Monday, April 15, 2024

Why Skipping Your Dog’s Walk Is More Serious Than You Think

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My landlord recently installed a fence around the shared front yard of our apartment building in upstate New York. Each of her tenants has a dog and she thought it would be nice to provide them with a safe, off-leash space where they could run and chase a ball. But this act of kindness introduced a new unfortunate 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 sometimes think, “Maybe I’ll just let him in.” the courtyard ?

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

“First of all, most of the time dogs don’t exercise on their own,” 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 depending on their age, breed and health status – it can be as little as 30 minutes a day or up to a few hours – but virtually all dogs have need exercise in one form or another.

According to Borns-Weil, typical courtship simply doesn’t offer enough stimulation to elicit an adequate amount of movement. Unless you spend time playing with your dog, “he’ll just sit there,” she says, “because the space is familiar.” She compared it to reading the same book over and over or trying to get rich by hanging out in the bathroom.

This need for exercise, while crucial, isn’t even the most important reason to walk your dog. They may or may not exercise in the yard, Borns-Weil says, “but they don’t have company. [from their human], and they don’t get the mental stimulation that comes from seeing new things or, from a dog’s perspective, sniffing new things. Dogs whose needs aren’t met “are subject to the same effects of long-term chronic stress on their health as humans,” she says, ranging from depression and anxiety to immune system problems. (Studies have shown that dogs in shelters also benefit from direct human interaction, which reduces stress and stress-related behaviors.)

To help your dog get the most out of his walk, let him explore. “Sniffing is how dogs learn about the world,” says humane dog training advocate Valli Fraser-Celin. While humans have 6 million olfactory receptors, research shows that dogs can have up to 300 million; this is how they acquire information about their environment and communicate. Dogs can know which animals have been nearby, including by sniffing their gender and information about their health. A friend’s dog walker equated sniffing to a dog “checking email.”

But very often, humans rush them, 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 want to stop and look at the exhibits, and someone says, Hey, hurry up, we’re just doing exercise, keep walking. »

Allowing a dog to stray and sniff whenever he wants may seem wrong to those who are accustomed to outdated, dominance-focused training methods that prioritize obedience above all else (and are based on a long-debunked, but still persistent theory). ). Fraser-Celin warns against such a mentality.

It is not necessary for your dog to walk obediently behind or beside you, or to only stop to sniff when you give him 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,” says Fraser-Celin, “then that’s what he wants to do on his walk.”

After a while, you can take them to a new area to sniff, or you can even designate part of the walk for sniffing and part for exercise. But, above all, keepers need to take the lead from the animals, Fraser-Celin says, “rather than focusing on our intentions for the walk.” And if your dog doesn’t like meeting strangers, canine or human, don’t feel like you have to acquiesce to those who insist that their dog “is friendly!” » or “all dogs love me!”

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

For dogs just learning leash skills, Fraser-Celin recommends starting in the house or another area free of distractions and using a properly fitted harness to take the strain off their neck. (A fanny pack filled with treats also helps, I can tell you from experience.) If additional help is needed, you might consider working with a positive reinforcement trainer. And if you feel like your dog isn’t comfortable walking or has developed what appear to be new fears or behavioral problems, Borns-Weil recommends a physical to rule out any medical issues. If your dog is very anxious about walking, this may be a problem for a veterinary behaviorist.

As for my dog, I’m barely a third of the way through the question “Do you want to go for a walk?” before jumping with excitement. Every time I’m tempted to lash out at him, I try to remind myself. Besides, he’s not the only one I wouldn’t do a favor for. Spending this time with me is important to his health and well-being, yes, but it’s just as important to mine. Studies have shown what many dog ​​lovers probably already know: dog companionship and dog walking can reduce stress, benefit health, reduce medical costs, and decrease depression and anxiety. It’s a gift we can give ourselves. To hell with the fenced yard.

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

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