A BEHAVIORAL GAME-CHANGER FOR YOUR DOG!
“Dog decompression walks,” a term coined by dog trainer Sarah Stremming, are a rising tool in the dog-training world. All dogs experience significant benefits, but for reactive or fearful dogs the effects are life-changing.
Think about it: for many dogs, walks are full of overstimulation, sudden noises, and constantly being pulled along in a hurry. Your dog might get some physical activity, but might come home more stressed than when they left.
I was intrigued by the thought that something as simple as a walk could take my border collie mix’s energy and stress down a notch, and possibly improve his response to the desensitization and counter-conditioning training I was doing with him.
3 years and many decompression walks later, I’m a believer.
What is a Decompression Walk?
Decompression walks are dog walks in which the dog is allowed to explore and sniff its surroundings, either off-leash or on a long line. . In Sarah’s words, they are “a walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature.”
The “where, when, and how” will look different for each dog:
Although ideally you will go to an open, natural setting like fields or woods, city-dwellers use large parks, sport fields, or other large open areas. Key features to look for are:
- Low traffic: Choose a place with little to no people or pet traffic nearby. If your dog can see people or dogs running around, or hear them, you may actually stress the dog out instead of helping them decompress.
- If you are unable to get to an open field, beach, or woodsy area, look at a map of your area and see what open green areas are nearby. Large sports complexes, golf courses, or large parks can work if they have low-usage areas.
- If you don’t have a good area near you, check Sniffspot, a website where people list their fenced or unfenced yards for rent. Most listings are small yards, but some people list acreages – I take my dogs to a 3 acre fenced in area that is PERFECT for decompression walks, and safe for my reactive dog because we have it all to ourselves!
This depends on your schedule and your dog’s temperament. If you have a fearful, anxious, or reactive dog, early mornings or late evenings may be best to avoid encountering others while on your walk.
The “perfect scenario” of dog decompression walks is having the dog off leash in nature.
For most of us, though, the realities of our situation call for some tweaking. If your dog doesn’t have solid recall, or if your dog is reactive/fearful/anxious, a long line with a harness will be your equipment of choice.
Buy a harness that allows for free movement. If your dog feels constricted, or if the harness is rubbing or uncomfortable, your dog won’t enjoy the walk no matter what wonderful place you take them to.
What Does a Decompression Walk Look Like?
When your dog is on a decompression walk, they will constantly be changing what they are doing.
They may start off excited, running and sniffing and pulling ahead. Soon they will find things to sniff and start veering off course to explore sights and sounds they encounter.
Their body language is relaxed: soft face, open mouth with relaxed pant, relaxed tail, loose body. They will speed up then slow down and sniff an especially interesting spot for awhile, and zig zag back and forth.
When my dogs are this relaxed and happy it makes my soul complete to watch them – you can almost feel the pure joy as their stress and worries evaporate into carefree jubilation at the adventure they are having.
How do decompression walks help your dog? Some benefits are obvious; some will surprise you:
This one is rather obvious. A long hike where the dog can run around is going to tire the dog out. Physically tiring out your dog, however, is only one piece of the puzzle.
Dog decompression walks can lower a dog’s fear, anxiety, and stress and help them feel more balanced and calm.
Researchers are starting to study the relationship between sniffing and behavioral changes. A 2018 study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science (“The Behavioural Effects of Olfactory Stimulation on Dogs at a Rescue Shelter“) documented decreased vocalization and increased sleeping in shelter dogs that were allowed to sniff various scents.
These changes aren’t surprising when you consider these facts about your dog’s olfactory system from Dr. Alexandra Horowitz’s book Being a Dog: Following a Dog into the World of Smell:
Did you know that dogs have:
- 50 times more scent receptors than humans
- 300 million scent receptors in their nose
- An additional scent organ above the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal organ that helps them process smells
This means that dogs have millions more olfactory sensors than humans, which help them acquire extremely detailed information about what they are smelling.
How does sniffing tire a dog out? Think about how you feel after taking a test, or doing a logic puzzle for an extended period of time. You are mentally tired, right?
The same principle applies to sniffing for dogs: it’s a mental work out. Combine it with the fact that they are getting physical exercise as they move from smell to smell on your walk and the result is a mentally and physically tired, and very content, dog.
If your dog has behavioral issues, the mental and physical workout of a decompression walk can reduce fear, anxiety, and aggression. Sniffing will calm them and provide stress relief as well.
Think of the long-term benefits this could achieve for a dog with behavioral issues:
Any time you can calm them and reduce stress, your training is more effective. Effective training empowers them to be more able to relax and be less stressed overall.
In effect, dog decompression walks create a positive cycle in which a dog with behavioral issues can make measurable progress and live a happier life.
