Lots and lots is changing around us and our dogs during lockdown and those changes are not coming to an end any time soon.
One constant, that seems to have become more and more popular, probably out of necessity, are suburban dog walks around housing estates, green areas and suburban parks. With lockdown fully in swing, everyone is limited in where they can take their dog for exercise. And it seems that everyone is getting out more often, with their dogs, at irregular and less predictable times.
With our beach trips and hikes outside the 2km restriction, Deck and I are walking in local suburban areas more than we ever have before.
But suburban walks are not all they have cracked up to be, and even when things are more normal, I don’t know that this is the most beneficial or even safest way to exercise many dogs.
Suburban walks are patrols
Let’s have a think about what suburban walks actually are; how do they function in the lives of dogs?
Prehistorically, these trips, with dogs accompanying their humans, likely served some specific functions; the outings were probably more goal oriented and survival related, rather than just for exercise or to get out of the house.
Dogs may have accompanied our ancestors on hunting and foraging trips, on security and boundary checks, monitoring prey and predator behaviour, territory inspections and so on.
What about now? How do suburban walks function for dogs now? Looking at the sorts of behaviours they demonstrate while out might give us clues; walking about a regular route, sniffing, marking, (and probably some chasing in there too) seem to be the most regular behaviours observed.
That sure sounds like patrolling to me…
The dog moves from sniffing one marking spot to the next; sniffing, overmarking, move on, sniffing, overmarking, move on…
Getting wound up for walks
It’s no wonder that most dogs get pretty wound up before going out. A level of arousal (emotional excitement) will be necessary to prepare the dog for the challenges to come; patrolling is a big deal and an important job, after all.
Preparing to patrol and then actually patrolling requires that the dog narrow their focus and prepare their body to do their ‘job’ and that resulting arousal can lead to lowered thresholds for aggressive responding and stress related behaviour.
If we add lots of physical exertion to these outings, the dog’s body is preparing for that too, and if your dog is fearful or “reactive”, they are preparing to face triggers and deal with all that drama on top of everything else.
All of this means that the dog’s stress responses are engaged and ready to go; they need to get psyched up to be ready for patrol.
Even at the best of times, I don’t think traditional dog walks, often more military style than dog centric, are the greatest approach to providing dogs with appropriate exercise.
Instead of a walk, make it a suburban SNIFF!
Make it all about sniffing, rather than prioritising distance covered, steps counted or specific routes. Sniffing for a long time, as long as possible and as long as they need to.
But, this can be difficult to maintain in a more calming way in suburbia. The dog moves from marking to marking, many will be recent urine-marks so quite exciting, and there is one after another in quick succession.
You will have seen your dog move from sniff to sniff, quite quickly. This ramps up the excitement, one sniff after another.
A Good Walk
Suburbia has changed; it’s more built up and more people seem to have new and young dogs. Pet owners want to be able to walk their dogs around their neighbourhood, but this might not work for all dogs in all neighbourhoods.
This suburban-walking business is certainly a challenge for dogs, and even more so now when there are more people out walking and it is harder to find regular quieter times and places.
- start off calmer by making sure that the dog is comfortable with wearing walking gear and by teaching cooperative behaviours to have gear fitted; more here.
- change their expectations by establishing sniffing stations outside the door – instead of forging out all gung-ho, they learn to check for a sniffing station:
- teach an alternative behaviour to door-bursting:
- Teach your dog the Go Find It! game…no, seriously, you need this game.
Use this to improve loose leash walking behaviour. Start with a “Go Find It!” and toss every couple of steps to prevent your dog ever pulling. As they start to watch you in anticipation, you can build the number of steps between each cue.
You might play just to get the dog to a point where they can walk a little more calmly or to get the dog by distractions, for example.
Play when a dog or other trigger appears; cue Go Find It! and toss rewards away from the trigger; keep tossing to keep them moving on, if required.
- Always scoop the poop and dispose of the poop appropriately, even if that means carrying it to a bin or taking it home with you.
- Give your dog more space from people than you usually might. People are, to your dog, behaving strangely right now. They might be wearing masks, engaging in exercise, stretching, breathing heavily, appearing or catching up quickly more so than before.
Joggers and cyclists can help themselves and dogs out too by giving dogs and dog walkers plenty of space, especially when approaching from behind; dogs are easily startled by people quickly and suddenly appearing from behind, in their peripheral vision, and may lunge, bark or even bite with fright.
#Socialdistancing is very much appreciated by dogs!
- prevent problem boundary behaviour at home too; triggers like other dogs and people may be passing your windows and gates more often at the moment.
Close blinds, supervise your dog, keep them on lead, give them stuffables and puzzles to work on in relation to access to front windows.
It’s very difficult to manage your dog’s reactions if they have unsupervised access to gates and boundaries. At the very least, use visual barriers, such as tarp on gates, to limit the dog’s view of passers-by.
Getting frustrated at boundaries may affect the dog’s behaviour in real-life interactions with triggers so preventing the establishment of this behaviour is important right now.
