Dog Commandments #1: thou shalt walk thy dog

dogcommandments1

Unless…

There are a few good reasons that you might not walk your dog every day. There are also lots of bad reasons that you might not be walking your dog. I’m going to share with you today an approach that turned my dog walks from an hour of shouty misery into a happy and pleasant experience, if one of the reasons you’re not walking your dog daily is because it’s virtually impossible for you to do so if they’re a crazy walk maniac.

I do have a dog I don’t walk every day. Tobby. He’s got severe arthritis and is prone to falls. Don’t get me wrong: we do other stuff. We go for car rides. We go for picnics. He has toys. I take him out on social occasions. Tobby loves to meet other dogs, although he is often rather over-stimulated to say the least. He’s fourteen and I expected him to live for two weeks. That was fourteen months ago. As those months have passed, I’ve adapted my walking habits quite substantially to suit him, as he also has severe separation anxiety and needs to be left with another animal if I expect him not to tear the sofa apart with his (remaining) teeth. My reason for not walking him is that it risks more physically in putting him through the walks with my other dogs, and I can’t walk them less because of him. I also can’t walk him a shorter walk on his own, since I already doubled the walks I was doing daily so that I could leave him in the house with another dog. Two hours of dog walks, on top of an hour of exercise and training every day, on top of a full time job and volunteering… I’d have to give up sleeping.

This has consequences, of course. He does need exercise, so we have a lot more time in the garden than I used to. I’ll talk about that later. A physical problem is a reason some people may not walk their dog.

Another reason might be psychological. I’m not a proponent of “all dogs must go for a walk three times a day” as you might think. Not in the slightest. If your dog has psychological stress, a walk is the equivalent of being frog-marched through Beirut every day. As you know yourself, if you are of a nervous disposition, walking down your local high street can be a huge challenge. When you perceive every single thing around you to be a threat, a walk through it is the same as a firewalk through hell. What use is a test of courage, adaptability and resilience if you are nervous, uncomfortable and fragile? Although daily walks may eventually habituate your nervous or frightened dog to the outside world if you are lucky, it can also flood them, causing them to shut off completely. In this instance, a walk would be your long term goal, and working with an animal behaviourist with counter-conditioning and systematic desentitisation is your way of achieving this. But in the meantime, you may be finding other ways to exercise your dog in ways that aren’t as psychologically costly.

The two main reasons that people have for not walking their dog, other than the reasons above, are lack of time and/or thinking that a large garden compensates for a lack of exercise.

I confess, lack of time is a big issue for me too. Sometimes, when I’m walking my dogs in the near-dark, cursing through rain before breakfast, the stench of burning martyr is very strong on me. The only reason, and it is the only reason, that I’m out there is that one of my dogs Heston is almost unbearable unless I’ve taken him out. Luckily, seeing my dogs when they’re on a walk is a great antidote to the grumbles. Tilly’s wiggly bum and Amigo’s waggy tail and expression of pure joy are enough to get me into my walking boots. I would say to those people who do not have the time to exercise their dog that they have a couple of options. One is to outsource it to someone else such as a dog walker or a dog crèche. The other is to make time. I’m afraid I’ve given up on the books and the television. I think there might be a dog crèche some 100km away.

I do have a garden though. If you have a big garden, whether you have the time or not, there’s a tendency to think that it is sufficient for exercise.

It’s not. It can be. But on its own, it’s not. Even if you have 50 fenced acres of land.

Think of it this way.

Imagine a football stadium. A big, empty football stadium. You are in the football stadium and completely alone. It has toilets, and you mostly use the stadium for that. Sometimes, out of boredom, you might do a perimeter run. Once or twice you kicked a couple of footballs but that got pretty tiresome. Sometimes, you pop into the stadium shop and have a look, or into the museum, but you’ve been in there hundreds of times and it’s not very interesting any more. Mostly you go for a pee, you do a circuit or two and you sit down and look at that huge expanse of empty grass. From time to time you go for a roll on it, or you sunbathe, but all that grass isn’t particularly interesting. Once or twice, you tried to dig your way out, but a shouty man came and stopped you, and then he disappeared again. The second time you tried, he zapped you with a taser, so you thought twice about digging (because you’re a rational human being with a thinking, reflective, processing mind, not a dog, and you realised he might scale it up next time) Once you tried to break out through the big stadium doors, and a couple of times you managed it, but someone picked you up and put an electric collar on you that zaps you every time you try. So now you roam about and mostly lie on the grass and sleep.

