Recently I’ve been hearing talk from various quarters that walking your dog is not something you need to do every day or even should do every day. At first I was curious about this idea, which frankly gob-smacked me when I considered it; but pretty quickly I lost interest in the notion and the reasoning behind it, and spent much more time considering the role that dog walks have played in my life and the lives of my dogs past and present. That produced so many memories that put a smile on my face that I’m sharing them here.
When I first got a dog, in 1989, I lived as a renter in the top half of a house in the Beverly neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. The house had a yard but it wasn’t fenced and the house was situated on a busy street, with my apartment on the second floor; so everything I did with that dog, a Sheltie named Briar Rose, was done on leash and as a pair. Two years later another Sheltie, Sander, joined us and then I took two dogs out on leash to potty; walked two dogs around the neighborhood before I went to work; and in the evenings took two dogs to the big neighborhood park a few blocks away, where we met other dog owners walking their dogs.
Fast forward three decades and many dogs: I still live in Beverly, but now in a small house with a very big back yard, all of which is securely fenced. I own the house, and I own five dogs. I still walk them – all of them – every day, several times a day. We use the very big yard quite a lot, but nothing there has replaced our daily walks in and around the neighborhood, which offer so very many things.
Here are a few of those things.
A change of view: Years ago, I read a dog behaviorist/trainer who said that every dog should have an opportunity to leave its own property at least once every day. The wider world calls to dogs, just as it does to us; I am convinced of that. My back yard is a wonderful resource, and it allows all my dogs to race around and enjoy a degree of freedom that my first Shelties didn’t have. But *outside* of my yard is where things get really interesting: squirrels, other dogs, people, and even CATS perambulate and go about their business, and my dogs want to know about it! We can go for long walks, or short walks; we can drive to other spots in the neighborhood and park the car and do our walk there, a mile or so from home – it’s ALL interesting.
My friend Liz says that her dog’s cardiologist encouraged them to keep walking as long as possible, saying that the smells are good for the dog’s brain, and the fresh air and movement is good for dog and owner alike. A stroller was employed to help when needed. Who wouldn’t want to go for a walk with these cuties?!
Dogs with health issues and conditions seem to look forward to and enjoy their walks as much as any other dog, maybe even more. My friend Lynne recently lost one of her Boxer boys to degenerative myelopathy, which is a heartbreak for the owner and such a sad way to wind down for the dog; but she has memories of the walks they took regularly even when his legs had quit on him. When you can look back and recall your dog’s ears blowing in the wind, that was a lovely walk.
An aid to personal hygiene: Two things here: one, I am not good at trimming dog nails, either with clippers or with a Dremel. I can do it, I just don’t want to. And my dogs would rather I not do it. But walking a dog on city sidewalks a couple of times a day, an average of six days per week, will wear their nails down to a reasonable length. Some tidying up might be necessary from time to time, but by and large I happily eschew the clippers and the kong stuffed with peanut butter that never really manages to distract the dog from what I’m about. While I’m piling up the steps on my pedometer, they’re wearing down their nails on the concrete!
Two, I have one dog who does not believe that he should poop in our yard. I would like to think this is a matter of fastidiousness on his part, but it is not. Let’s leave it at that. But if we don’t do our after-dinner, end-of-day walk (a very short one, but a walk), he will go stealthily into the kitchen at night when I am sleeping, and do his business there. It’s easier to just put the leashes on and walk the walk!
An opportunity for the group – the ‘pack’, if you will – to be on the move, in what is probably the closest approximation of a canine hunting sortie available to us nowadays. As I said, I have five dogs: my two Finnish Lapphunds are both 9 years old; my two Border Collies are 13 and 2 years old; and my Sheltie/Pomeranian/SharPei (really!) mix is 8 years old. They are a family unit and the number one requirement is that they live together in my household amicably. Some of them are good friends; some are simply roommates to the other dogs. But they all know that we’re a family, a unit. The social nature of dogs is such a delightful thing to observe in this context. And when we all go for a walk, the unit is on the move, not five individual dogs. It’s a time of making and reinforcing bonds.
Opportunity to polish social skills: Often when we walk in the neighborhood, we see people that I know, and I’ll stop the dogs so I can talk with the neighbor. At that time, the dogs are not allowed to amuse themselves by digging holes in the neighbor’s lawn or by eating any substance they may be curious about from the sidewalk or being restless and making a cat’s cradle of the leash by winding around the other dogs until they’re all a ball of barking. They are required to sit or stand or lie down and be calm and observe things until I decide we will move on. Don’t tell me this isn’t a useful skill!
