These Snoots Were Made for Walking

Walking a dog is good exercise. True or False?

dog-walking-in-sneakersWait! Before you answer, realize this question actually has a couple questions buried beneath its surface. One is, what KIND of exercise? Are you fixated on the physical aspect and overlooking the mental part? Another is, exercise for WHOM? Whose walk is it, after all? To be fair, at least some walks should be primarily for our dogs.

So what are you trying to accomplish on dog walks? Maybe power-walking your dog is your way to get a cardio workout. You get your heart rate up, give your dog a chance to do his business…two birds, one stone, etc. Or, you’ve heard the old adage “A tired dog is a good dog”, so you see the walk as a means to both ends–rendering your dog tired, and therefore “good”. And of course, your time is precious and in short supply, so sometimes the quicker your dog takes care of those biological necessities, the quicker you can get it over with. Whatever your mindset, if you rush the walk, you may shortchange your dog of vital mental exercise.

Sachem's snoot
Sachem’s snoot

My old dog, Sachem, was an incorrigible lollygagger, stopping every few yards to relish whatever aromas each swath of terrain had to offer. In those days, I was dividing my time between chasing after two small kids and holding down a demanding office job in Washington, D.C. with a long, hectic commute. My default pace was move it-move it, chop-chop. I never slowed down. That included dog walks. I confess, I felt like my pokey dog was holding me up. I also didn’t see how either one of us was going to get any aerobic benefit if she spent more time standing still and snuffling in the grass than marching double-time at my side. I’d stand there with my engine revving, almost resenting her for…well, for being a dog.

These days, as a dog trainer, I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about dogs, what it might like to be a dog, what dogs may want out of life…and I’ve got a whole new take on walking my current dog, Huckleberry. She’s a hound mix, so sniffing is her main job–and joy–in life. For her, I think going for a walk is like exploring a museum–a museum of smells. If I visit the National Gallery of Art, I’m there to admire, appreciate, ponder. I move at my own pace from painting to painting, soaking in the details, savoring the colors. If I’m especially drawn in, I linger even longer. What if every time I paused to contemplate, somebody tapped my shoulder, pointed to their watch, and said, “Time’s up, gotta go.” I’d feel cheated, and unfulfilled.

Huckeberry gets a noseful.
Huckeberry gets a noseful.

Yes, dogs need exercise, and so do we, and there’s no question that walks can fulfill that need. But our dogs need mental exercise too, not just the physical kind. They need outlets for their canine drives, chances to just BE dogs. They collect and analyze an unfathomable amount of data–and derive an immeasurable amount of satisfaction–through sniffing all the pungency, putrefaction and pheromonal stinks their world serves up. To our dogs, the outdoors is an emporium of odors, a garden of olfactory delights. It’s not a racetrack with a starting gun, a pace car, a timer, and a finish line. There’s no goal in mind, no “are we there yet?” As the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Your dog agrees. So walk, yes. Even walk fast (or run!) when it suits you and your dog. But remember to enjoy the journey, and take time to stop to smell the…well, you know what I mean.

About Karen Baragona

I'm a dog trainer (CPDT-KA) with a soft spot for shelter and rescue dogs who are a little rough around the edges. My own rescue dog Huckleberry, an exuberant hound mix, gave me a run for my money with her reactivity, resource guarding, squirrel chasing, fear of car rides, and unapologetic boisterousness. But she made me a better, more empathetic trainer. As a group class training instructor, private in-home trainer, and animal shelter behavior counselor, I've worked with hundreds of dogs and their people to help them understand and learn from each other. I have a special interest in interactions between dogs and kids, and dogs and other household pets. I also have a master's degree in environmental science and in a past life worked in international wildlife conservation for 15 years.

9 comments

  1. this is exactly what I’ve been trying to get my clients to understand ,that dogs need to exercise their brains not just their muscles…thank you..and we as trainers need to keep on learning and following the science discoveries about animals .

    1. Amen, Mair. I always tell clients how tiring mental exercise can be, and make a comparison to how tired I am after driving four hours to visit my mom. I’ve barely moved a muscle, but driving is mentally taxing, so I’m exhausted by the time I arrive.

    1. I know–so clients take them to the dog park and run ’em till they drop, right? Ah, the love-hate relationship with dog parks…but that’s another topic for another day.

  2. It is so important for our dogs to get enough sniff time. When we are walking and I say “go sniff” my dog knows it means I will let him lead the way. When I say “let’s go” he knows I’m steering. Sometimes we are out for an hour and only cover a mile because he has so much to catch up on. 🙂

    1. Linda, I like your system! When my dog leads the way, she finds things I’d never have noticed on my own–a crayfish in the grass (?!), a snapping turtle laying eggs near our creek, a fox hiding in a tree cavity, a fawn tucked away in brambles waiting for mama to return…. If I deprive her of sniffing, I might deprive myself of some amazing discoveries, too!

    1. Thanks, Danette. I have to remind myself that to grow professionally, I should also seek out people who have DIFFERENT views from mine, but it’s very reinforcing to hear from like-minded souls! I like your blog. Thanks for sharing the links.

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