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14/05/2018 - Dog Behaviour
As dog owners, we are conditioned to take our dog for a walk every day, sometimes becoming obsessive about fitting in a dog walk in our already hectic schedule and often feeling guilty if we don’t. This mindset is further compounded when every training book, website and professional dog person tells you that the number one rule of dog ownership is, ‘you must walk your dog at least once a day’.
Well, to a degree, there is an element of truth in this although it is often over generalised. There is no doubt that exercise is extremely important for your dog and most dogs love getting out the house. Having a good old sniff around, seeing new places, meeting new people and running around with a great big goofy smile on their face is to some dog’s, the highlight of their day. There will be dogs who run to the door with growing excitement at the first hint of a walk such as you picking up their lead or putting your coat and wellies on, waiting impatiently and in some cases noisily until you finally clip the lead in place and open the door. There’s no getting away from the fact that for some dogs, their daily walk is their welcome release from the confines of the house and boredom. And yes, daily walks can sometimes help to solve ‘some’ behavioural issues.
However there is a flip side to the above, something all dog owners need to be aware of and that is, Not All Dogs Love Going For A Walk. Some dogs become incredibly stressed when their lead is picked up, afraid of the outside world filled with cars, bikes, other dogs and people. Although some dogs might not appear too worried when out on a walk because they are not pulling to go back home, (although some do) there will always be other signs that your dog is not enjoying the big, wide world. Signs that quite often are mistaken by the owner as excitement, such as;
All of these signs are often mistaken for a dog who is eager to run around to play with other dogs or to be let off the lead. The more obvious signs of a dog stressing on a walk such as cowering, wide eyes, constant crying or shutting down are a lot easier to identify. If your dog is displaying any of the above, you can rest assured that neither you or your dog are going to be enjoying the great outdoors and you have to ask yourself at some point, is the walk actually worth the stress.
Quality Not Quantity
There are some dogs that may not enjoy long energetic walks namely the small or overweight, the elderly or very young, long walks for these dogs could actually cause more harm than good. A gentle potter around and quality time spent with the owner would be far more beneficial and welcome to them.
Whilst walks can help with certain behavioural problems such as chewing or hyperactivity, it’s not going to solve most behavioural issues especially if those issues are related to the walk itself. Think pulling on the lead or dog/people reactivity. Much more training using counter conditioning techniques for these sorts of problems in a low distraction environment where the dog feels comfortable, such as at home and in the garden, is preferable and far more beneficial for both you and your dog. It’s also a lot more fun for your dog then to continually expose your dog to the very things that scare him.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t walk your dog ever again, taking a dog for a walk is an important part of a dog’s wellbeing, what I am saying though is don’t add to any problems. So if you have a dog that is dog reactive, don’t walk where there are lots of other dogs. If you have a dog that won’t come back when called, don’t just let him off the lead, put him on a 30’ training line instead. Your dog will still get plenty of exercise and you are still in control plus it’s a perfect way to teach your dog recall. Instead of walking your dog every day, walk every other day and use the day you don’t go out for a walk to work with your dog at home either by training or playing. You’d be amazed just how much you can sharpen a dogs obedience through playing with your dog. On the days you do go for a walk, think of it as going out to train instead, to practise things like focus (getting the dog to look at you), self control (so he learns to control his prey drive) and recall on a long training line as opposed to just letting your dog do it’s own thing all of the time.
Running, jogging, running alongside a bike, chasing a ball or stick, playing with other dogs, swimming etc are all very popular ways dog owners exercise their dogs. However, all these things should be done in moderation. A dog chasing a ball time after time for half an hour is not a good way to exercise your dog though many owners think it is. What we fail to understand is this sort of exercise can not only cause soft tissue damage such as strains, it also raises the adrenaline levels causing the dog to ignore the first warning signs of injury. It could also lead to exhaustion and elevated stress levels. If your dog loves to chase a ball, restrict this to a couple of times a week or lengthen the time between throws. Better still, use the ball to teach your dog self control by keeping your dog in a sit/stay whilst you throw the ball. When the ball has landed then send your dog to get it. You are then combining training with what the dog loves to do and slowing down the whole ball chasing process. With puppies or fearful dogs, keep the walks short and use them to teach focus on you around other distractions such as other dogs. This is still socialising your dog as he is around the distraction, you’re just not making a rod for your own back by teaching a puppy for instance that it can run and play with every dog it see’s. With fearful dogs use this time to counter condition the dog to it’s fears.
Where To Walk
Taking a dog to the same place day in day out is neither good for them or you, especially if you have a dog that is dog/people reactive and the place you walk is full of dogs and their owners. The time of day is just as important because most people tend to walk their dogs in the morning or evening. If your dog is reactive then try and choose a time when you know there will be fewer dogs around. The same goes if your dog has a high prey drive and likes to chase wildlife. If your dog has poor recall then keep him on a 30’ training line. That way you will still have control of your dog without limiting the dog to walking next to you.
If both you and your dog are getting stressed on each walk then it is up to you as the owner to look at the reasons behind this and to change them. If we as owner’s don’t change then how can the dog be blamed for his reactions. If your dog finds the outside world a scary place, look to see what it is that’s scaring your dog. Is it traffic in which case walk where there is less traffic, if it’s children then don’t walk your dog when school is about to start or finish. All these types of fears need to be addressed individually, slowly and carefully. Forcing your dog to confront his fears on a daily basis is only going to make things worse for your dog and ultimately you. Remember, dogs don’t grow out of things such as fears, they build on them until they get so bad you’ll need the help of a professionally qualified behaviourist to help you correct them. As I’ve mentioned before, your dog can’t change where he gets walked, it is you the owner who can.
How Much Is Too Much
Imagine you’ve decided to run a half marathon, something you’ve never done before. So you start to go out and train every day. At first it’s hard going but the more you train, the fitter and stronger you become until running that distance becomes a reality and not a dream. The same applies for your dog. Taking your dog for long runs or walks all day will soon turn your dog into an adrenaline junkie addicted to exercise. Dogs are by nature already long distance athletes who have no difficulty in physically out performing us on any day of the week so taking them out daily on even longer runs or walks in the hope of wearing them out will only serve to turn your dog into an even better athlete than he already is, craving more and more exercise. There is nothing wrong in spending a nice summers day wandering around the countryside with your faithful companion by your side, just combine the time with training periods or low impact games such as sprinkling treats on the ground where the dog has to sniff them out. If you want to truly tire your dog out then make him think.
Alternatives To Daily Walks
The majority of dog owners think that their dog must be walked daily to get physical exercise but what most owners tend to not consider is that their dog also requires mental stimulation as well. Whilst a walk will provide some physical and mental exercise, it doesn’t provide what the dog truly needs. And as previously mentioned, if you have a dog with issues such as pulling on the lead, dog/people reactivity or is just afraid of the world, then you are in effect, by not addressing these issues separately, making them worse.
So what are the things you can do with your dog when you don’t take him out for a walk.
All these in home activities will not only exercise your dog mentally and physically but also improve their bond with you and teaches them something new which you could then use to help control your dog out on a walk. It will also raise your dog’s confidence and help to keep your dog calm whilst keeping 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?
We need to think more about our dogs and what we actually do with them when we take them out. Consider instead what YOUR dog actually wants/needs, not what YOU want them to want/need.