Walk, don’t walk.

Part of life with our dogs is the daily – or twice daily – dog walk. When we look to take a dog
into our lives, one of the things we look at is how much exercise they need and factor that into
our choice of breed (or at least we should!).


With unpredictable weather changes, the internet is full of discussions about
how much exercise a dog needs and how to manage that when the temperatures soar.
What no one seems to really think about is ‘why do dogs need exercise?’. What good does it
do them?


After all, feral dogs or village dogs don’t take themselves off for long hikes across the
countryside – in fact apart from searching for food and looking for a mate, most of the rest of
the time, they are pretty lazy (although in some cases and locations, the search for food can
take all day). Exercise uses up energy, which comes from food – and if your food sources are
scarce – as they are for most unowned dogs (which make up around 80% of the world’s dogs),
wasting it on aimless running around isn’t a great survival strategy.


So why do we exercise our dogs? The obvious one is to give them physical activity which
keeps their bodies healthy and their brains happy. We provide them with plenty of good
quality food and so conserving energy isn’t something our dogs have to even consider. And of
course, we have specifically bred some dogs over hundreds of years to be highly active so they
can do the jobs we want them to do – whether that is herd sheep, help hunters or catch
vermin.


More than that, however, walking our dogs provides them with enrichment – new sights,
sounds, smells and environments that break up the potential boredom of being stuck in a
house all day. Unlike unowned dogs who can wander where they choose when they choose
and have a life full of stimulation, enrichment and novelty (even if coupled with danger and
jeopardy), our dogs in comparison live very sedentary boring lives unless we recognise their
need for enrichment and are dedicated to providing that.


Our dog walking times are excellent bonding experiences (if we do it right and don’t spend
the whole walk looking at our phones), and it is a chance to work together to put all the
training you’ve been doing into practice.


Also, exercise uses up energy that if not given an outlet, could so easily result in frustration,
boredom, stress, anxiety and hyperactivity which in turn leads to all kinds of behaviour
problems – including destructive behaviour, noise nuisance, and aggression.
So, our daily walk is for exercise but also for enrichment, training practice, socialisation, novelty,
bonding, and prevention of behaviour problems.


The problem, however, is that for some dogs, in some situations, the daily walk can cause more
problems than it solves.


For those dogs who are highly reactive – to other dogs, strange people or environmental
novelty – the daily walk can be a constant bombardment of arousal. For those who are worried or fearful, it can further convince them that there are some really scary things out
there as they meet them almost every single day.


For both of these types of dogs – and their owners – the daily walk can be something they
dread. Their walks become totally framed around avoiding things that cause reactivity, stress
or even potentially dangerous situations. This breaks down the relationship, leads owners to
avoid walks entirely (and so behaviour can deteriorate further) – and it puts them and their
dogs in a constant state of stress and disharmony.

And of course, any behaviour that is practiced gets better – and so their behaviour worsens. But of course, these owners have been told that they must walk their dogs every day!

Here’s a shocking news flash. You don’t have to.


A dog walk is meant to be fun and enjoyable – and it provides physical exercise, mental
stimulation, novelty, bonding and an opportunity to work together. If your daily walk is
causing stress, anxiety, fear, behaviour issues, and a breakdown of your relationship, then it
isn’t fulfilling its purpose and you need to throw away the rulebook and have a rethink about
how you are going to provide all this in another, stress-free way.


Your dog needs exercise. If you have a large garden, an hour or two of training, play and
enrichment (including scent exercises, training exercises, retrieve games, hide and seek etc)
can give your dog the physical exercise they need – and of course, be a bonding exercise and
one where you and your dog are totally focused on each other the whole time. This provides
not only physical exercise but also mental stimulation, bonding and a great chance to practice
training exercises. Better still, it does it without stress.


If you don’t have a large garden, you are going to have to be a little more creative. If you
have a small dog, you can certainly do a lot of this in the house, or perhaps in a nearby friend
or relation’s garden, but thankfully there are secure dog fields springing up around the country that you can hire that would fit the bill perfectly. Social media can be a good way to
find these (most areas have a local dog owners/walkers page where you can ask that
question).


Obviously, this is going to be expensive and unpractical to do every day, so identifying a
quiet location close by and time (this could mean some very early mornings!) that you can
exercise your dog without the stress and the triggers that you know affect them is going to be
invaluable. Don’t just keep doing what you have been doing and think things will get better –
they won’t.


For some dogs, this might only be a short-term measure. If your dog has had a really scary
experience (maybe with another dog), giving them a couple of days off with home/garden-
based exercise to recover, and for the neurotransmitters that are involved in the development
of fear and anxiety to return to normal (which can take far longer than people imagine), can
prevent problems from becoming established as a regular behavioural strategy. This is especially true with adolescent dogs who are beginning to look at the world with the eyes of an adult and reassessing what is safe and what is dangerous.

Or if you have taken on a rescue dog who you want to give time to settle down in their new
home.

With others, this might be a perfect stop-gap measure until you can get professional help and
establish a behaviour modification programme for your dog.


Walking your dog should be enjoyable for both of you – and if it isn’t, time for a rethink!

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