We humans are obsessed with the fact that our dogs need to be walked aren’t we? How many times have we pushed ourselves to take the dogs out when we don’t feel well and probably shouldn’t go out. We walk them whatever the weather because if we don’t we feel guilty that they have been stuck in all day.
Let’s be honest how many of us have put pressure on ourselves to walk the dog twice a day or for a walk of no less than an hour? I know I have done that but I’ve realised over the years that this is not only unnecessary but not always what the dogs want or what is good for them.
All too often we forget to ask ourselves what the dogs actually want. Is the way we walk them actually beneficial to them, or is it how we, as humans, think they should be walked?
Of course going for a walk is beneficial in many ways. Different walks with lots of variation provides plenty of enrichment for our canine friends and most dogs love their walks and can’t wait to get out and see the world. But for a small proportion of dogs the walk that we think they need can be a living nightmare. And it’s these dogs I want to focus on.
The Reactive Dog
Often we see dogs that aren’t good with people or dogs, ex puppy mill and street dogs that are frightened of everything and struggle to cope. In our minds the dogs need a walk so we take them out sometimes several times a day. But how often do we stop to ask ourselves is this what the dog wants or needs? I remember many years ago being on a stand at a local show. A woman came over to me to ask my advice about her dog who was with her. The dog didn’t like people, didn’t like dogs, couldn’t bear noise and was spooky with strange objects. So I asked her why she had brought the dog to the show. Her answer was “to socialise her”. The reality was that this was the dog’s’ worst nightmare. She was in a permanent state of alert, and edgy. In essence the dog was being flooded with all the things she couldn’t handle and it was clear she wasn’t coping well at all.
We need to remember that the mind can only cope with so much. Then it either shuts down, or escalates. When any living thing is exposed to things it is not comfortable with the stress hormone cortisol is elevated. When this happens repeatedly we have permanently raised cortisol levels and this can have an effect on our physical and mental health. In addition adrenaline levels rise as the body prepares to deal with the perceived threats so what we end up with is an animal that will either become more and more reactive to the problem or shut down. When these dogs return home they will either fall asleep from exhaustion or be unable to wind down.
Another dog I worked with was an ex puppy mill dog. She was going out for walks and I was told she appeared to be enjoying them. The owners called when the dog started refusing to go for a walk. What had happened here was that the dog had reached the point where all her coping strategies were exhausted and she could no longer function on that level. Do these kinds of dogs need walking? Some do but with careful management, and others definitely do not. For some just being in a warm home and playing in the garden is all they can manage. That in itself is much better than what they had before.
These dogs sometimes need a break from all this in order to allow hormone levels to reach an equilibrium before careful ground work begins. It may be that they can cope with gentle walks in very quiet places where there will be little disturbance.
Then there is the adolescent dog
Young dogs travelling through the first 2 years will experience several stages of brain growth as well as the ebb and flow of hormones such as testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone. As these hormones rise during the cycle there is a period where the dog can’t think or listen, he/she may be manic. Recall goes out the window (it returns later). When hormones rise it can last a few days or a few weeks. If the dog can’t think or listen, again is it wise to go for a walk? We are only going to end up in a battle of wills with our dog and come home frustrated and agitated. And what has the dog learned? Since he/she can’t think or listen they have probably learned very little of we want them to learn. If we put them into a situation in this state of mind, they won’t be able to handle it, and are going to learn all the wrong things. This is often when we have recall issues, or over arousal resulting in inappropriate interactions. Far better to keep them at home for a few days or so and do some brain games or scent work with them than to have to undo the bad habits that can emerge. Not only that your dog will come home confused, frustrated and possibly stressed out and unable to relax. When things settle down normal walks can resume.
Finally we have the dogs who get huge walks several times a day to tire them out. Let’s think about what is really going on here. The more often, and longer we walk them the fitter they get and the more exercise they need. We make a rod for our backs here. Since dogs generally need to sleep 14-16 hours a day they don’t need to be super fit and ready to go. Of course some breeds do need more exercise than others but that can be addressed with lots of mental stimulation such as brain games, training, attending training days and workshops. Your dog will be just as tired after this and isn’t being made super physically fit, so then doesn’t need as much walking!
So now we come back to where we started. What about you and me? Let’s not put ourselves under pressure to walk our socks off. If we are having an off day or just plain exhausted don’t stress it. It’s ok to take a day off and give everyone a rest. Recently we’ve had a very wet, cold and windy winter. There are a number of days I’ve cancelled my dogs second walk and we’ve just played or done some trick training or even given them a special chew! To be my dogs don’t always want to go out in wet weather. I don’t beat myself up anymore about missing a walk. They’ll get a good one the next day and lots of fun at home. So moving forward think about taking a look at what we and our dogs need at that time, on that day, and make decisions from there. A few days off will do no one any harm and your dogs will thank you for not putting them into situations they can’t handle.
©Sam Redmond Dog Training and Animal Behaviour 2018 All rights reserved.