Hopefully you take your dog for a walk every day. If so, give yourself a pat on the back! In addition to basic care, feeding and simple training, walking your dog is perhaps the most loving thing you can do for your furry friend. Aside from the obvious – providing your dog with some daily physical exercise and an opportunity to eliminate – walking with your dog and exploring the environment together is an integral component to building a strong human-canine relationship.
“The walk” is one of the most basic mechanisms of pack structure. And although domestic dogs are not truly pack animals anymore in the purest sense of the word, they do retain their wild ancestors’ need to move through the environment in a linear way. In nature, animals spend most of the day on a walk, and it is within the context of this purposeful movement that 95% of their social interactions take place. Walking, jogging, sniffing and investigating, dogs in particular, bond closely as they share in an age old ritual – the hunt. Even though today’s domestic dogs are really scavengers, not hunters, their DNA still drives them to search and move in social groups.
If we know this about our dogs, wouldn’t it would make sense to begin looking at the daily walk as an invaluable way to build a stronger relationship with them? After all, it is ultimately the strength of your relationship with your dog (how relevant he finds you) that accounts for his ability to “listen to you” when you need him to! So use your walking time to interact with your buddy, explore different routes and different situations. Climb together on a rock, go over a bench, or ask your dog to jump over a rope or chain that is marking some parking spots. Incorporate some simple obedience commands along the way. Play with your dog. Throw a ball or a stick. Games like the highly motivating retrieve, which fulfills your dog’s prey drive, is a great example.
So exactly how often and for how long should we walk our dogs? There are endless discussions and opinions on this subject. But just to give you some perspective, I will mention that, in a natural setting, feral dogs and wolves might cover at least 12 miles a day just moving through the environment, gathering information, leaving information, and seeking food sources. Of course we can’t compare our dogs to their wild ancestors in every situation, and today’s domestic dog has adapted quite well to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
However, if the average dog owner would commit to at least two 30-minute “sniffy” walks per day, our dogs would be much happier, calmer, and less likely to become destructive due to a lack of mental exercise. Since we know that most of us can never really get to the bottom of our dogs physical exercise capacity, our goal for the walk should be to engage our dog mentally, establish his active participation, and work on building a relationship with him.
By accomplishing different tasks together your dog is getting to know you as his valued companion and an integral part of his social group. There really isn’t any more effective way to build trust and a meaningful bond between two different species than working together toward a shared goal. In your dog’s mind that’s exactly what is happening as you recreate the ancient ritual of moving together through the environment.
So next time you take your dog out for a walk, put on a pair of doggy glasses and try to see what you might consider a daily chore from his perspective. Switch up your route, go to the woods or find a trail. By all means get off the pavement if you can. And if he wants to stop and investigate something for more than a few seconds, let him. Drop the agenda and be a part of the adventure. Your dog will surely thank you for it!
A lifetime lover of "all creatures great and small" Ann Kinney began her dog training career at age 10 on the family farm in Southern Ohio, where she worked alongside her grandfather and his collies. She completed her first AKC Obedience Trial in 1971, with her own Border Collie Tip MacKay. A student of the behavior sciences since the early 90's, Ann brings a modern, science-based approach to her work with both the SPCA shelter dogs and private clients. "For it is only when we understand who our dogs really are, how they learn, and why they do the things they do that we can teach them how to successfully fit into our human households!" Ann lives in Aiken with her husband, Paul, their two shelter dogs, Roxy and Griffey, and her horse, Norman.
Learn more about Ann's training & behavior methods through our Phideaux University program.