It’s international dog day on the 26th this month and it’s been quite a year (and then some!) for our dogs. Many of them have loved having us home more during lockdown and a lot of people found that walking their dog was one of the few available outlets they had left, a chance to get out and leave some of the stress and worry behind. Dogs really have brought much needed joy and support to their owners throughout the pandemic. Of course, there has also been an increase in people buying and rescuing dogs, the full effects of which are still to be seen, but there are certainly a lot of new first-time owners out there.
If you’re a dog owner, experienced or not, and you love birds, you probably know that walking the dog and birdwatching aren’t always the most harmonious of activities. Maybe you have separate time for each or make sure to bring another person, friend or family member, so they can focus on your dog while you take some time with the binoculars. A serious birdwatching session isn’t going to make the best walk for most dogs, but if you’ve ever wondered about bringing your binoculars for a bit of casual watching on your dog walks here are some things to consider.
On lead – off lead
Chances are if you’re a birdwatcher, you already know the importance of keeping your dog close and not letting them chase the birds, but many of us don’t have a perfect heel or recall and feel a bit guilty keeping our dog on lead for any length of time. The good news is that on lead walks don’t have to be rubbish for dogs. I will always recommend that people try loose lead walking as it gives the dog a chance to explore whilst also being safe and under control. There are plenty of resources out there for lead training and loose lead walking, and with a little bit of practise and a few treats, you’ll both be enjoying disturbance free walks (and our wildlife will thank you for it!).
There is nothing wrong with having a few calmer activities on your walk and if you think your dog won’t cope with staying in one area for long you can always build up to it. You could scatter treats in an area for them to find, or choose a quiet spot and reward them for sitting or lying down next to you. Start easy, in a place with less distractions (you can even practise at home) and slowly increase the time you spend doing this. These sorts of activities get dogs using their brains as well as their paws, which they can find just as tiring, and remember to keep it a positive experience so your dog sees it as a fun new activity, rather than boring. I would also advise that they stay on their lead, so that they can’t wander off and get into trouble while you’re focused on the birds.
Be courteous to other birders
Dogs don’t always get the best reputation among the birdwatching community, so it’s up to the rest of us to prove we have a place here. Keeping our dogs calm and under control is a good start, but there may be times when someone asks us to keep our distance from them. You never know if someone is scared of dogs, is setting up expensive equipment they’re worried might get knocked over, or has had a bad experience in the past, so I always try to be respectful and give them the space they need. Keeping the discourse polite and positive is the best way to make sure we can all enjoy the coast and help to keep our wildlife safe at the same time.
Don’t get frustrated!
With all these ideas, factor in your dog’s personality, are they a snooze hound who’ll take any chance to stop for a nap while you get out the binoculars? Or are they more likely to get frustrated and start dragging you down the beach? Age, individual personality, experience and breed traits will all affect how your dog acts, so setting your expectations is important and try to work with these factors rather than against them. Just like us, dogs can be in different moods, so if they sit perfectly with you one day and then get bored the next, that is perfectly normal and understandable. Reward them for doing what they can, focus on their strengths and practise what they could work on.
Find a good place to play, before and after
It is their walk too after all! Finding a nice low impact place to play, like a nearby park or field, is a great way to tire your dog out before you’ve been birdwatching and to reward them for being patient after. Varied activities will keep it fresh and exciting for you both, but as above take into account your dogs’ usual behaviour. If they get their favourite tennis ball and then expect it to be thrown constantly for the rest of the walk, maybe save it for the end!
A walk should be fun and fulfilling for you both, and we definitely need more dog owning bird lovers out there as positive ambassadors of responsible behaviour. So stay safe and happy walking nature lovers!
Shona – Dogs Initiatives Officer