The Art of the Parallel Walk
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Parallel walking is a skill I believe all dog owners would benefit from having. Certainly those of us with reactive, sensitive, over-exuberant or occasionally rude dogs need this skill most of all, but honestly most dogs could stand to slow down and learn to casually co-exist with exciting new dogs in the way that parallel walking makes possible.


So what exactly is parallel walking? A parallel walk can be a bit of a misnomer because it creates the image of two dogs, side by side, walking in the same direction. This can be a great goal to work towards, but the walk may start out with LOTS of distance, and the dogs can often be staggered. The goal is to have two dogs (with separate handlers) walking the dogs more or less in the same direction (as opposed to walking towards one another) with enough distance for the whole thing to be no big deal. I like to set these walks up in places where there are plenty of interesting bushes and other sniffy stuff around to engage with, too. The idea is that the presence of the other dog should not be the most exciting thing.


The challenge with explaining how to parallel walk two dogs is that the dogs really dictate a lot about how the walk is going to look. The important thing is to set up both dogs for comfort and success with however much distance is needed. Staggering can also be helpful - some dogs prefer to be ahead, some dogs do better walking slightly behind the other dog. For Muchacho, walking slightly behind the other dog helps him feel like he's getting to check out the other dog without as much pressure. When he's ahead, he tends to nervously look behind him, increase his pace, and has a harder time of settling into the walk. Understanding your particular dog's body language, and making adjustments as needed is also really important.


As the walk progresses, both handlers can mark and reinforce their dogs for choosing to disengage from the other dog. Staring is rude, so practicing being aware of another dog but being able to remove focus from them is a great skill. As body language relaxes, the distance can slowly be decreased. This can be a bit of a back and forth sometimes. Clues that you're getting too close may be that your dog is unable to remove their focus from the other dog, that they are taking treats harder or faster, or not taking treats at all, vocalizations like whining or growling (and definitely barking or lunging! lots more distance needed in those cases!), or hackles being raised.


Sometimes multiple walks are needed, or just going for a walk with some distance is the goal. That's fine! Keeping things successful and ending at whatever distance is still comfortable is great. If the goal is to make friends and interact a bit, releasing slack for both dogs as they find something interesting to sniff together is a great walk to ease them into closer proximity. One dog may take the initiative to sniff the other's butt, which is also great, as long as both still seem relaxed. If the sniffing is going on a little long, or any stiffness is observed, it can be helpful to call the dogs away in a chipper, happy voice to help regain a little distance and remind the dogs that they can take breaks as needed.


Communicating with the other handler is also very important, since you may not know their dog's signals as well as they do, or you may observe something from an angle that they're not able to see. Pointing out stiffness, asking if their dog is okay or needs a break, communicating something you're seeing from your own dog - all great ways to make sure everyone is on the same page.


Often we do introductions with two dogs moving face to face with tight leashes. By allowing approaches when both dogs are at peak arousal, we tend to make the interaction more intense, and the intensity can easily spill into conflict. The goal of the parallel walk is to gradually decrease distance with the other dog without a lot of intense focus on the other dog. For an insecure dog, getting the extra time to take in the other dog and get comfortable, the slow approach is really helpful. For many reactive dogs, the reaction is often a defensive mechanism, and by moving this slowly we are able to eliminate the perceived need for the "big scary dog" show. For dogs with a pushy or rude approach to greeting other dogs, by giving them a little time to settle before any interaction happens, taking this slower approach allows arousal to decrease so that they can interact in a more polite way that is more likely to be well received by the other dog.


This is how I introduce new dogs into my dogs' lives, as well as how I conduct dog intros at the shelter where I work (both with shelter dogs for playgroup and to introduce shelter dogs to potential adopters' dogs). The more you practice, the better you'll get at observing, and the more comfortable you'll get making decisions.