Many dog owners worship the God of Long Exercise Walks, convinced that the more exercise he has the better their dog will be in all respects. I confess to being a bit of a heretic.
Surely the best, most fulfilling and natural kind of ‘walk’ to a dog wouldn’t really be a walk at. It would be a kind of excursion where he was doing his own thing.
This gets me thinking. If he were left entirely to his own devices, what would he naturally be doing?
Do wild animals ‘exercise’?
I can say what he wouldn’t be doing. He wouldn’t be chasing balls or sticks. He wouldn’t be running to keep up with a bicycle or a jogger. He wouldn’t be standing out in the pouring rain. He wouldn’t be doing a daily repeat of the same circuit. He wouldn’t be physically held near to things, people or other dogs that he’d like to avoid.
I can also be pretty sure what he would be doing. He would be keeping away from trouble. Keeping safe would be his number-one priority.
He would look for food. He would urinate, defecate and mark. He would do a lot of sniffing. He may lie down and rest. He may dig a hole to unearth a small animal. He may briefly chase a rabbit or go after a bitch in season. If young or playful, he may have a romp with another dog.
Exercise would be incidental to other things he happened to feel like doing at the time. So far as what drives him is concerned, feeling safe is his main requirement, followed by food and possibly companionship of some sort. But exercise?
People often panic if asked to sacrifice some of their dog’s daily exercise in order to deal with issues involving fears, reactivity and over-arousal. Someone the other day even suggested getting a treadmill for their dog while we worked on his problems. ‘Sacrificing’ walks doesn’t mean spending less time doing things with the dog.
‘I walk my dog three times a day, he must get at least three hours exercise a day much of which is chasing a ball and he’s still manic when we get home’. Somehow the idea of not exercising their dog makes them feel more guilty than does subjecting him daily to mental stress like fear.
It’s interesting to ask someone to describe what their dog would be doing if left to his own devices, making his own choices, and most of it is stuff unacceptable to his human! It may be bolting for home. It may be chasing rabbits. It may be spending hours sniffing, foraging and scavenging. It may be walking down a busy street jumping up and greeting people. It may be rounding up sheep. It may be play with another young dog. It won’t be prolonged intense exercise unless running in the pursuit of prey.
In our modern world leash walks are unavoidable and and a long line for open spaces may be necessary. Obviously, exercise is essential for physical health but can it not be incidental to other things the dog happens to be doing? Its a question of balance.
The very best, most valuable and appropriate walk for a particular dog is arguably the nearest that people can practically and safely get to what their dog would be doing if left to his own devices. You can just ‘be there’ while he does his own thing. Ground doesn’t have to be covered for the sake of putting in the miles, does it?
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