There are few rules of dog ownership so enduring as the myth that you MUST walk your dog EVERY DAY! It is such a basic principle that it is practically set in stone. Everyone knows that this is the rule and that is why you see legions of dog owners and their dogs pounding the pavements on a daily basis.
Daily walks form part of the vision when you get a dog. It is something you accept as a standard part of dog ownership and embrace. We see it as good for both of us, getting us out into the fresh air with our dog and enjoying the great outdoors together. For some, it can be the most treasured part of dog ownership, getting them out and about, meeting new people and enjoying some time outside with their beloved pet.
But what if a daily walk is the very last thing your dog needs? What if a walk will do them more harm than good?
What if their daily walk could actually be so detrimental to them that it puts their health at risk?
The Stress Bucket
“Nonsense!” we hear you cry, “My dog loves his walk. How can it possibly be bad for him?”
Well, it all comes down to the Stress Bucket.
Our dogs have stress buckets and each interaction with the world, whether positive or negative, will pay into the bucket. Some interactions will pay larger amounts into the bucket, some smaller. Some interactions that pay into the bucket are obvious, like a trip to the vet or playing retrieve with a ball, but some things that might not even register with you, such as environmental matters like strange smells or noises, might be contributing to your dog’s stress bucket without you even realising it.
It is important to note that whether an experience is positive or negative to your dog is entirely subjective to your dog. For example, a ride in the car can be a very positive experience for some dogs; others may find it hugely stressful. It is how they perceive and experience it, not what we think it should be. And both positives and negatives pay into the bucket, so we must always be aware that the bucket is filling constantly.
When your dog’s bucket is close to full, any interaction, again whether positive or negative, can prove to be the one that makes the bucket overflow, and that is when our daily walk becomes a problem.
How to spot a full bucket
So how can we spot when our dog’s bucket is full?
Dogs will show you that their bucket is full by presenting what are typically labelled as “problem behaviours” such as:
- Pulling on lead
- Lacking focus
- Constant sniffing
- Disengaging from owner
- Jumping up
- Failing to recall
Presentation of a “problem” type behaviour is a classic sign that you are working with a dog with an over full bucket.
Behaviours that come out of nowhere
The problem can be though that we do not know that the dog’s bucket is close to overflowing. We take them out for a walk, thinking that they are nice and calm, then out of nowhere – BOOM – they are barking and lunging and whirling about at the end of the lead. It seemingly comes out of nowhere.
But does it really?
When you look back over the last couple of days, you note the following:
- Your dog had a trip to the groomers which she finds stressful
- She had a long run in the park with her best dog friend
- Your grandchildren visited this morning – your dog loves a visit from the kids
What you don’t realise is:
- You’ve been baking and your oven makes a sound that your dog finds unsettling
- There was a strange new smell on your walk yesterday
- The heavy rain falling today is amplifying all sounds to a level your dog finds uncomfortable
All of these things have filled your dog’s bucket, then when that lead comes out for the daily constitutional, overload is quickly reached and unwanted behaviours occur. These are not behavioural or training issues, they are Stress Bucket issues.
Be your dog’s protector and guide
So even if walking is your dog’s favourite thing to do in the whole world, sometimes it is just not what they need at that time. Living with a constantly full stress bucket is not just detrimental to your dog’s quality of life – it puts stress on your dog’s bodily systems that can negatively impact on their health which ultimately impacts on their lifespan. That is why managing their stress bucket is so important.
Sometimes your dog just needs a chance to relax and empty their stress bucket. It can take up to 72 hours for your dog’s bucket to empty. Bear that in mind if a particularly exciting event occurs, or if your dog has had a particularly high volume of smaller level excitements over the previous couple of days.
Don’t mindlessly reach for the lead. Think:
- how does my dog react to walks in general? Do they find them generally positive or negative?
- how is my dog presenting at the minute? Calm, excited, nervous?
- what experiences has my dog had over the past couple of days that might have paid into their bucket?
- what we have done over the past couple of days that might have emptied the bucket?
- what hidden factors might be at play that I haven’t accounted for?
And the big one:
- Is going for this walk in my dog’s best interests?
If the answer is yes, awesome, head on out. But if the answer is a resounding no, or you are not sure, sit it out.
At a loose end
But what can we do if we don’t walk? Surely being bored at home at the absence of a walk cannot be good for your dog either?
To live a happy and fulfilled life dogs need to be stimulated and enriched and exercise typically meets that need, but it is not the sole way of providing enrichment. Playing games can be an effective way to provide stimulation and enrichment when a walk isn’t the right thing that day for your dog.
Choose games and activities that will help with emptying your dog’s stress bucket and with building concepts that will help them on their future walks. Here are our top concepts for promoting great walks:
Calmness – calmness is key to emptying your dog’s bucket. Let your dog kick back and relax in a quiet space with a filled Kong or a chew.
Sniffing is also massively calming to dogs. Scatter feeding your dog’s dinner on the grass in your garden is great fun at any time, but can also provide gentle fun on days when walking is not an option.
Focus – a dog who is focused on you is not bothering about the picnic party across the park or the strange dog that has appeared in the distance. You can help your dog avoid situations that might pay into their Stress Bucket by transferring their focus on to you. And as always, there’s a game for that!
Magic Hand is your friend here. With small pieces of food in your hand, hold your hand above your dog’s head. When your dog looks at your hand, drop a piece of food from your hand for your dog to catch. Your dog will soon be so focused on that Magic Hand that they will not want to be bothering with anything else!
Proximity – you want your dog to know that where you are is where the party is at! Being close to you should always be the most rewarding place to be. With value in proximity to you, you can support your dog through anything that is challenging or worrying them, play with them and have the best fun with them, and just generally be working together as a team, rather than two separate entities walking in the same general direction attached by a lead.
In the meantime, why not try out FUNDER – one of our top games for building value in proximity. Throw out a piece of food and as your dog finishes eating it, call them to you. As they approach, throw another piece of food through your legs. Let your dog run through your legs to get it, then turn to face your dog. As your dog finishes eating, call them and the process begins again.
FUNDER is amazing fun – your dog will love it and will be haring back to you joyously in no time!
No walk, no problem
For many dog owners, walking your dog is one of life’s great pleasures. It is a chance to explore the world together, to get out and see things, to enjoy time in each other’s company. Meeting other humans and their dogs can be very rewarding. It is a very social thing. It is something most people look forward to when getting a dog.
But if your walk dream has turned into a nightmare or if your dog’s Stress Bucket is a little full that day and a walk just isn’t what they need, don’t be frightened to ditch that routine and sit your daily walk out. Be your dog’s guardian and guide, make the call, stick to base and pull out some awesome games instead. Both you and your dog will feel the benefit.