We all know that we can’t simply keep our dogs in our home, let them out into the garden and hope that that’s going to be enough for them. But what’s right for them? Is it a one-size fits all scenario? It rarely is with anything!
The most basic measure we use is the length of a dog’s walk – is half an hour a day enough? Our instinct is to say no, of course not, and in general that would be correct. But it’s not as simple as that – a 5 mile walk is not necessarily better than a 1 mile walk, and a 2 hour walk is not necessarily better than a 1 hour walk. So what’s the difference?
Quality over quantity is taught to us at school for writing essays etc. but we can apply this to the exercise we give our dogs. We can physically exercise our dogs without mentally exercising them – so the same old repetitive walk along the same path, same sights, same smells, might still give your dog physical exercise – keep them in shape etc. but at the end of it they get home and start playing with their toys because they’re not actually tired. For us as humans, many of us feel exhausted after a day’s work even though we’ve been sitting down the entire day, and this principal can be used in exercising our dogs.
Smell is a great tool for exercising your dog – sniffer dogs for the police and customs will only work for around 20 mins before they have “Scent Fatigue” the equivalent of trying to tell the 10th perfume apart from the 9th perfume when smelling testers. Hiding treats in the grass, or their favourite ball in the long grass where they can’t see it, and getting them to play “Find It” is an active way to use their nose, and mentally exercise them. A more passive way to do this is to simply take them on a new walk – the new smells are bound to be interesting to them and can really help wear them out. All too often you see dogs being tugged away from sniffing something to “carry on with the walk” that the owner is on, without thinking about the benefit that the dog is gaining from sniffing. Utilising the moments when they stop to sniff is really a great thing to take advantage of!
New sights is another great tool, and between this and new smells, really highlights the advantage of going on new walks, and avoiding being predictable/repetitive. We’re all more tired after going and experiencing something new for the first time, and as we become more familiar with it, we don’t need to work so hard to understand our new environment and so it tires us less and less. Quite apart from the benefits new walks give our dogs, they’re great for us too! You can also think about the activities your dog can do on a walk – in a local park they might meet and play with other dogs, on a country walk they might track the scent of a rabbit, and at the beach they might get chance to have a swim. Often you see people jogging, dogs in tow – owner and dog run past every smell, sight and activity without taking any of it in, and arguably they really miss out!
Jumping back to that first and most basic measurement – increased length of walk = a better walk. It’s easy to argue that an hour long walk in a new place with lots of sniffing, new sights and places to explore, is a lot better than trudging the usual route for 2 hours. Length of walk in terms of time or distance of course has its place in judging a walk’s quality, and especially for beginners advice, it’s an easy rule of thumb to follow. But using this alone, you will create an athlete out of your dog – at some point the hour long walk no longer makes them tired, a 2 hour one does though. Stamina increases and now a 2 hour walk is perfect and a 3 hour one is tiring etc. eventually you can run 10km a day with your dog and still have a bouncing, playful pooch when you get home. Utilising activities, sights, smell, distance etc. in tandem with each other allows you to offer tiring yet fulfilling walks day after day, year after year.
A really good question to ask is “Who’s the walk for?” We all enjoy walking our dogs, and most of the time our dogs enjoy walking with us. But for some dogs there are exceptions! In a November rain storm, you look down at your dog, sheltering beside you, ears pinned back, squinting through the rain.. No running about, no playing, no sniffing.. Just walking for the sake of walking. In this situation we often find ourselves saying, “Why are we walking? Neither of us are enjoying this” but can you really not walk your dog that day just because you’re not keen on the weather? YES! But make the decision for your dog and not for yourself – we can put up with being a bit cold and wet if our dogs having the time of its life, but if your dog’s miserable, why make them stay out? There are plenty of other reasons you might not walk your dog – they’re in season, they’re recovering from surgery and on crate rest. The most common one we get asked about is for puppies – so much energy, but too long walks can cause so much damage, so how do you exercise them?
Brain games are fantastic! Similar to on your walks, you can hide your dog’s favourite treat somewhere in your living room and get them to spend time working to find it – they’ll get better at it until you can hide it anywhere in your home and ask your dog to find it! You can scale the principle right down, scatter their breakfast on the lawn so it takes them half an hour to hoover it all up instead of 2 minutes from their bowl. Utilise products such as maze feeder bowls, Buster Food Cubes or Kong Wobblers. If you’re looking for a higher level of puzzle, Nina Ottosson now have their fantastic feeding puzzles back on the market!
We often hear people saying their dog is trained and they don’t need treats any more – this has never been true for any dog. There is always a new trick or behaviour to learn and they are never too old to do so. The value in this isn’t just down to the behaviour! Some things are useful – sit, wait, stay etc all have a clear function, whilst others such as beg or twist or roll over are often seen as amusing but not much more. But thinking about it from a new perspective – the dogs perspective, are their other benefits? Teaching a dog to beg might seem cute and that’s enough, but for the dog, it’s spent the last 20 minutes trying to work out what it is that you want from it, and that’s great mental exercise! Regardless of what the dog is learning, the point is, is that it IS learning.
So tomorrow when you choose where to walk your dog, why not choose it based on smells, sights, activities, as well as length, instead of simply on length? If you’re pushed for time, think about how to maximise a shorter walk - can you throw in a find the treats game half way through? Can you let them sniff that lamp post a little longer? If your dog’s forced to stay at home through health issues or age, what brain games can you think of? Can dinner be given in a box of shredded paper instead of in a bowl? And next time it’s hammering it down with rain, why not spend an hour playing find it, teaching a new trick and utilising a food puzzle with your dog instead of an hour walking in misery?