the rest of the environment on the walk, she says. Begin with low-distraction walking in your house and yard to build a connection with your dog, using a precious food reward or toy.
Secondly, teach eye contact. "This allows your dog to check in and lets you know that your dog is checking in," she says.
Train this as its behavior and add it to the walk as time progresses. And, of course, don't forget to reinforce often, telling your dog quickly and frequently when he or she does something right. Then when you're walking, use a four- to six-foot leash, preferably made of nylon or leather, Walker says. Never use a retractable leash, which can injure you and your dog.
Plus, "it's challenging to properly leash train a dog on [a retractable leash] because it encourages pulling, and these leashes can allow the dog to go unsafe distances from their person," she says. Dogs can get mild to severely injured from whiplash by reaching the end of the retractable cord, which can surprise both the person and the dog.
How you hold the leash is also key, as you should never wrap a leash around your hand, wrist or arm. "There's no way to release the leash in an emergency," says Walker, who's had many clients show up to a training session with bruises and rashes after wrapping the leash around their arm and their dog draggong them.
Instead, allow the leash some slack and hold that loose leash with the hand that's on the same side as your dog. The opposite hand should then hold the handle across your body.
Other Ways to Prevent Injuries
Training your dog to walk on a leash is only part of your injury prevention plan. Other strategies can also keep you safe as you walk together:
- Wear the right shoes: Well-fitting, comfortable shoes are best when walking dogs, Walker says. Just avoid flip-flops which are a tripping hazard on their own.
- Warm up your body: Treat your dog walk like a workout and ensure you warm up, says Robbie Mann, P.T., physical therapist and regional director for FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers Company Clinics in Asheville, North Carolina. Move every joint through its full range of motion and do gentle stretches before your walk. Also, avoid long walks until you've been awake for two to three hours to give your muscles and joints time to loosen up and reduce muscle strains.
- Be aware of your surroundings: The environment in which you walk your dog is so fluid that you never know what might make your dog move quickly or unpredictably. So put away any digital devices and keep your head up and eyes open for anything that might cause your dog to react or bolt. That includes dogs in yards, especially if they're reactive or aggressive to other dogs or people, and dog parks or places where dogs congregate, especially off leash. "Changing your route and avoiding areas with known dog issues can help avoid conflict to help keep you and your dog safe," Walker says.
- Work on improving your balance and strength: Balance and bone health start to decline as you get older, and "studies have shown that strength and balance exercises decrease the risk of falls and fractures for older adults," Maxson says. Hire a qualified fitness expert to help you if you're unsure where to get started. Mann says you might even consider getting your balance checked by a physical therapist.
- Talk with your doctor: Ask your doctor what factors might put you at risk for falling or experiencing a fracture when you leash walk your dog, Maxson says. Your doctor can offer suggestions for how you can lower that risk.
Like any physical activity, dog walking isn't injury free. Yet with the above strategies, you can reduce risk so that you and your dog won't have to take a hiatus from those daily walks.