To get the most out of your daily dog walk, first understand that you and your dog are motivated by different priorities.
Why Do We Walk Our Dogs?
Most of us would say we walk our dogs because a tired dog is a good dog. Or because we want to shake off the guilt from leaving our dogs home alone during the workday.
Certainly anyone who has ever leashed up a dog who is bouncing around at the promise of a walk would say we do it because it makes our dogs happy, right? Plus, there’s the obvious benefit of physical activity for ourselves.
Those answers might all be true, but according to new research out of the University of Liverpool (UK), they aren’t the factors that actually get us out the door. It turns out, we’re not really motivated by the health or social benefits of walking–for ourselves or for our dogs.
We Walk Our Dogs Because It Makes Us Happier
Even when pet parents said (and truly believed) the reason they walk their dogs is to benefit the dog, after extensive interviews, researchers found that the actual motivating reason was the boost in happiness and wellbeing the parent received.
Hold up, I know what you’re thinking. No one is saying you selfishly leash up your dog and parade her around the neighborhood only for your own benefit. Because there’s also a catch: researchers found that pet parents only experienced increased happiness if they believed their dogs were enjoying the walk, too.
So we walk our dogs to make ourselves happier, but that happiness only comes when our dogs have a good time, too.
Let’s think about this. I know that over the years, I’ve tried to use exercise and weight loss as the motivation for taking more, faster, longer dog walks. But what always happens is that I start off at a good pace, only to get a hard stop at the first fire hydrant. And then the next light pole. And the dog across the street. You get the idea.
I have never successfully built a dog walk routine out of a motivation for exercise. But when I was drowning in depression, I walked as much as I could. Every day. Sometimes twice a day. No matter the weather. I gave up big chunks of my day and explored all sorts of parks and places I’d never been to. I walked on the beach, in the forest, through the fields. And if I had no other choice, around the neighborhood. My dogs always came with, but I wasn’t doing it for them. I was doing it because it was one of the few things I had found that made me momentarily happier.
I didn’t know this research then, but it makes sense. What motivated me to walk wasn’t my dog’s health, or even my own exercise goals, as worthy as those things may be. What motivated me was my own happiness.
At the time I thought that happiness was coming from being in nature, which is partly true. But now I know a big part of that happiness was coming from watching my dogs enjoy these excursions, too. I was suffering from anxiety around people, so we found out-of-the-way places where no one would bother us. That meant the dogs could run off-leash. I had no time, mileage or heart rate goals, so we tended to just meander and explore. If they wanted to stop and sniff the pee-mail, I was content to wait, face turned toward the sun, practicing deep breaths and a gratitude for the passing moment. I felt good that they were getting this exercise, were getting to “be dogs,” and that I was taking the time to really be present with them. In the best possible feedback loop, I was taking the dogs on walks they loved, which made me momentarily happier, which motivated me to take them on more walks they loved.
Why Does Motivation Matter?
For anyone who wants to make 2018 the year they exercise more, find more happiness, or make their dog happier, the key to all three things might be in looking at the motivation for your daily dog walk differently.
Instead of focusing on the benefits of exercise or burning off your dog’s energy, researchers suggest focusing on what truly motivates you: the boost in happiness a dog walk gives you and your dog.
Worry less about getting your 30 minutes of exercise a day, and focus more on giving your dog a really fun walk. Because the more your dog enjoys the walk, the more you will, too. And the more we enjoy anything, the more we likely we are to do it again and again.
How to Give Your Dog a Happier Walk
So how can you give your dog a really fun walk? For one thing, change it up from day to day. Find different routes, go at different times, and go at different paces. All of the variations will work your dog’s mind as well as his body, and let him take in all the smells and sights that make him want to get outside in the first place.
I know it’s not always practical to take your dogs on the epic, out-in-nature walks I was taking as I was healing from divorce, grief and depression. But even in your neighborhood, on the same route you always take, there are ways to give your dog a happier walk–creating more happiness and health for you in return.
Here are five fun dog walks to try, all created with a dog’s point of view in mind.
Let’s slow things down….waaaay down. A smell walk lets your dog take the time to do thing he wants to do the most: smell the world outside his fence line. We tend to appreciate the sights of a walk, but our dogs are all about the scents. While we have a few million scent receptors in our nasal organs, dogs have hundreds of millions. And the part of their brain that processes these scents is (proportinoally) about 40 percent larger than ours. In other words, dogs were made for this. Choose a path and lead the way, but stop when your dog stops. Let him sniff as long and deep as he wants. By putting nose to ground, your dog can tell who has been nearby, how they’re feeling, how long ago they passed through and get a general sense of the status and hierarchy of the neighborhood. He’ll return home feeling fulfilled instead of frustrated.
Dog’s Choice Walk
My dog Tyler knows where all his friends live. When we get to the corner that leads to Ladybird’s house, or to the fun cul-de-sac with all the dogs, he stops, stands at alert, and turns his head in the direction he thinks we should go. He also knows where the off-leash trail is, because he’ll pull the same trick at that corner. Very rarely do I let him pick where our walks end up, but when I do, I wait for his sign, and then say, “Ok!” He nearly leaps the next several steps in excitement, and of course he enjoys the destination. He comes home extra-satisfied because he got to do the very thing he was in the mood for, whether that was play with his friends or romp off-leash through the muddy trails.
Instead of leading your dog, let your dog lead you. This is a variation on the dog’s choice walk, except that your dog gets to lead the whole way instead of just at intersections. It’s okay to still encourage good leash manners, especially since you’ll probably be crossing streets and running up to strangers. If you’re in a field your dog probably won’t need much encouragement to lead the way, but if you’re sticking to the regular route, consider introducing a word such as “lead!” (followed by a reward when she does) that lets your dog know it’s okay to break the heel. Once your dog gets the hang of it, it can be really fun to see where she takes you!
This is a simple variation when you’re short on time or creativity. If you tend to go the same direction and cover the same route on every dog walk, simply turn it around. Either walk your route in reverse, or better yet, walk it in reverse from the opposite side of the street. Either way, you’re introducing a whole new sensory experience for your dog.
In the competitive sport of tracking, a scent trail is laid down hours ahead of time. The more advanced the course, the more turns and scents there are. Handlers follow their dogs’ noses to the end of the track, where a scent article, such as a glove, shoe or liquid is waiting. Mimic this sport–without all the work–by tossing treats out ahead of you or into the underbrush for your dog to track down and find. A walk full of smells and snacks, what could make your dog–and you–happier?