Why Walk Your Dog? (The Answer May Surprise You!)
All good owners know they need to walk their dog.
Granted, there are exceptions … like the nice lady who called me because her dog was chewing and destroying the house, and then looked surprised when I told her the problem had at least something to do with her not having taken her dog outside in over a year. She informed me that the breeder had told her this was an “indoor dog”. I told her that was the first time I’d ever heard of that unique breed.
But pretty much everyone knows they should walk their dogs. The number one reason owners give me for wanting walks to go better is to get them to go to the bathroom outside. This is an excellent reason. Dogs innately dislike messing where they live. In my experience, the humans like it even less. 🙂
A close second, among the top reasons owners give me for walking their dogs, is to give the dogs physical exercise. “Your dog has lots of pent-up energy” I tell an owner; “That’s a big part of why he’s chewing/peeing/barking/biting/anxious [fill in the blank]”. “But he goes for a walk every day!” they insist.
Of course dogs need more than just one walk a day. (You caught that one, didn’t you?) Two good hour-long walks, one in the AM and one mid-day, capped with an evening 15-minute stroll around the block, is my standard recommendation. But that still won’t do the trick. Here’s my radical observation:
For most dogs, walks don’t count as physical exercise.
Sure, for the wobbly senior white-muzzled lab, the overweight waddling beagle, the smush-nosed bulldog in 105 degree heat — for these guys perhaps a half-hour walk really does tire them out and make them want to sprawl out on the kitchen floor snoring for the remainder of the day. But most dogs — and owners confirm this for me day in and day out — can be walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and back, yet still have so much pent-up energy they go tearing around in circles and jumping on and off the couch as soon as they get back home.
I mean this for every size dog, from the littlest Chihuahua or Pomeranian to biggest Dane or Mastiff. Walks don’t come close to releasing most dogs’ pent-up physical energy the way running full-speed offleash and wrestling with other dogs does. Certainly, my Greyhounds and your Jack Russell may need to sprint more times a day than Grandma’s sleepy Shih-Tzu. But time and again I see owners’ jaws hang open in amazement at the boundless enthusiam that explodes out of their little Pug or Cavalier or Teacup Yorkie when we let them go nuts at the dog park.
But if walks don’t physically tire your dog out, anything close to the degree they need multiple times a day, why even bother walking them? Why do I recommend a solid regimen of at least three walks a day? In other words…
What is the purpose of a walk?
1. Mental stimulation
Being indoors is, for most dogs, like being in a padded cell. Sure, they enjoy your company. And their food, and the occasional bone or toy. But most of the activities we enjoy at home are irrelevant to dogs: watching TV, artwork on walls, reading, listening to music, talking. Our beautifully curated apartments have no wafting changes of scent, and dogs live primarily through their sense of smell (think how so many love to stick their noses out the car window). Walks through the neighborhood not only fulfill and stimulate your dog’s mental and emotional cravings with a constantly flowing variety of smells, sights, and sounds, but also with social interactions, with other dogs as well as with other humans. Finally, trekking and exploring is a fundamental need of most dogs, wired into their DNA. Hunters, herders, trackers … dogs love being on the move.
We all want an obedient dog, one who will do what we ask and not cause problems. One way of thinking of this is you want your dogs to “follow your lead”. Of course I mean this metaphorically — you should be the leader, setting the rules, while your dog is the follower, playing by them — but also literally: during walks, your dog should follow you on loose leash. I call loose-leash walking the fundamental obedience exercise, far more meaningful and important than tricks like “sit” or “give paw”. How your dog behaves on leash is usually going to be an indicator of how obedient he’ll be in other areas — e.g. offleash in the dog park, at home, or in the office. The main reason this is so is because of (1) above, the fact that walks are so fulfilling. Walks are one gigantic treat for your dog; so whoever brings him that treat is going to be idolized! If your dog drags you out the front door and down the block, ripping your arm out of the socket in order to go sniff that tree or dog, you aren’t the leader, so you aren’t the source of all the fun he’s having. So he’ll have no reason to listen to you at home or in the dog park. (Bye-bye pizza left out on the counter! See ya later Fido, as you dash off into the woods deaf to my shouts of “Come”!) On the other hand, if you can get your dog following you out the door and down the street on loose leash, he’s going to see all of those same joys as having come from you, as a result of following your lead. Obedience will be super-positively reinforced. “Mom is the greatest; why wouldn’t I want to do what she says?!”
In short: if your dog has any normal amount of pent-up energy, walks aren’t going to exhaust him the way most people think or hope they will. For that, you’ve gotta hit the offleash dog park. But don’t give up on walks entirely! Even to owners who live directly next to the dog park, I recommend walking a good five or ten minutes around busy streets before diving into the offleash fun. It is something all dogs crave, and it will set up the leader/follower relationship that will serve you well as you help your dog navigate social interactions and other difficult situations with good manners and proper restraint.