Are you walking the dog or is the dog walking you?

This topic is important to me because – like so many of us – I walked Leus too much. Then I learned that she has arthritis and had to change my attitude. And then I went to a conference where I heard countless professional dog trainers talk about over-exercising and over-stimulating our dogs. During another conference that I attended there was a whole presentation dedicated to the question of our dogs’ “workload”. Here is what I learned:

Trust your dog. If your dog likes running, they will run a lot. You don’t have to plan extra activities like jogging or dog sports – just provide your dog with the right kind of environment where they can decide if they want to run like crazy or just sniff around.

dog in the bushes at dawn
I like walking Leus in the morning when the world is quiet.

Dog sports (agility, dog cross, flyball etc.) are a bit controversial, some trainers consider them unethical. They argue that dog sports satisfy our needs, not the dogs’ needs. I don’t want to make a blanket statement about all dog sports. However, be aware of the physical toll that high-speed sports can have: all these jumps and rapid turns are not necessarily good for the dogs. If you really want to do dog sports consult a veterinarian first and make sure there are no contraindications (for example German shepherds and bulldogs tend to have congenital hip problems).

Moreover, these high-energy activities also increase adrenaline production – they stress your dog. Stress in itself does not have to be bad but if your dog is already easily (over)excited, this might not be the way to go. You might end up with a very fit, very fidgety dog simply because they can’t bring their stress levels down enough to rest.

2 people walking 2 dogs in the fields
If your dog has good recall, they can enjoy off-leash privileges.

Playing ball is an example of a beloved activity that should actually be approached with caution. If you (or your dog!) insist on this activity, try re-thinking it:

  • If your dog loves chewing the ball – let them! Just make sure they don’t swallow pieces of it. Chewing also relaxes your dog so it is good if your dog does it.
  • Ask your dog for a stay and hide the ball, then let them sniff it out. It might also be a great alternative for dogs who love playing ball but should not chase after it anymore for health reasons.
  • Don’t make them fetch. Once they understand the principle they will bring the ball back to you if they want to play. I know that watching them chase and fetch is incredibly satisfying, but this is supposed to be about them, not about us.
  • If your dog loves the ball you can use it as a reward in training (for example throw it after a successful recall).

The most important thing is to give your dog choices. The dog training world is buzzing with phrases like “learner empowerment” and “initiating a training conversation”, and for a good reason: research has shown that the more dogs are allowed to make their own decisions and interact with their environment on their own terms, the more self-confident and calm they are. That does not mean that you let your dog do whatever they want all the time. But try to let them choose as much as possible. I mean honestly, does it really matter if you go left or right at that particular intersection in the park?

a park, people on benches, runners, people walking
A busy place full of joggers, people on picnics, children and other dogs can stress out your dog.
empty-ish island shore, city in the background
The less you have to control your dog, the more you can both enjoy the walk. If possible, just pick a less frequented path with fewer distractions.

The sense of smell is another thing we theoretically all know about, but in practice we often fail to acknowledge its relevance. I don’t think there is any way we can imagine what smelling things means to dogs – it has been compared to us reading the news or scrolling social media, which may or may not be close. The fact remains that dogs engage with their environment best through their sense of smell. So let them smell. Imagine if every time you started reading a post on facebook, someone interrupted you. Not very nice, is it?

Which brings me to my last point: take your time when you walk your dog. Remember, the walk is for them, not for you. If your dog doesn’t feel like running that particular morning then let them be. You can still spend that hour outside (if they want to walk at all), just try to refrain from telling them what they should do. Dogs actually get tons of mental stimulation when they sniff and at the same time it has a calming effect (it literally slows down their heartbeat), so after an hour of intense sniffing around your neighbourhood they might be more relaxed than after playing ball.

This does require a change of attitude from walking the dog to walking with the dog. But watching them be happy is, I think, inherently rewarding to all of us and it’s really worth it.

Do not shout at your dog – pt. 2

Let’s recap: I was walking my dog off leash and talking on the phone. She walked onto a street. I shouted at her to come back, in response she lied down in the middle of the street. Not good. But why? The answer is of course: body language. Let’s have a look.

The human side: what was I doing?

I was standing tall, probably with my arms outstretched to some degree, leaning forward somewhat, using a loud, unpleasant tone of voice. Dogs can learn the meaning of verbal commands, but they’re hard-wired to respond to body language and it’s hard for them to overcome it.

My words meant: come back. My body and tone of voice meant: stay away. For us it is natural to interact face-to-face but dogs – given a choice – approach each other from an angle1. My body language at that moment was probably universally threatening but we, humans, are less sensitive to it as we primarily rely on speech. Have a look at how I could have improved the situation:

This is what I probably looked like – I was facing her, this shows me from the side so that you can see how I was leaning forward2:

Improvement 1 – hands by my side, not leaning forward anymore:

Improvement 2 – standing sideways:

Improvement 3 – squatting:

The canine side: what was Leus doing?

She stopped when I called her and turned towards me, then she lied down even though I told her to come back. Why would she do that?!

First and foremost, we must throw out of the window the misconception that dogs do things to spite us. Then we can proceed to the actual explanation.

We already established that my body language was threatening – the message “I’m scary” that my body was sending was stronger than the verbal message “come here”. Leus lied down in an attempt to appease me and avoid conflict.

Calming signals

This brings us to the so-called calming signals – a term developed by the Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas3. She made three important observations that changed the dog training world forever:

  1. Dogs have a rich body language that they actively use to prevent conflicts.
  2. They primarily learn this language from other dogs but humans help them with this process.
  3. Some of the body language can be used by humans too.

Lying down, as Leus did, is one of these calming signals. These are the main signals that Turid Rugaas describes in her book:

  • turning the head away/looking away
  • “softening” the eyes (kind of like squinting or slowly blinking)
  • tongue flicks (the tongue comes out and touches the muzzle or the tip of the nose quickly)
  • longer licks around the muzzle
  • sitting down
  • moving slowly
  • moving in a curve/curving
  • stopping
  • lying down
  • sniffing
  • yawning
  • turning away
  • play bow
  • peeing
  • splitting (dividing other dogs)
  • tail wagging

Some of these behaviours can also signal distress: if you are on a crowded bus or in a vet’s waiting room you might see a lot of dogs that are panting, yawning or licking themselves. Obviously, these are just fragments of the body language – dogs can also yawn when they’re sleepy, pant when they are thirsty or wag their tail when they are happy. It is important to evaluate these signals in the context of the given situation. But please, stop shouting at your dog already.