This past weekend as part of the Dog T.I.P. program at the Stray Hearts Animal Shelter in Taos, NM the conversation gravitated towards the benefit (or lack thereof) of walking shelter dogs and even dogs that are already living in a home.
Erica and I discussed the benefits of walks as well as dispelling some common beliefs folks have about walking their dog.
Of course, we can all agree that taking a walk or a stroll with our dog is one of the healthiest ways of spending some quality time with our four-legged friend. Not only do walks increase our health by keeping us on the move but, it can also have a very positive impact in managing stress.
I, for one, miss the walks that Laika and I took around our Berkeley neighborhood! I don’t miss much of the San Francisco Bay area where I lived for 22 years, but I sure miss the many “routes” Laika and I had for our daily walks; especially memorable are the Spring walks! Just being able to take in all the aromas of whatever happened to be in bloom that particular morning.
So yes, of course, just a simple stroll as described above can do wonders. But wait! There is so much more we can do in order to get more bang for our walking buck.
Here are some guidelines that I follow with my own dogs and that I recommend to my clients:
1. Make sure your dog is fitted with the proper “attire/tool” for the walk. If using a harness- which has many advantages to any other tool one can use, please make sure it fits your dog properly. I have seen so many dogs trying their best to walk with their owners only to be impaired by the shoulder strap being so low on their front legs that it makes walking almost impossible. The same goes with a tightly fitting harness which can chaff your dog’s underside. Please follow the recommendations for proper harness fit for the particular harness you use. Avoid, avoid, avoid clipping your dog on a collar! Any collar if your dog pulls. Every time you allow your dog to pull (yes, we are to blame for our dogs pulling- sorry folks!) your dog is getting literally choked in the process. So either teach your dog to walk on a loose leash so that there is no choking or use a front-clip harness to help with the pulling.
2. Allow your dog to sniff at his heart’s content! This is one, if not the most, important benefits of walks for our dogs. As Alexandra Horowitz mentioned: “Dogs smell the world as we see it.” Allowing plenty of sniffing doubles as mental stimulation for our dogs since the area of the brain for this activity is actually quite large in dogs. In a pinch we can use sniffing as a “life-reward”: Your dog walks nicely on a loose leash and you reward him with a sniff.
3. If your pup has some basic obedience (sit, sit/stay, downs, leave it, etc.) under his belt, practice by peppering some of these behaviors when you are both out and about. Nothing wrong with having dogs sitting to cross a street- that is awesome! But why not expand the repertoire so that your dog has to work a bit harder during the walks thus increasing mental stimulation as well as solidifying some basic stuff all dogs benefit from learning.
4. Be polite with other dog owners, but prevent your dog from greeting other dogs while on leash. As I have mentioned in previous posts, on leash greetings are very cumbersome for both parties but especially so for dogs. What I recommend instead is to click and treat your dog for spotting other dogs on the road as you move on. In this manner you are teaching your dog several things at once: A.) We don’t say hi to dogs while walking on leash so there is no confusion for your dog as to why today we did say “hello” but not yesterday, creating expectation and even possible frustration when not allowed for whatever reason an interaction; B.) Your dog is getting conditioned that dogs in general and in particular when seen while on leash, mean good things for him or her, and C.) Your pup will continue to offer eye contact because you have wisely paired the sight of another dog with a click and a treat.
5. Last, if your dog can handle not being in the move and just taking a break while watching the world go by, you are teaching your dog to relax in the presence of lots of stimulation. Not all dogs can do this. If you are going to give this a go, just start by making this easy and enjoyable for your pup. Begin with just waiting somewhere out of the way and the elements- if harsh, for a minute or two at a time. Eventually you both might be able to just relax for up to 10 minutes or so.
Another cool advantage of working with our dogs while on walks, instead of just walking at the pace of a snail (at least that is what most of our dogs think we do!), is that your pup will become tired faster. If your goal is to give your dog some physical stimulation, you will need to find another activity where your dog can truly work some pent-up energy out as walks rarely do this for most dogs.