Dog decompression walks also create an opportunity to work on check-ins and recall with your dog. Reward your dog for coming back to check in with you; practice random recalls as well with high value treats to reward them with when they come running back to you.
Dog Adjustment Benefits
If you have adopted a new dog, or if you foster and work with rescue dogs, decompression walks can help them adjust to all the changes they are experiencing. Moving to a new home with new people makes even the most balanced dogs stressed. Decompression walks help them calm down and provide enrichment for their brain to focus on.
People Benefit Too
Dogs aren’t the only ones who benefit from decompression walks. Dog owners experience benefits similar to those discussed in our Intentional Dog Walks article: exercise, better sleep, lower stress levels, and having a clear mind. The best benefit of all? The pure joy that dog owners experience when they see their dog so content and happy.
Equipment for Dog Decompression Walks:
**note: this post contains affiliate links. No one paid me to recommend these products, I recommend them because I like them. However, using the link to buy the products helps support happynaturaldog.com! **
I own three different lengths of long line: 15 feet, 30 feet, and 50 feet.
I like to get bright colors like this blaze orange; it makes it much easier to untangle if your dog winds around a tree or bush. Get a different color for each length that you purchase to make it easy to identify which leash is which.
I don’t use the 15’ line much but it comes in handy when I want my dog to have more freedom to sniff but the place we’re going is public enough that I want to be able to reel them to me in less time.
Both the 30’ and 50’ allow the dog to adventure and explore.
Easy Movement Harness
There are a lot of harnesses out there; each one is different in how it fits your dog. If you buy yours at a pet store, bring your dog and make sure the harness fits their body shape well and doesn’t rub their legs or belly due to a poor cut/fit. Check out my personal favorites:
These harnesses last FOREVER and still look brand new. What I like the most about this one is the handle: you can help your dog in and out of the car, or up and over obstacles when hiking.
This harness is recommended by Sarah Stremming, the above-mentioned advocate of decompression walks. She likes it because the dog feels free to move naturally and has more of an off-leash feel.
Treats & Treat Packs
Put some high-value treats in a treat pack so you can reward your dog for checking in with you or coming when you call. Cooked meat pieces are great, but if you want something less messy here are some good options along with treat packs that work well for training. I prefer single-ingredient treats as they are less likely to cause problems in dogs with food sensitivities or food-related behavioral issues.
These dried beef lung treats are from grass fed, USA-raised beef.
Stewart Freeze Dried Chicken Liver and Freeze Dried Salmon Treats
- Budget Treat Idea: Buy whatever meat is on sale at the grocery store. Cook it and cut into small cubes when cool. If you overcook it a little bit it will be more firm and less messy on your hands when you are using it. Freeze in sandwich baggies and take out of the freezer as needed. Rotate meat types so your dog doesn’t get bored.
I love Ruffwear’s stuff. Key points about it are:
- Magnetic closure allows me to whip it open quickly and snap it shut. (I can’t stand the drawstring ones).
- It’s not huge so is easy to wear a lot of the day for training my dog.
- Comes with a belt for attaching around your waist or you can clip it to your waistband.
- Durable – any Ruffwear product lasts forever.
- Magnetic closure and nice size, similar to Ruffwear treat pack.
- Small pocket on outside for holding poop bags.
- Does *not* come with a belt, that is $2 extra. But has a clip for attaching it to your waistband.
If you like a bigger, more multi-purpose treat pack, check out this one –
- You can load a roll of poop bags in the dispenser, keep your cell phone and keys in a separate zippered compartment, and fill the roomy main compartment with treats.
- Magnetic closure
- Comes with a belt attachment option or you can clip to your waistband.
“But I Already Exercise My Dog!”
Not all exercise is created equal, especially if you have a dog with behavioral issues. If you tire your dog out chasing a ball or going for a run, they may end the session physically tired but mentally stressed.
And trust me, mental stress is the nemesis of desensitization and counterconditioning.
Decompression walks give your dog a mental workout as well as a physical one, which will benefit your dog and make them much happier.
Give Dog Decompression Walks a Try
More and more dog owners are hearing about the benefits of decompression walks and incorporating them into their weekly routines.
The result? A calmer, more balanced dog.
Imagine the look of sheer joy on your dog’s face as it runs excitedly from one smell to the next, exploring and adventuring to its heart’s content. No more boring sidewalks or crazy neighbor dogs barking at it through a fence.
For those of you with fearful or reactive dogs, imagine a calmer dog that slowly but surely responds to your desensitization and counterconditioning sessions – I KNOW – that’s a dreamy vision for those of us trying to help our dog become more balanced and calm.
What places have you found that work well for dog decompression walks?
Share your ideas to help others learn about the variety of places we can go to help our dogs decompress.
P.S. Want to learn more ways to decompress your dog? Check out these Enrichment Activities for Dogs!
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