When it comes to feeling guilty about our four-legged friends, the most common reason for owners feeling guilty is when they haven’t walked their dog everyday of the week. Most training books, websites and professionals will tell you the number one rule of dog ownership is you must take your dog for a least one walk a day, everyday.
And why not? Exercise is important for dogs and they love being outdoors, sniffing around, seeing new things, meeting new people, running around for hours with a waggy tail and a slobbery smile. They run to the door at the first hint of their lead being picked up ready to get out and do the above, they wait patiently (mostly) for you to get home from work and clip that lead on and shoot off to the park. Walks help alleviate boredom in dogs and can help to solve behavioural issues.
However, there are many things you as a dog owner need to consider before taking your dog for a daily walk. Not all dogs love going for walks and can even find them stressful. Some dogs are too scared by things in the outside world, such as cars, bikes other dogs and people. Although they might not seem hugely distressed because they are not pulling to go back home - although some do - there will be other signs that your pooch is not enjoying their outing including;
- ears back
- pulling hard on the lead
- excessive panting
- hyper awareness.
These are often mistaken as a dog who is eager to run or misbehaving. The more obvious signs are easier to distinguish such as cowering, wide eyes, crying and shutting down. If you and your dog are dreading the walk, then is it worth it?
Breed, weight and age
Small, overweight, elderly or young pooches may not enjoy long energetic walks and they could in fact be harmful to them. Most would benefit more from a gentle potter around and quality time spent with their owner. As a general rule with puppies for the length of time they should be walked is five minutes per month of their age, so a six month old puppy should receive no more than 30 minute walks at a time, but this can be two or three times a day.
Walks DO NOT automatically solve behavioural issues. Whilst walks can help with some behaviour problem such as chewing and hyperactivity, it isn’t a magic cure, especially if your issues relate to the walk itself, think pulling on the lead and reactivity. Much more training and work is needed away from walks in order to solve 99% of problem behaviours.
Quality not quantity
I am not saying for one minute that you shouldn’t or don’t have to walk your dog. Walks are an important part of a dog's wellbeing, but what needs to be considered when you do walk your dog is what, when, where and how much. Try to think of walks as outings and activities, not just exercise.
WHAT - I will refer to this as ‘what type’ of exercise is your dog getting. Running, jogging, running alongside a bike, ball chasing, playing with other dogs, swimming and hikes are all very popular ways dog owners choose to exercise their dogs. All of these are good ways to exercise your dog BUT it must be done in moderation. For example; 30 minutes of chasing a ball one after another is not a good way to exercise your dog, it can cause lots of injuries, exhaustion and adrenaline rushes, all of which will cause your dog discomfort and stress. If your dog enjoys playing fetch then do it in moderation, once or twice a week with breaks in between each throw, better yet use it as an opportunity to teach your dog self control, so they have to wait and stay whilst you throw the ball, once the ball has landed then you can send your dog after it. Think about in what way you exercise your dog and if you need to make any changes to it. With puppies or fearful dogs this refers to short training walks for socialisation or counter conditioning.
WHEN - if your dog gets too over threshold around lots of dogs then don’t take them for a walk at peak walking hours, wait until it’s quieter. Does your dog have a strong prey drive and no recall? Choose times when there is less chance of wildlife being out, such as midday (if not too hot) and avoid early mornings or dusk until you have solved these issues. Again if you are having issues out on walks and you and your dog are stressed have a think about what is causing this and what time of day might be better for your dog to be walked during.
WHERE - think about what your dog struggles to cope with in the outside world. Is it traffic? Then try to avoid places where there are a lot of cars. Children? Walk somewhere where children are less likely to be and so on. What I find most dogs enjoy the most is a quiet walk by a river or in the woods where there are less people, dogs and noises. Where they can sniff around in the under growth and take in all the scents, and every walk is a different smell sensation. Parks and playing fields tend to be either boring for our dogs or too crowded.
HOW MUCH - this is another major issue you should consider when exercising your dog. Too much exercise can cause more problems than it solves. Taking your dog for five hours of runs and walks a day will soon turn them into an adrenaline junky! Dogs have no problems in physically out performing us, so taking your dog for longer and longer walks everyday in the hope of wearing them out will actually create an athlete and one who is now addicted to exercise. There is nothing wrong with being out for hours with your dog, but you should combine running around with outside training exercises and calming low impact games such as ‘find it’ (sprinkling food on the ground for your dog to find).
If my dog doesn’t benefit from an everyday walk, what else can I do?
99% of dog owners will say their dog must be walked in order to get physical exercise, but what most forget is a dog also needs mental exercise as well. Whilst going for a walk does fulfil some of both physical and mental exercise/stimulation, a walk still leaves part of it unfilled.
There are loads of things you can do with your dog at home instead of going for a walk which combines both a physical and mental workout for your dog. You could:
- Feed your dog some of his daily allowance from a Kong or food puzzle toy.
- Hide your dog’s food around the house and garden so they have to use their nose to search for it.
- Do some trick training with your dog, most tricks require your dog to use their brain as well as some part of their body. For example teaching a dog how to ‘beg or sit pretty’ really works their core body muscles in order to get into and maintain the position.
- Do some clicker training with your dog for all the basic commands. (sit, down, stay etc.)
- Give your dog a massage. Think about how you feel after a nice massage; relaxed, energised and healthy, your dog will feel the same way. It may not seem like it but learning how to relax is a very important mental and physical exercise for dogs, especially those who are anxious or stressed.
- Spend time at home in the safety of your house or garden working on your dogs fears/anxieties. If your dog is afraid of traffic then sit at your front door and feed your dog every time a car goes past.
All these in home activities not only exercise your dog mentally and physically but also improves their bond with you, teaches them something new which you could use to help control your dog out on a walk, raises your dog's confidence and keeps your dog calm and their adrenaline levels low.
So ask yourself these questions before walking your dog;
What is the point of the walk?
Who is benefitting from the walk?
What else can I do?
And adjust how, what, where and when you exercise your dog by thinking about what YOUR dog actually wants/needs, not what YOU want them to want/need.
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