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Friday 15 December 2017

Dog walking is one of life's great pleasures

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Most dogs love the joy of going for a walk
Most dogs love the joy of going for a walk

Most dogs love going for walks: it's one of the great joys of their lives. Behaviourists recommend a minimum of half an hour's walking twice daily, and that's a good goal to keep in mind if you are considering getting a dog. Can you manage to fit that in to your life?

Dog walking is one of the pleasures and benefits of owning a dog. Studies have shown that when someone gets a dog, their level of recreational walking is immediately significantly boosted, and that this increased exercise level is maintained over months and years. This is one of the reasons why dog ownership is so good for human health.

As well as being pleasurable just being out and about in the fresh air, dog walking is an enjoyable social activity. If you are out walking without a dog, it can be difficult to engage with fellow walkers without seeming odd or intrusive. Dogs are great social enablers: if one dog walker meets another, their pets often pause to sniff one another. Conversation between owners then follows naturally. In the park where I walk my dogs, I've got to know many other people (and their dogs) through this type of easy social contact.

For most dogs, the dog walking routine is the highlight of their lives. They learn to recognise the signs that a dog walk is about to happen, spotting signals like car keys being lifted off the hook, coat and outdoor shoes being put on and dog leashes being picked up. They get excited, rushing around, whining and barking. They know that something good is about to happen.

Part of the joy for dogs is the physical exercise, but that's not the only thing: they also love just being out and about, enjoying different sights and smells, meeting a range of different animals, and exploring the world. These aspects are so important to dogs that even when dogs become physically less able to get around (e.g. after injuries or from old age), it's still important to take them for walks. I know people who carry small dogs in back packs, or push bigger dogs along in buggies. To people who don't know about dogs, this can seem odd, perhaps as if they are treating their pets too much like human children. The truth is that the dogs thoroughly enjoy being taken out like this: they experience all the fun of going for a walk, even though they cannot do the actual walking and running because of their physical incapacity. They still see the sights, sniff the smells and meet other people and animals.

There's one group of animals that present a challenge to owners: those dogs that don't want to go for a walk. The owners may be enthusiastic, and they know that walking is good for their pets, but the dogs just don't want to do it. What should an owner do if their pet refuses to go out?

The first thing is to try to analyse the problem. It isn't "normal" for a dog to not enjoy walking.

My own dog Kiko sometimes refuses to go for a walk, but in her case, the reason is obvious: she hates foul weather. If it is wet and cold outside, she simply refuses to go. She looks outside, then turns back, scuttling into her bed. She then lies curled up tightly, with both eyes closed. The message is obvious: I do not want to go outside. We have found that if we put a small, warm, rain proof coat on her, she can be coaxed out, but in general, she prefers to be a fair-weather exerciser.

A friend has a dog who used to enjoy walking, but she had gradually changed her attitude. Over a few months, she became lazier and lazier. At first she'd walk a few hundred yards then sit down and stop. She was happy to go home at a trot, but she didn't want to go further. Then she got worse: she refused to go out at all. She began to put on weight, and even around the home, she started to lie around more. For dogs like this, a check by the vet is important.

When I examined her, I found a few clues about what might be happening: her coat was sparse, almost bald, in some areas, her body temperature was below normal, and her heart rate was far slower than it should have been. A blood test confirmed the diagnosis: she was suffering from an underactive thyroid gland. She was given a daily supplement of thyroid hormones, and soon she was back to her usual walk-loving self. In her case, the reason for her laziness was a metabolic disease: once this was corrected, she returned to normal behaviour, she lost the excess weight, and her coat returned to its usual thick, lustrous condition.

I remember another dog who stopped wanting to go for walks, and in this case, the reason was simpler: walks had stopped being fun. The owner had stareted to see the walks as a chore, and had started combining them with other activities. He used the dog walks to catch up with work on his mobile phone, talking or texting while the dog walked beside him. Dogs like to interact with their owners. I suggested that he stopped doing this, and instead, that he spent the time training his dog, talking to her and getting her to do specific behaviours like sitting, staying, raising a paw etc. The dog responded well to the training, learning new tricks. And what's more, she wanted to go for walks again.

Does your dog enjoy going for a walk? If not, try to see things from a dogs-eye perspective, and ask yourself what you can do to make it more fun.

Wexford People

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