Dog walk­ing is more than just calo­rie burn­ing


DAILY ex­er­cise is one of life’s es­sen­tial needs for dogs, yet it’s of­ten ne­glected by own­ers. As a vet in prac­tice, I of­ten see prob­lems that are di­rectly linked to in­suf­fi­cient ex­er­cise. And only very rarely do I see prob­lems caused by ex­ces­sive ex­er­cise.

The sim­ple rule of thumb is that all dogs should have around half an hour’s ex­er­cise twice daily. Peo­ple who are con­sid­er­ing get­ting a dog need to re­flect on this fact: if you are un­able to put aside half an hour, twice daily, then per­haps you are not ready for dog own­er­ship.

Many peo­ple try to fudge this is­sue: “We have a big gar­den, and he’s able to run around there all day so I don’t need to take him for a walk”. This type of com­ment mis­un­der­stands what “go­ing for a walk” means for a dog: it’s far more than just ex­er­cise.

“Go­ing for a walk” does in­volve phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, and this is im­por­tant, but it also means a range of other es­sen­tial ac­tiv­i­ties for a dog.

First, the per­sonal re­la­tion­ship be­tween owner and dog is boosted by go­ing for a walk to­gether. It’s one-on-one time, with owner fo­cussing on dog, and dog fo­cussing on owner. This is how re­la­tion­ships are built, with mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion and at­ten­tion. A reg­u­lar walk to­gether can be the foun­da­tion of good owner-dog un­der­stand­ing and com­pan­ion­ship.

Se­cond, go­ing for a walk is highly so­cial for dogs: they meet other peo­ple and other an­i­mals. Dogs are so­cial crea­tures, with an in­built need to meet and mix with other crea­tures. They sniff each other, run around to­gether, and gen­er­ally have fun. This is one of the rea­sons why it’s just not the same for a dog to am­ble around his own back gar­den as an al­ter­na­tive. Dogs that reg­u­larly so­cialise are hap­pier dogs: they en­joy mix­ing with oth­ers, they burn up en­ergy so­cial­is­ing, and they be­come fa­mil­iar with a range of dif­fer­ent dog types, so they are less likely to be fright­ened or ag­gres­sive when they meet other an­i­mals.

Third, when dogs go for a walk, they ex­pe­ri­ence a range of dif­fer­ent places, with new sights, sounds and smells. Dogs love to have some va­ri­ety in life, and these novel sen­sa­tions help to re­lieve bore­dom. This is one of the rea­son why even dogs that are un­able to go for a walk on their own (eg due to ill­ness or old age) should still be taken out for walks. You can now buy “pet strollers”, sim­i­lar to chil­dren’s strollers, so that you can push your dog around on wheels. Dogs love to get out and about, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the world, and even if they can­not walk them­selves, they like to be taken. Dogs with mo­bil­ity is­sues still get ex­cited when the stroller is taken out, and it’s ob­vi­ous that they en­joy this daily rou­tine. Va­ri­ety is im­por­tant in life, and a daily trip through dif­fer­ent sur­round­ings adds sig­nif­i­cantly to a dog’s daily rou­tine.

Of course, the “ex­er­cise” as­pect of gong for a walk is also very im­por­tant: it keeps dogs phys­i­cally fit, and burns up calo­ries. Obe­sity is in­creas­ingly com­mon in pets, and lack of ex­er­cise is a con­tribut­ing fac­tor. That said, dogs are re­mark­ably ef­fi­cient at ex­er­cis­ing, and they need to keep run­ning for a long time to burn up a bowl­ful of kib­ble. I see many obese dogs whose own­ers shake their heads at me, mut­ter­ing about how much they walk their dogs. Ex­ces­sive food in­take con­trib­utes more to obe­sity than in­suf­fi­cient ex­er­cise. The best an­swer is to cut back on calo­ries as well as in­creas­ing ex­er­cise, just as it is in hu­mans. It’s com­mon for peo­ple to mis­tak­ingly think that they can for­get about wor­ry­ing about calo­rie in­take if they are ex­er­cis­ing a lot: this is not true at all.

In re­cent times, I have been con­tacted fre­quently by peo­ple who be­lieve that some folk are push­ing their dogs too hard in ex­er­cise. They see cy­clists go­ing by with their dogs at­tached to a long leash be­side the bike. They be­lieve that the dogs are be­ing tor­tured in some way, dragged un­will­ingly for mile af­ter mile. They also feel that it’s dan­ger­ous, with the risk of the dog dash­ing side­ways into traf­fic, caus­ing an ac­ci­dent.

While it’s true that there may be some rare cases where these neg­a­tive as­pects ap­ply, most of the time the peo­ple who ex­er­cise their pets in this way are care­ful to en­sure that it’s safe, and that their pets en­joy do­ing it. Many breeds of dogs have an in­nate abil­ity to run and run for many miles, and they are happy to jog be­side their own­ers on the bike.

The truth is that if a dog re­ally dis­likes some­thing, it will not do it. Many years ago, when I was train­ing for a marathon, I used to take a neigh­bour’s dog with me. He was a fit Dober­man, called Diesel, and for the first cou­ple of 10k runs, he hap­pily trot­ted be­side me. But the third time, he stopped af­ter the first half kilo­me­tre and headed home. How­ever hard I tried to per­suade him, he re­fused to fol­low me. It was ob­vi­ous what was wrong: dogs like to en­joy ex­pe­ri­enc­ing their en­vi­ron­ment on walks, stop­ping to sniff and ex­plore their sur­round­ings. On a long, steady jog, there’s no op­por­tu­nity to do this. It wasn’t fun for Diesel, so he de­cided that he wasn’t go­ing to go, and noth­ing I could do would dis­suade him.

So if you see some­body ex­er­cis­ing their dog in a way that you dis­ap­prove of, ask your­self: does the dog look like a will­ing par­tic­i­pant? Re­mem­ber that if the dog is tak­ing part, then nearly al­ways, the dog wants to be there.

Dogs love be­ing taken for walks, and not just for ex­er­cise

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