And sometimes there’s something in it for them: recently we encountered my sister, who lives down the street from me, outside of her house. She said she had dog biscuits in her pockets and every dog who would do a down on command could have a biscuit. This caused quite a stir in the gang! One dog, my Lapphund Siili, allowed that even though she’s been all around this wide world and seen so many things, she didn’t know how to down on command, and could she please just have the biscuit anyway. Of course, Siili is a pants-on-fire liar about this, and as the other dogs were getting their THIRD biscuits for successful downs, she sighed and admitted that yes, she does know how to down, and she finally got her treat. This interlude amused the humans and rewarded the dogs; what could be better?
Socialization ho! I want my dogs to be able to observe goings-on and passers-by with equanimity and without panic or agitation. That’s the socialization they get; and walks are a terrific way to achieve it. I know people who take their dogs to big-box stores for this, and frankly, I feel myself on the verge of a panic attack in a Home Depot or a Menard’s and I would never expect my dogs to handle that environment with stoic calm. Why should they? I’m never going to send them in to pick up 25 pounds of bird seed and a lawn chair! But a walk – absolutely, they should be able to regard people, animals, bus and auto traffic, and commuter trains from the safety of their on-leash position next to me (and to their canine family members) without anxiety or agitation. I know my dogs are successful at this because Rowley, my 13-year old Border Collie, does not like busy streets (bus and truck routes) and although we avoid them in general, we do sometimes have to walk a short distance on a busy street, and he takes it in stride. His ears may be pinned back and he is not having the time of his life, but neither is he freaking out – he handles it.
My friend Kathy has two rescue Shelties, and she says that when Carmel came to her (from a quite unpleasant hoarding situation that offered her no socialization at all as a puppy), walks were the way that Carmel learned that the world outside her house and yard is a safe place. Similarly, my Dee, who is from the same Sheltie rescue that Kathy’s girls are from, was quite anxiety-reactive when she arrived in my home as a young dog who’d had bad experiences with humans. We walked, and we walked, and when she saw something that distressed her, I just made sure I was between her and the person/dog/situation and we kept on walking. Walking with the group IS a safe space for my dogs. Like Kathy’s Shelties, they know that. Seven years later, the only thing that gets a rise out of Dee is the sight of a cat, and that’s not anxiety reactivity, that’s her prey drive taking over!
Walks can be training opportunities, too. A trainer friend points out that the ‘parallel walking’ exercise is almost always effective in helping dog-reactive dogs gain comfort with the process of leash walking. If you don’t know what ‘parallel walking’ is, check it out here:
Oh, the places you’ll go! If I didn’t walk my dogs, I wouldn’t know the song of the red-wing blackbird, or what a vernal pool is. Here Siili samples the water in the vernal pool at the nature preserve:
I would miss out on some of the most enjoyable features of Chicago, including the lakefront walking paths in Hyde Park.
My dog-owning friends feel the same way. The photo below is of Max, a rescue Sheltie, with one of his owners, Michael. Michael and his husband Mark are some of the best people I know – you meet some really good people through rescue. They had a rescue Sheltie named Petunia, who battled cancer for a good amount of time before she left them, and she was walked in a stroller when she couldn’t do walks under her own power. And I know they never regarded it as a chore, but as a good day because Petunia was still with them.
And here’s Bertie, a Lapphund who is owned by a trainer and lives in a condo in Hyde Park and gets plenty of walks, including the really fun ones when they visit Cape Cod every summer! Here he is on the beach of Lake Michigan, near his home.
A walked dog is a calm dog, and maybe even a tired dog! It’s not just the body that gets exercise on a walk, the dog’s brain is engaged too, and nothing promotes healthy tiredness like mental exercise. Here are Kathy’s two Shelties, after a 2-mile walk, which is a good outing for them!
Those are just some of the reasons why I love walks with my dogs. I’ve always walked them and I hope I always will! My dogs get a lot of enrichment in their lives: they eat their meals from snuffle mats or treat toys or slow bowls; Mylo has two agility classes every week, while Dee and the Lapphunds each have a weekly Nosework class. Here’s Siili, doing a search in a novel venue:
Rowley had to retire from agility last year due to the aging process taking a toll on his eyesight and back-end strength, but he gets out to herd ducks when we can. And all my dogs have a chance to work on tricks and behaviors in an online class every Tuesday afternoon. Dee practicing her ‘get in the basket’ here:
So even without walks, my dogs have all kinds of mental and physical challenges that they enjoy. But there’s nothing like our daily walks. They keep us connected to the world outside our home, and they keep us connected to each other in our family.
I get that people have reasons for not walking dogs; I get that some dogs might not want or enjoy walks the way mine have and do. But I think of all the enrichment that my dog walks have added to my life, and I’m grateful.
Dedicated to Beau, who is gone but not forgotten, and who in true Sheltie fashion loved nothing more than a walk with his owner. Miss you, Bobo.
Getting outside and being in nature is good for all of us. Happy walking!