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Pet Lovers

07/31/2023

Mindful Dog Walking

Last year, we published a blog called “What’s Going on at the Other End of the Leash”. Although the initial…

Why Mindful Dog Walking Matters

Last year, we published a blog called “What’s Going on at the Other End of the Leash”. Although the initial reason for writing the blog was my pet peeve of people walking their dogs outdoors and not paying any attention to them, we discussed a variety of safety issues as well.

There are so many things our dogs could get into while out walking that could be harmful to them: nasty, rotten food that someone has dropped or thrown out, cigarettes, medicines, candy, chewing gum, etc. There could be dead, decaying vermin by the road, broken glass, snakes, red ants, and so much more. We need to keep an eye on our dogs to make sure they are safe.

As it turns out there are more than just safety issues at risk for your dog. Last week (as of the time of this writing), CNN published an article called “We’re multitasking while walking our dogs.  Animal experts say this is a problem”.  I’m glad someone with some considerable influence is getting the word out to dog walkers everywhere.

The CNN article touches on some of the safety issues we discussed in our blog, but it also brought to light that physical safety is not the only concern.  Distracted dog walking, as they refer to it, can also be detrimental to a dog’s behavioral training and even mental health.

Opportunities to reinforce obedience during a walk are plentiful. Walks are a great time to strengthen good behavior and correct bad behavior in a realistic, practical setting. But how does distracted dog walking affect a dog’s mental health? According to the CNN article, dog walkers who are not paying full attention can confuse or frustrate dogs by giving them conflicting signals.

Examples of Conflicting Signals

It is too easy to give dogs conflicting signals when we are unaware of what they are doing at the other end of the leash. Paying attention to our dogs while on a walk allows us to reward them when they are being good or correct them if their behavior is unacceptable. One day, you may correct your dog, but when the same behavior is repeated the next day, you allow it because you were not paying attention. So now, your dog is confused about which behavior is acceptable.

Say your friendly dog jumps up on a passerby one day, and you don’t see it or correct it. The next day you happen to see your dog jump up on someone, and you scold them for it. The dog is getting conflicting signals. Is it okay or is it not okay to jump on someone?

What if your dog goes to potty in an appropriate area one day, but then the next day, you jerk them away from the same area by their leash? It is a very confusing signal to the dog. Is this an okay place to potty or not?

Just the other day I watched a woman arguing with someone on the phone while walking her dog. She was very angry. What was the dog thinking while it walked alongside her with its head down and tail tucked between its legs? “Oh, Mom is upset… I must be doing something wrong.” Dogs would not realize that the anger is not directed at them. All they know from their owner’s body language and tone is that they are upset. This is why mindful dog walking must be prioritized by pet owners.

Frustrations Dogs Face on Walks

Being restrained on a leash is frustrating for many dogs, but sometimes a dog will become very agitated because of it. It’s called leash reactivity, and it can cause a dog to behave adversely. It happens most often when out dog walking, and your dog sees other dogs. Our hold on the leash prevents our dog from engaging with the other dogs. When that happens,  our dog may experience an abnormal level of arousal or frustration. This condition must be recognized and dealt with immediately. If we are not paying attention, leash reactivity could escalate into an aggressive encounter.

I read something else interesting about retractable leashes.  One article reads, “In order to gain freedom [when on a retractable leash], your dog has to pull on the lead, when he does that, the lead gets longer – but only sometimes. Imagine how frustrating that would be for your dog. Sometimes the lead gets longer when you pull on it, and sometimes, it doesn’t.” I had never thought about that before, but I can certainly understand how frustrating that would be for a dog. It goes back to confusing signals, right?

Another reason a dog is frustrated while out walking is when we prevent them from being able to explore.  Dogs love to sniff, taste, and investigate everything. Surveying their world is mentally stimulating and helps them to alleviate anxiety. If the dog is denied the opportunity to nose around, it can become very frustrated. The distracted owner would unlikely notice when the dog becomes distressed.  It is sad.

Scientists advise we should pay attention to frustration because it doesn’t feel good to an animal, and things that don’t feel good are generally bad for animal welfare. Pethelpful.com says dogs are not born with sufficient impulse control and built-in frustration tolerance. It’s a skill that is learned through life experiences. And just like in adult humans, dogs who haven’t developed sufficient tolerance may revert to undesirable behaviors that may even surface as aggressive displays.

A Dog’s Inability to Communicate

We may be missing our dog’s non-verbal communication by not paying attention to them. Our dog may need to take a break, or maybe they have something stuck in their paw pad. What if they need water, or they need to stop to potty? These are all important things that they are not able to communicate to us. 

Our dog may be trying to let us know of an impending danger. VetStreet.com says there is no scientific evidence that dogs have a sixth sense about people’s intentions or personalities, but there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence to raise an eyebrow. Before we are even aware of what is going on, a dog that senses danger may become overprotective and possibly even attack someone it thinks is threatening.

There are many potential threats we could encounter along a walk that we may not notice if we are not paying attention. Dogs instinctively notice things that are not obvious to us. What if a strange, unleashed dog is making its way toward us? What if we didn’t see that snake at the side of the path? We may not pick up on these types of things, but our dog would.

I loved the analogy in the CNN article comparing a distracted dog walker to a distracted driver. Leslie Sinn, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Ashburn, Virginia, once said, “You’re not paying attention…and missing all the clues because your head is elsewhere.” That’s a problem, she says.

Our Dog’s Mental Health

Our dog’s mental health is just as important as its physical health. An article in Newsweek 90 says mental health plays a huge role in a dog’s quality of life. When mental health issues are ignored, it can damage a dog’s physical health as well.

One of the best ways to ensure a dog has good mental health is daily exercise combined with basic obedience training. Obedience training will help us better communicate with our dog, and exercise will help establish that all-important bond while stimulating our dog’s mind. The professional dog trainers at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts can provide obedience training and good leash-handling skills for your four-legged friend. Once your pup has graduated from our training program, you can both enjoy structured walks during pack walks!

A daily walk should be a time for us to totally focus on your dog. Talk with them, pet them, play with them, let them know you are there – mind and body. You and your dog will both reap the rewards.

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