Then they bring another person in. He doesn’t really speak your language and when you’ve tried to communicate with him, he bites you, so you don’t bother any more. He lies on the grass and you lie in the stands.

Finally, they bring another person in. They’re really sociable and they’re really friendly. You chat a bit and make up ways to pass the time, but you’re both still bored. You do a bit of wrestling and singing, but every time you do, the shouty guy comes out and hits you, so you kind of lie there quietly.

To most dogs, that’s what a garden is. A huge big empty stadium where they’re not allowed to engage in any natural doggy activities and is essentially a big space surrounding a toilet. It might be interesting at first, but after a while, it’s the same old, same old. Just because there are other dogs in it doesn’t mean they’ll get on, and if they do, don’t be surprised if, unsupervised, they resort to destructive behaviours like digging, dog wrestling, barking or pretending to be a Jack-in-a-Box when people walk by.

Walking your dog is therefore essential for the majority of us. Not a daily essential, but an essential none-the-less. Dogs are social creatures who are, by and large, deprived of most of their daily doggy behaviours. We don’t want them to bark, chew (forbidden) things, bite, fend off predators, chase stuff or roll in bad smells. Our homogenised little worlds are as interesting to a dog as a prison cell is to us, albeit a comfy prison cell with a stadium attached to it as a prison yard. Where we stimulate our senses and our brains through games, reading, movies, travel, food and music, allowing us to make our world an experiential one, one of the main ways that dogs experience the world is through smell. Walks are as diverting for a dog as passing an hour on Netflix is for us. Where I bury myself in a book or pass the time primping my photos on Photoshop, a dog smells stuff. Most dogs are not just social creatures, they are also curious creatures. They like to explore, to delve, to probe, to dissect. A walk gives them divertion and stimulation. For my dogs, they have an opportunity to smell things, to roll in stuff, to run, to chase off crows, to run figures of eight in a field chasing swallows that they’ll never catch, to follow their noses.

This in itself is a pain in the arse. I would very much like my dogs to walk to heel and to be finished with the walk in forty minutes. But that’s not a dog-friendly walk and if I did this, I would be restricting that curiosity, that engagement of the world through smell and that independence even more than I do in my home. In my home, I create artificial opportunities to engage those skills, but walks are my dog’s real-world life experience.

You can understand then, why I value walks. Also why I hate walks. But I remember that my dogs have only 2 hours of natural “Dog Time” every day. Everything else is man-made and artificial. No chewing on rabbit bones they’ve chased and caught. No. Thirty minutes of Fetch and Tug followed by an hour of supervised time with a marrow bone or an antler (and who even these days has an acceptable thing for dogs to chew?! My vet recommended rawhide. “What about the salt and the chemicals and the processing?!” I wanted to scream.) No chasing grouse or flushing out pheasant. No patrolling sheep. This is why I value walks. It is their only real time to be a dog.

It’s also why Heston goes nuts for walks. Any walk is preceded by thirty seconds of intense barking followed by crazy circling, sometimes barking like a lunatic at the same time. We’ve managed to get a sit-calm-silent bit at the gate and at the car and we’re working back, but I’m pretty sure that walks are Heston’s favourite bit of his entire day.

His recall isn’t 100%. We’re getting there, but it’s not 100%. So we have to have leads on for most walks.

Walks are also massively over-stimulating to him. I walked once through what was obviously a wild boar disco site and it was like trying to get Charlie Sheen through a Columbian cocaine plant. It would be easy to give up. Another example: every Tuesday for about three months, on my way back from classes, I would see a guy walking his German shepherd. It barked and lunged every time at any cars that passed. Now either that guy has chosen a different route, he is walking it when there are no cars about, or he’s given up. I suspect the latter. And if it’s the former, not really helping his dog deal with the fact that cars and dogs sometimes have to co-exist.

It was that fact that made me think differently about walks.

First, I had a bit of work to get Heston calmer before walks. We’d play ten minutes of Fetch or Tug and then, surprise surprise, he’d be much calmer! Weird right?

Then I stopped thinking of walks as exercise at all.

