Part 3 Think Outside
We’ve been looking at thinking outside the conventional when entertaining your dog here and here already; now we are going to think far outside food-based enrichment to providing sensory, physical, cognitive and social challenges to help keep our dogs happy and healthy.
When you think of entertaining or exercising your dog, you probably have taking your dog for a walk on the list – perhaps that’s the main form of entertainment and exercise your dog gets.
But what if you consider, that just like food-bowls, taking your dog for a walk may be more of a human convenience device than entertaining for your dog.
Going for a walk for humans and going for a walk for dogs are very different experiences, even when there is one human and one dog, together on the same walk.
It will not be news to you that dogs love to sniff and although we recognise their love of all things smelly, we are often too wrapped up in the human end of the walk to facilitate sniffing for our dogs’ entertainment.
That may be because the preferred human past-time is walking while talking and taking in the sights – we live to take in visual information and that requires walking at not much more than a strolling pace.
Recently, Patricia McConnell shared this interesting paper looking at ways of improving animal welfare by recognising the importance of olfaction in impacting the lives of animals in our care. Scents are invisible and undetected by us, but their importance in our dogs’ lives cannot be underestimated.
Pounding the Pavement
Asking our dogs to walk with us, at our two-legged-sightseeing-pace, on a loose lead is a pretty tall order. Not only do dogs need to move faster so as to take in lots of smells, they also have twice the number of legs that we do so are very efficient at covering distance.
Not only is walking up, down, back and forth on suburban streets difficult for your dog (at human pace), it’s also probably pretty boring for them too.
To top it off we use devices that restrict their movement even further, sometimes painfully.
Sheesh! this walking-malarky is becoming more and more like a military drill…
What are you getting out of walkies?
- healthier lifestyle
- physical exercise
- fresh air
- social interaction
- chats with friends
- meeting & greeting
- see your local world
- time with your dog
- a quiet dog, afterwards
With all this in mind, what’s your dog truly getting out of walkies…?
This might be his only opportunity to be exposed to something other than the same four walls so we gotta make it worthwhile!
Your dog didn’t choose this more limiting lifestyle, and indeed has probably been made for something much more exciting, so how can we make walkies-time the best-time?
Variety is the spice of walkies
You have one walk, maybe only one hour (or even less), let’s cram as much enrichment into that time as we can to boost the value of every walk, every outing and every activity.
Check out the human list of experiences – it pretty much covers our four categories of enrichment that our dogs need added to their daily lives. We can come up with ways to tick those boxes for our dogs too.
- Turn every walk into a sniff – choose locations, routes and times when you and your dog can devote a good chunk of each outing to just sniffing.
Dogs find almost every area smelly, but particular favourites are those where other dogs have contributed, where wildlife or livestock frequents or where there’s plenty of traffic of different species.
- Novelty is interesting for many dogs – bring your dog new places that will provide them with different sights, sounds, smells, textures, substrates and conditions.
Take care and make sure that it’s not sensory overload.
- Rotate the experience – if you are lucky enough to have access to varied landscapes, try bringing your dog to different places on different walks.
Woodland, grassland, beaches and waterways all provide very different sensory experiences, especially when you factor in seasonal changes too.
- Set-up sniffing challenges – you can introduce new and exciting smells for your dog, and what’s more this can be done at home too.Introduce new herb plants that interest dogs (and that are also safe) and by planting them in pots you can rotate them, hide them or arrange them so that they encourage curiosity and investigation.
Some informative resources here, here and here.
Use hunting scents (from different animals, available from hunting and gundog outlets online) and rotate these, set up trails or add to a special toy that you can hide and play with.
- Scent work games will always be popular with your pet, no matter what you practice finding like food, toys, other items and specific scents – it’s what your dog was made to do!
Don’t forget to teach your dog to “Go Sniff!” on cue so that you always have a handy reward (that your dog loves) and so that your dog can get all his sniffing jollies:
Dogs are super efficient at burning energy (that’s why they are so easy to overfeed!) so for most dogs, if they are just trotting along beside you on a pretty military-style walk, they are probably not getting a whole lot of physical challenge out of it.
- Change your pace – stroll, walk, trot, jog, sprint and then back to trot and up to sprint again and mix & match so that your dog (and you) need to adjust and compensate.
