Shona, Dog Initiatives Officer, Bird Aware Solent
In honour of Walk Your Dog month in January, I want to talk about my favourite tip for walking with your dog, that will also help you to be more Bird Aware – and it’s all about being engaging.
While there are loads of benefits for us humans as well, a walk is mostly for our dogs, to give them some exercise and of course to get them out of the house for some mental enrichment too. What many people don’t realise though, is that this enrichment doesn’t just have to come from the environment you walk in or the other dogs you meet. Working with humans is what most dogs have been bred for; so interacting with us is a big part of what makes a dog, well, a dog.
But what does good interaction look like? It can be anything you fancy really, throwing a ball, training, playing a game; it all means that you and your dog are communicating and working together. A very easy option is “checking in”, simply rewarding your dog every time they look to you or come back to you. Give them a treat or a toy and a little vocal encouragement so they know that it is a good idea to know where you are and keep coming back to you regularly. This can be done while your dog is off-lead, but it is also useful when training them to walk on a loose lead.
You could play the Find-it game, hiding treats or toys and getting your dog to search for them, or maybe find a low wall or a piece of driftwood for some impromptu agility – as long as your dog can’t fall and hurt themselves and are over one year old so they’re fully developed. Games that encourage focus, attention and even collaboration with you, are better brainwork than just chasing a ball back and forth. This could even include a bit of positive reinforcement training, using rewards to train behaviour. With the right attitude and lots of treats or toys, training should feel more like a game to your dog, and one that both relies on and improves communication between the two of you. This can also aid your other training, for example, if you’re more fun to be around your dog is more likely to come back to you, making recall training much easier.
Whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t really matter how successful it is, as long as you’re both having fun. Try and maintain this engagement throughout your walk too, so that your dog is constantly looking to you for fun and guidance (rather than off bothering the birds!). Another added bonus that your walk is safer as well. If you are paying closer attention to your dog and they are doing the same with you, you are more likely to spot a risky situation, and they are able to get to you quicker as they are already focused and aware of where you are.
Slowing down and providing more mental stimulation for your dog isn’t going to leave them full of excess energy either, it can actually be just as tiring as a good run. If you work in an office, or study for school or university, think about how tired you can be after a day even without a lot of physical exertion. While every dog will have individual preferences and biological requirements, making sure your dog has a mixture of physical and mental stimulation is really good for them as it addresses multiple needs. Many breeds that are described as “hyper”, need some brainwork in their day as much as they need longer walks.
Sometimes dogs need help with this, just like a toddler might not understand that they need to go to bed because they’re tired. My own dog would chase a tennis ball for his whole walk if we let him, but too much of it actually leaves him a bit over-excited and as he’s getting older, it takes a physical toll as well. A lot of vets agree that games with lots of running, jumping and repetitive movement are risky, especially for dogs with a higher likelihood of joint problems or other medical issues, and being on sand can exacerbate this further. So if your dog loves chasing like mine does, try saving the ball for short, occasional bursts, maybe not on every walk, and aim for lots of other types of enrichment as well.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, incorporating this kind of engagement into your walks is a really good way of reminding us why we have dogs in the first place – for companionship, bonding and fun. I know that when the weather is bad and we’ve had a long day, a walk can feel like just another chore, but finding the joy in everyday situations is something that dogs are brilliant at and one of the best lessons they can teach us.
Shona – Dog Initiatives Officer
To learn more about some of the training mentioned here please check out our Training Tips page.