If you are passing a house where there is a dog at the boundary, move on quickly and keep your dog from staring too much.
Practice good etiquette:
Dogs have in-built social rules, especially in relation to unfamiliar dogs. These are often in contrast to what humans want or think should be done. For this, you gotta be more dog.
- Walking head on, straight toward one another is not polite in dog. Help your dog be polite, while also helping them to be calmer around other dogs; don’t walk straight toward one another, especially on narrow paths.
Because there is less traffic, cross the street rather than approaching head on. Alternatively, turn and walk in the other direction, walk in an arc, or even move up a driveway or behind a parked car, to allow the others to pass. Be polite!
- It is very rude for one dog to stare at another, especially hard staring for a distance. Don’t allow your dog to stare at another passing or approaching dog; move them along, change direction, divert their attention (the Go Find It! game works well here too!)
- Do not allow your dog approach any other dog, person, child, or anything, unless attention and interaction is welcomed and solicited. It doesn’t matter if that other dog is on or off lead and it doesn’t matter if you think your dog is “friendly”.
We would not think other unfamiliar humans friendly if they ran up to us and tried to force us into interacting.
Your dog isn’t being friendly if they ignore that the other dog is trying to avoid an interaction or ignore signalling from another dog aiming to slow down an interaction. That is being rude. Help your dog be polite.
- Give dogs space from one another. Dogs were cool with social distancing before it was a hashtag and way of being for humans.
Unfamiliar dogs like to take some time to assess the other and to evaluate a potential interaction.
It’s normal for adult dogs to largely ignore other adult dogs – they might glance over and go back about their business, they might mark and leave, they might even have a brief sniff (3-5 seconds) and move on. Normal.
Wanting to stare at, stalk, approach every other dog(or human) is not friendly and it is certainly not an indication of a well-socialised dog.
- Be the fun. You and your dog are in this together; be the fun and entertainment for your dog; encourage them to sniff and interact with their environment and be part of that. With you is where your dog gets their jollies.
Keep activities on walks lower key – it’s already super exciting to be out in the world. Patrolling. You don’t need to add that much more excitement.
Bring your dog to places that encourage longer sniffs, rather than relentless moving from one brief sniff to the next.
Encourage your dog to hang out, rather than move on; redirect them to sniffing slowly, methodically and more casually, rather than moving on and ramping up.
Play sniffing games to encourage problem solving and focus on something other than the goings on:
Stop regularly to take a break and snuffle:
Whose walk is it anyway?
Since lockdowns have been put in place, one of the few outlets available for people have been walks in their local area. Pet owners have rejoiced and brought their dogs out with them; in some cases this has been unusual and a new thing for dogs.
If you want to speed walk or dawdle, if you want to stop and chat, if you want to read your phone or listen to music, maybe do that without the dog.
Make sure the dog’s walks are more dog; take time to let them sniff at will, engage with them, and keep them from becoming frustrated with human behaviour.
Dogs are different now
Ancient dogs probably had a whole lot more choice in their day to day lives than do our modern pets; they may have wandered largely at will so outings with humans were likely supplementary rather than being the central focus and highlight of each day for the dog.
Their patrols, and lifestyle outside of patrolling, were different.
Dogs today are largely socially isolated from other dogs and humans (but probably not so much, right now), they live pretty under-enriched lives but expectations, of their behaviour, have never been higher.
Just a few short decades ago, dogs were not required to be confined to their owner’s properties, they had company most of the day as in most families, one person worked in the home, and the population of dogs was different.
Most of the dogs in a local area had been born and bred there, or somewhere similar, from parents who had been born and bred there. This is relatively rare now, with people buying pedigree or intentionally bred dogs that come with more specific requirements or adopting rescue dogs that may have other specialist requirements.
The tendencies and skills dogs need to inherit AND develop to cope well with all that suburbia throws at them, may be elusive in lots of dogs.
People placing dogs, in whatever context, need to carefully consider this, as do prospective pet owners. If suburban walks are largely what you are offering, very very careful thought and planning needs to be in place for the right dog.
Dogs, even puppies, are not just clean slates that we can bend and mold to our will.
Pet owners are different too. A social media explosion in dog popularity has contributed to real dog behaviour and real expectations of dog behaviour becoming lost, or at least romanticised.
This idea that all dogs should be frolicking in Utopian daycares, groups or dog parks is just plain damaging.
Sue Sternberg has a great saying, something along the lines of “Reactive dogs are born, and also made, by other people’s “friendly” dogs.” (if you have a better memory than I, or remember the source, please correct me).
Letting your dog become magnetised to other dogs and allowing them carte-blanche with every other dog and in groups of dogs might not be helping you and may not be beneficial to your dog’s behavioural health, certainly long term.
The world is different and it’s more different to just a couple of months ago. Getting back to ‘normal’ will be a culture shock for everyone, including our dogs.
Let’s make sure we help them now, preventing more serious stuff down the line.