Why skipping your dog’s walk is a bigger deal than you think

My landlord recently installed a fence around the shared front yard of our building in Upstate New York. Each of her tenants has a dog, and she thought it would be nice to provide a safe off-leash space where they can run around and chase a ball. But this act of kindness has introduced an unfortunate new temptation. When it’s time for one of my dog’s three daily walks and the weather is bad, or I’m particularly busy (or particularly lazy), I now sometimes think: “Maybe I’ll just let him into the yard?”

Of course, I’m happy to have a place to let him out for quick pee breaks. But I fear falling into a pattern of regularly skipping walks. Research indicates that many humans do: A 2011 study from Michigan State University on the benefits of dog-walking found only two-thirds of its subjects routinely walked their dogs. According to experts, this forgoing of walks doesn’t only make neurotic dog guardians like myself feel guilty. It can significantly affect your dog’s emotional and physical well-being.

“First of all, dogs don’t exercise by themselves, for the most part,” says Stephanie Borns-Weil, an assistant clinical professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. The amount of exercise a dog needs varies based on age, breed and health — it can be as little as 30 minutes a day or as much as a few hours — but virtually all dogs need exercise in some form.

The typical yard, Borns-Weil says, just doesn’t offer enough stimulation to prompt an adequate amount of movement. Unless you’re spending time playing with your dog, “they’re just going to sit there,” she says, “because the space is familiar.” She compared it to reading the same book over and over again, or seeking enrichment by hanging out in your bathroom.

This need for exercise, while crucial, isn’t even the most important reason to walk your dog. They may or may not get some exercise in the yard, Borns-Weil says, “but they’re not getting companionship (from their human), and they’re not getting the mental stimulation that comes from seeing new things, or, from the point of view of a dog, sniffing new things.” Dogs who don’t have these needs met “are subjected to some of the same effects of long-term chronic stress on their health that people are,” she says, ranging from depression and anxiety, to problems with the immune system. (Studies have found that dogs in shelters, too, benefit from direct human interaction, which reduces stress and stress-related behaviors.)

To help your dog get the most out of her walk, let her explore. “Sniffing is the way that dogs experience the world,” says Valli Fraser-Celin, a humane dog training advocate. Where humans have 6 million olfactory receptors, research shows dogs can have up to 300 million; it’s how they acquire information about their environment and communicate. Dogs can tell which animals have been nearby — including sniffing out their gender and information about their health. A friend’s dog walker used to equate the act of sniffing to a dog “checking their email.”

But so often, humans hurry them along, prioritizing exercise (or their own schedule) over their dog’s interest in the world around them. “It would be like taking me to the Smithsonian Institute,” Borns-Weil says, “and I’m wanting to stop and look at the exhibits, and somebody says, hey, hurry up, we’re just exercising, keep walking.”

Allowing a dog to pull off to the side and sniff whenever he wants can feel wrong to those accustomed to outdated, dominance-focused training methods, which prioritize obedience above all else (and which are based on a long-debunked, but still persistent theory). Fraser-Celin warns against getting wrapped up in that mind-set.

It isn’t necessary that your dog walk obediently behind or beside you, or that they only stop to sniff when you grant permission. What’s important is that you pay attention to what they’re communicating, and help them meet their needs. “If your dog wants to sniff every blade of grass,” Fraser-Celin says, “then that’s what they want to do on their walk.”

After some amount of time, you can usher them to a new area to sniff, or you might even designate a portion of the walk for sniffing and a portion for exercise. But, above all, guardians need to take the animals’ lead, Fraser-Celin says, “rather than focusing on what our intentions are for the walk.” And if your dog isn’t into meeting strangers, canine or human, don’t feel pressured to acquiesce to those who insist their dog “is friendly!” or “all dogs love me!”

“Whenever you’re out in the world, it’s important to be an advocate for your dog’s needs,” Borns-Weil says. “Your dog is not public property.”

For dogs just learning leash skills, Fraser-Celin recommends starting in the house, or another area free from distractions, and using a well-fitted harness to take the pressure off their neck. (A fanny pack full of treats also comes in handy, I can tell you from experience.) If more help is needed, you might consider working with a positive reinforcement trainer. And if you feel your dog is uncomfortable walking, or has developed what seem like new fears or behavioral issues, Borns-Weil recommends a checkup to rule out medical problems. If your dog has a significant amount of anxiety around walking, it may be an issue for a veterinary behaviorist.

As for my dog, I can barely get one-third of the way into the question “Do you want to go for a walk?” before he’s jumping with excitement. Whenever I’m tempted to flake out on him, I try to remind myself of that. Plus, he’s not the only one to whom I’d be doing a disservice. Spending this time with me is important for his health and well-being, yes, but it’s just as important for mine. Studies have shown what many dog lovers likely already know — that canine companionship and dog walking can reduce stress, benefit health, lower medical costs and decrease depression and anxiety. It’s a gift we can give each other. Fenced-in yard be damned.

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Kelly Conaboy is a writer in New York who covers dogs, culture and dog culture.

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