Let's Go For A Walk (or A Sniff!)

So the great weather is here and we’re all ready to get outside and go walking with our dogs.  Sounds like fun, right?  A little fitness walking and time with your dog so we can both get in shape on our walks.  Ah, but there’s the rub.  Here’s really what’s happening on our walks – we’ve got a serious culture clash going on between the Primates and the Canines.  We primates want to walk and look around and use our walks to socialize a bit and exercise our dogs.  But from the dog’s perspective they use their walks to catch up on what’s happening in the neighborhood via their noses.  While we can appreciate some of the smells  on our walks, our dogs are getting such a wide variety of smells and they’re programmed to interpret them in much more detail then we are.  They process scents like we process colors.  So while we see rainbows in the sky they smell “rainbows” in the grass and on that lamppost! Think of smells being a bit like your dog’s version of social media allowing them to catch up on the latest updates on who’s in the ‘hood.

So here’s the culture clash, you want to go on an efficient fitness walk and your dog wants to smell every few feet – this can set up a frustrating situation for both you and your dog.  But there are some methods you can try that can help make a difference and a change in perspective and expectations can make a world of difference.

In Dr. Patricia McConnell’s recent article, Take Your Dog on a Sniff, she mentions, “…what [dogs] most need is the freedom to use their noses. That is easy for us who can walk our dogs off leash. But leashed dogs need owners willing to compromise—an invigorating primate walk with our dogs trotting alongside part of the time, and the rest includes the dog getting, finally, the freedom to go from scent to scent and all the stimulation and information that entails.”

Changing your perspective and expectations on your walks will help you be there for your dog and building your connection.  Too many dog-walks happen with our headphones on or while talking on the phone. Our walks should be a time to connect with our dogs and to be there 100%.  You’ll benefit from less multi tasking and your dog will appreciate the extra attention. You’ll also be there to be able to reward them when they make good decisions like walking with a loose leash and looking up at you while on the move. The more your reward them for their good decisions the more you’ll be building that connection. Everyone likes to be rewarded for actions they took on their own rather then for actions someone told them to do.

Think of your walks as being enrichment experiences for your dog and not necessarily always fitness walks for you or really for them. How many times have you walked your dog for miles and they’re still fired up when you get home despite the fact your exhausted?  From a wellness perspective it would be better to play some brain games with your dog or a good game of fetch or tug for their increased fitness levels or perhaps as a running partner (more on this a below). Remember that 15 minutes of puzzle play is the equivalent of a one mile walk.  Never underestimate the benefits of mental stimulation.

The challenge is to keep our dogs both mentally and physically fit.  Exercise and the proper diet can keep our dogs nice and lean which is important for their joints and overall physical well being.  It’s just a matter of balance so that your dog is getting both the physical and mental opportunities to lead a balanced and healthy life.

Make your walks more interesting for both of you. Change up where you walk and when your walk. Going to new areas will be more interesting for both of you.  Explore new parks, take a walk in the woods, take a walk with other dog friends, take a walk at sunrise or sunset. Mix it up and make it interesting. Walking the same path everyday can become far less interesting and stimulating for the both of you.

Still need to work on helping your dog walk better on their leash? Try this technique. By mixing it up a  bit on your walks it will really help diminish the culture clash between you and your dog. Break your walk up into a three-part pattern and continue to repeat this pattern for the duration of your walk.

Step one – practice loose leash walking with your dog walking on a loose leash next to you. Reward them frequently when they’re walking on a loose leash.  Remember to treat them where you want them to be so that’s where they’ll expect the treat to be next time. If the leash gets tight stop (think of a tight leash being a red light and a loose leash being a green light) and wait for the leash to get loose again then move forward and continue to reward every few feet.  Do this for the length of a couple of houses  If your dog is at the beginning of learning how to loose leash walk make sure they’re wearing a front hook harness like the Freedom Harness, or Easy Walk Harness or Gentle Leader.  We carry these at the shop and they really help your dog avoid practicing pulling on the leash. Your dog will have a lot less unlearning to do on their loose leash walking practice sessions.

Step two – slow down and let your dog sniff to their heart’s content while slowly moving forward but move at their pace. Do this for about the same time that you practiced your loose leash walking.

Step three – this is your fitness/speed walk process – grab up a little of your leash and keep your dog a bit closer to you then you did when you were loose leash walking or during the sniff walk – then tell your dog you’re going to walk quickly and purposefully and with a quick stride continue to walk forward a couple of more houses.

Step four – begin the process all over again and continue to repeat this rhythm over the course of your walk. This is a great compromise for both you and your dog.  Remember to work at your dog’s level – reward them for all of their good choices (e.g. not pulling on the leash, looking up at you – paying attention, etc.)  You’ll both get the benefits that you’re looking for and no one will feel that their not getting the kind of walk they want. Plus it helps to build connection and makes the walks so much more interesting for both of you.

Not every walk has to be this formal.  Some walks may just be all about your dog’s nose.  That’s fine.  Watch your dog and see what kind of mood they’re in today.  Some days they may be perfectly fine going for a quick walk.  Some days, however, may be at a much more leisurely pace and all about the smells.  They’ll tell you what kind of walk they’d like today!

As a point of safety, please refrain from any sustained running with your dog until you’ve spoken with your veterinarian.  Some experts recommend your dog is at least 18 months to 2 years old.  Some veterinarians recommend no earlier then at least eight months old and starting out very slowly with low mileage.  Your young dog’s soft tissue and bones are still developing and your young dog is not really ready for sustained running until they’re basically full grown.  This may seem like a long time for you and your new running partner to wait but it’s in the best interest of the long-term health of your dog but you can keep them stimulated and motivated in so many different ways.  When you are ready to begin a running program with your dog here’s a helpful link on getting started.

Please always be aware of the weather avoiding daytime walks and keeping your dog properly hydrated whether you’re walking or on a run.  You want to avoid deadly heatstroke at all costs.

We love going for walks and our dogs love going for walks – we just love them for different reasons.  Meeting each other halfway and understanding what’s most important for your dog can go a long way in fostering a stronger connection with your dog and enhancing both their physical and emotional well-being.

Happy Walking!