We upped the physical and mental stuff in the garden. Instead of being an empty stadium, we do agility work, frisbee, we play, we do scent work and tracking. It’s a bit like why stadiums are much more exciting if there are occasional athletics clubs that meet there. Taking the need to exercise out of the walk put less pressure on me to complete the walk and to do it in a certain amount of time, and it also took the pressure off Heston to “behave”, to walk to heel and to control his excitement.

I started to see my dog walks as two things.

The first of those things is habituation. This is the walk I do first thing in the morning. It’s mostly the same route. It’s a safe route with wide open fields, very little traffic (and slow-moving at that) and from most points, I can see for miles. It’s a great place for off-lead experiences where Heston can investigate, explore and access a world that has other living creatures in it, where things move, where rabbits run about and hares hide in fields, where grouse hide in ditches and swallows weave about. It’s new and it’s varied even if it’s the same. It’s a playground for dogs, albeit one I have carefully chosen not to be too dangerous. The scarecrows this morning were enough of an element of surprise not to push Heston over into frantic barking, and I treat this as an outdoor lesson to practise recall, stops, pointing, tracking. It’s where I field-test some of the stuff we do in the garden, like running between my legs into a sit and look up (peekaboo!) to add distance, distraction and variation to what we’ve learned to proof it. Mainly, this walk is about learning about good walk behaviours. Loose leads, eye contact, recall, meeting low-level distractions and dealing with them without barking at them or lunging. We met a jogger and his off-lead dog last week – so it’s not a fool-proof route, but in terms of building up Heston’s tolerance for stuff and building in better responses, it’s perfect. It is a 35 minute circle but sometimes it takes us an hour or more and that’s okay.

The second of those things is socialisation. This is the walk we do later in the day. Sometimes that’s after I get back from work, or sometimes it’s before afternoon classes. Hence why I’ve given up on television! This is where we do more challenging walks where we purposely encounter other animals or people – sometimes that might only be through smell if Heston is very excited about something. I don’t have a set plan and I don’t care if it takes me an hour to do 100 metres. This is where we hang around in car parks waiting for old people with walking sticks. It’s where we sit in the vet car park or in the vet surgery when we don’t need anything. It’s where we go and hang about near the river. It’s where I work on trying to navigate the smells of a wild boar disco without having a crazy 65lb dog lunging and zigzagging from left to right like a frenzied maniac. Actually, I only put these walks in because of not being able to walk Tobby. Whether it’s Amigo or Tilly who didn’t come out in the morning, they come with us in the afternoon. Both are happy to kind of hang about if Heston and I can only make it 100m in an hour. After all, it’s not the exercise they seek, but the experience.

Seeing my dog walks as not-a-walk made all the difference. It is Heston’s outdoor lesson. It’s not his exercise. Instead of keeping my barky, reactive dog behind the gates and telling myself that the garden is big enough and varied enough an experience for him, those two different types of walk make all the difference. Instead of keeping him on the lead permanently because I didn’t do a good enough job with recall when he was a puppy, I can do a bit of work on that too.

Here you can see a short clip of some recall-proofing in a more distracting environment. Instead of trying to make it past the hedgerow with Heston on a lead, lunging at smells, me getting crosser and crosser about him “not listening” and having poor recall, this allows me to let him explore the scents and also allows me to test his recall in more challenging environments. This is our ‘habituation’ walk. Usually, he’s on lead on the socialisation walks, just because those are experiences that he is not used to. This video shows how I’m now using our walk as a way to increase challenge in recall.

By seeing walks as a way to educate Heston and using other methods to exercise him, he’s made enormous progress socially and developmentally. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a far cry from the frustration I used to feel. The garden has gone from being an empty stadium for toilet purposes and is now a playground instead. The result is a highly-charged, super-smart dog who is not destructive in the house and manages effortlessly (most of the time) to navigate the complexity of “When I can Be Dog” and “When I can’t Be Dog” (i.e. when I can bark, chew, growl, dig, circle, pull, shred, dismantle, sniff, pee on things and hump stuff, and when I can’t)

And just by the way, thank goodness none of my other dogs absorb this much effort!

Changing how you see your dog walk can make all the difference to your relationship with your dogs, as well as their development. It makes it much easier to follow that Dog Commandment and not use the excuse that I have a big garden as a way to avoid taking him out every day. As the owner of a highly-strung, energetic youngster, I know how easy it is to avoid walks altogether. Seeing our walk a little differently changed things dramatically for Heston.