- Warm up and warm down – make sure your dog has plenty of time at the beginning and end of activity to walk and trot, to loosen up and stretch before the real physical challenges begin.
Speak to your vet or veterinary physiotherapist about the sorts of conditioning and warm-up exercises that would work best for your dog and activity.
- Balancing exercises – introduce balancing on unstable objects to really get your dog’s muscles and body awareness working; but as always talk to your vet or veterinary physiotherapist so that you can match the best exercises for your dog.
- Levels, substrates and terrains – rotate and vary the levels your dog must climb, the substrates he must cope with and the terrain he must negotiate as regularly as possible so that your dog gets to exercise different muscles and body awareness skills.
- Play – teach your dog to play games with you and with you and toys and bring this on the road. This will help you to introduce varying challenges on each walk, changing pace and directions.
Tug, fetch, jogging with you, flirtpole and chasing with you will bring lots of fun and games to your daily grind.
Remember, always teach the rules of games first and make sure to help your dog warm up and warm down.
- It doesn’t always need to involve walking – drive your dog to a safe spot for games or scent work, bring your dog for a swim or a paddle or enroll in a dog-sports class such as agility.
- Puzzles – don’t have to be elaborate or too complicated, just enough to cause your dog to pause and think a little.
Why not bring a frozen Kong on each walk and have some downtime in the middle? This is an excellent tool for training better settling behaviour and a great way for you to catch up on sightseeing or just relaxing and chatting.
- Training exercises – when is a better time to practice training exercises than in the very situations you are going to need those cues?
Start by working in really quiet locations using really really high value rewards to build up some reliability and set your dog up for success.
- Passive focus – teach your dog valuable focus with lazy dog training techniques.
Just stop and wait for your dog to get distracted by something. Allow him to watch it but don’t move. As soon as he turns away from the distraction immediately reward with high value food rewards. Soon you, and this game, will become more valuable!
If your dog has trouble looking away and back toward you, try moving further away, using super-dooper rewards and working for very short times (30 seconds).
- SNIFFING – it really is that great to and for your dog and it’s probably one of the main ways that dogs interact socially with other dogs in modern life.
- Play-dates – we are not big fans of out-of-control-play at dog parks, daycares, group walks or just random meetings and find it much better for you and your dog to meet up with another like-minded duo to hang out with.
- Meeting people – gentle introductions to a range of people types can be very pleasant for most dogs. Bring treats and work on polite greetings at the same time!
- People-watching – sitting back a bit from the action and just watching the comings and goings can be really beneficial for many dogs, especially those who find being in the thick of it, a bit too much.
- Just hang-out – you are the most important entity in your dog’s life. Hang out with him, do fun stuff together, just be with one another. Ultimate joy of living with and loving dogs!
Let your dog be the guide
Help your dog choose – free-choice exercise is probably more beneficial for mental health than addictive adrenaline-junkie-inducing activity.
Take some time out of each walk to allow your dog dictate the flow. I’ll bet his choices will involve sniffing at some point…!
Thinking beyond an everyday walk
Although walkies is traditionally considered the way to exercise dogs, this might not work for everyone and that’s ok too.
Bringing your dog out in the world can be great for lots of reasons but for some dogs alternatives may be even greater.
There are special considerations for puppies and growing dogs when it comes to physical activity. Check out this fantastic piece from Puppy Culture.
Older dogs or dogs recovering from or with injuries or surgery may benefit from much more controlled exercise such as physical therapy, just pottering around the house, hydrotherapy or gentle play.
Intense, regular walking on concrete is probably not terribly beneficial for anyone – another excellent reason for lots of variety in your daily activity.
Dogs who are fearful, reactive or highly distractible may be pushed beyond their coping abilities when brought out and about. Until some work can be put in place with a suitably qualified behaviour professional it may be better to limit exposure to too much, until they have some help with coping better.
Daily dog walks are not the be-all-and-end-all – dogs need daily activity, enrichment, entertainment and exercise, not necessarily in the form of walks.
Try and mix it up and add and rotate different challenges into your daily adventures.
But always remember to strike that balance between mental and physical exercise, with plenty of downtime and calming thrown in for good measure.