Walking a dog is good exercise. True or False?
Wait! Before you answer, realize this question actually has a couple questions buried beneath its surface. One is, what KIND of exercise? Are you fixated on the physical aspect and overlooking the mental part? Another is, exercise for WHOM? Whose walk is it, after all? To be fair, at least some walks should be primarily for our dogs.
So what are you trying to accomplish on dog walks? Maybe power-walking your dog is your way to get a cardio workout. You get your heart rate up, give your dog a chance to do his business…two birds, one stone, etc. Or, you’ve heard the old adage “A tired dog is a good dog”, so you see the walk as a means to both ends–rendering your dog tired, and therefore “good”. And of course, your time is precious and in short supply, so sometimes the quicker your dog takes care of those biological necessities, the quicker you can get it over with. Whatever your mindset, if you rush the walk, you may shortchange your dog of vital mental exercise.
My old dog, Sachem, was an incorrigible lollygagger, stopping every few yards to relish whatever aromas each swath of terrain had to offer. In those days, I was dividing my time between chasing after two small kids and holding down a demanding office job in Washington, D.C. with a long, hectic commute. My default pace was move it-move it, chop-chop. I never slowed down. That included dog walks. I confess, I felt like my pokey dog was holding me up. I also didn’t see how either one of us was going to get any aerobic benefit if she spent more time standing still and snuffling in the grass than marching double-time at my side. I’d stand there with my engine revving, almost resenting her for…well, for being a dog.
These days, as a dog trainer, I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about dogs, what it might like to be a dog, what dogs may want out of life…and I’ve got a whole new take on walking my current dog, Huckleberry. She’s a hound mix, so sniffing is her main job–and joy–in life. For her, I think going for a walk is like exploring a museum–a museum of smells. If I visit the National Gallery of Art, I’m there to admire, appreciate, ponder. I move at my own pace from painting to painting, soaking in the details, savoring the colors. If I’m especially drawn in, I linger even longer. What if every time I paused to contemplate, somebody tapped my shoulder, pointed to their watch, and said, “Time’s up, gotta go.” I’d feel cheated, and unfulfilled.
Yes, dogs need exercise, and so do we, and there’s no question that walks can fulfill that need. But our dogs need mental exercise too, not just the physical kind. They need outlets for their canine drives, chances to just BE dogs. They collect and analyze an unfathomable amount of data–and derive an immeasurable amount of satisfaction–through sniffing all the pungency, putrefaction and pheromonal stinks their world serves up. To our dogs, the outdoors is an emporium of odors, a garden of olfactory delights. It’s not a racetrack with a starting gun, a pace car, a timer, and a finish line. There’s no goal in mind, no “are we there yet?” As the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Your dog agrees. So walk, yes. Even walk fast (or run!) when it suits you and your dog. But remember to enjoy the journey, and take time to stop to smell the…well, you know what I mean.