The Deconstructed Dog Walk

#dontwalkyourdogday enrichment walk alternatives walks
Image of 5 dogs: boxer, chocolate lab, great dane, collie and dachshund - looking over a banner that says National Don't Walk Your Dog Day 2nd April.

By Janet Finlay

Today is Don't Walk Your Dog Day - and we are very happy to celebrate it here at HeartDog!

Whaaat? I hear you say. Surely ensuring our dogs get ample walks each day is part of properly caring for them and meeting their needs?

Yet increasingly, positive, qualified trainers (including Niki French who started this day) are recommending not walking dogs - especially those who are sensitive, highly aroused or fearful.  And those who want to discredit force-free training will point to this as a sign of us not knowing what we are talking about!

The debate around this tends to focus on extremes: taking a stressed dog out into a busy park vs. never letting him see the light of day. The reality is always more messy – and always contextual. So let’s look at what we know.

We know that when we feel threatened the body produces first adrenaline and if the threat continues, cortisol, which can take time to subside. With no further stress, this leaves the system within hours but repeated stress leads to a situation where cortisol levels are always elevated, which is bad for health. So we want to make sure that our dog is not put under repeated stress on a daily basis.

We also know that dogs have certain needs in order to be mentally and physically healthy. They need a reasonable level of physical exercise. They need to use their brain and their senses and engage in natural "doggy" behaviours such as investigation and exploration. They need to play. They need companionship and relationship (whether with humans or other animals).

As a society we invented the dog walk as a convenient way for us to provide for these needs in a simple, enjoyable and efficient package. All of these necessary things are provided in an hour or so, a couple of times a day.

And for many dogs – and their guardians – it is a model that works really well. The problem comes when our dog is not one of those “many dogs”.

When our dog is fearful of other dogs or unknown people, then the standard dog walk can feel like a nightmare. Yet many still try to use this model to provide for their fearful dog’s needs. Worse, they load the model with yet another function: changing their dog's response to what they are experiencing. Now, not only are they trying to provide exercise, play, stimulation, companionship and all that, but they are trying to help their dog feel better about the things they are scared of as well.

It is a lot to lay on a simple dog walk!

So we need a new model for dogs and guardians like these. One that still provides for all of their dog's needs and the need to support their dog's progress, but also for one more need we haven’t mentioned yet - the need for both of them to feel safe.

A model I use is what I call The Deconstructed Dog Walk. Think of those fancy desserts on Masterchef! It has all the key elements of a standard “walk in the park” but it looks quite different!

For our deconstructed "walk", we go back to basic needs and we work out how we will meet them in a way that feels safe for us and our dog. It doesn't have to happen all at once. Exercise can be achieved through one activity, brainwork another, play another, training another and so on – though, in reality, most activities will meet more than one need.

So physical exercise could include (and these are just a few examples) running in a secure field or a large garden; swimming; ACE Free Work; playing fetch; doing Parkour; getting a workout with a big bone or chew or walking somewhere remote with just their person.

Mental stimulation could be (again just examples) scent games; problem-solving toys; choice-based training; time spent investigating hedgerows; exploring the scents in a car park or industrial estate; as well as much of the above.

Companionship and play ….. well you get the idea.

Working with our dog to shift how they feel about the environment can also be undertaken separately, with short sessions in places where we can control the distance from dogs or people, where they can’t easily reach us because of natural barriers or where all dogs are on a lead. Some of my favourite places for this: service stations on main roads or motorways where dogs are under control, people are focused on other things and you have your car to retreat to; watching from the top of a hill or bank while stuff happens below; watching from across a stretch of water; watching from behind a fence; but you can think of your own, based on what your dog's needs are. Allowing time to process is all that is needed when you get the distance right. 

Once you have found places you can work with your dog, plan to go and do this regularly but don’t feel it needs to be combined with exercise or other things.

The great thing about The Deconstructed Dog Walk is that you focus on providing what your dog needs, in a way that works for you both, not on whether you do a particular activity on a daily basis.

If you account for all the elements your dog needs, you have no reason to feel guilty, whether you are taking time out from dog walks, walking in remote places or indeed choosing to use the standard daily walk within your plan.

So how can you deconstruct your dog walk to truly meet your dog’s needs?

There are three simple steps:

  1. List your dog's needs e.g. free running exercise, playtime, socialising with other dogs, sniffing, training etc. and how often they need to do these (daily, weekly etc).
  2. Write down all the things you can do with your dog that they and you enjoy. These can range from simple things like having a chew to activities that may need planning like a trip to the hydro pool and everything in between.
  3. Create a weekly diary for your dog ensuring that you have activities to do each day that meet their needs and that also work for your schedule. Pin it to the fridge to remind you of prep that may be needed. Try the first week without ANY traditional "walks" and see what a difference it makes. You can add some walks in later. 

The Deconstructed Dog Walk will build your relationship with your dog as you create a much more varied and rich experience for them day to day. Not only will they be calmer but you will always have something to do to support their needs.