Trying to be a good dog owner can be overwhelming.
There are so many articles out there with tips for walking dogs. SO. MANY. ARTICLES. You feel like you need a PhD to stay on top of the latest dog training methods, which all say they ensure your dog will be a fun family member and exemplary K9 citizen.
Now, if you’re worried this is another complex training article, relax.
For this nugget of dog wisdom, you don’t have to learn any new training method. There aren’t 14 steps you have to follow to a “T.” You don’t need a trainer or a class to be sure you implement it correctly.
This one is a no-brainer. Read this once and you will have it down pat and can do it on any walk you want from here on out.
Think of that common phrase “less is more” and you will start to get the gist of where I’m heading with this simple change you make when you are walking your dog.
So What’s The Intentional Dog Walk All About?
There is nothing to memorize; no work on your part.
Keep your mind present, and be intentional about watching your dog as you walk.
When is he happy? What makes him nervous? What does his body do when he’s watching other people or dogs? When is he most relaxed?
You would be amazed, and gratified, at what you can learn by doing this. It gives you this intimate little window to their soul through which you learn so much about them.
You learn some obvious things (When my dog’s ears are flopped down, he is starting to relax and not worry about the world around him).
And some not-so-obvious things (Sometimes when my dog sniffs and walks the other way he’s actually nervous about something ahead of us).
After you do this awhile, you start seeing subtleties in body language that you most likely overlooked in the past.
For example, while walking your dog she suddenly turns and goes sideways, sniffs a tree for an unexplainably long time, then continues walking and sniffing in the same direction. 300 yards ahead, a dog is barely visible, running in a field. Your dog didn’t look directly at it so you didn’t realize the other dog was there.
But, because you’re present and watching your dog, you notice this sudden sniffing and change of direction. You look far off, see the dog running in the field, and your brain CLICKS.
Until now you didn’t think your dog noticed that dog way off in the distance. But now, you realize she did.
And suddenly you’ve learned something about your dog: she’s a bit unsure of that dog far away, and sniffing helps to calm her and allows her to focus on something else. Moving as she sniffs helps her to put distance between her and whatever is making her unsure.
As you come home from the walk, you smile and talk to your dog. You’re a bit excited because you figured out something new about her and it created this connection between the two of you.
Your dog senses this new connection and will love you back even more. It doesn’t get more win-win than that!
What Are the Benefits of Intentional Dog Walks?
- Strengthens bond between dog & owner
- Dog knows you are “present” on the walk and checks in with you more
- Happier Dog
- Happier Owner
- Reduces stress for dog & owner
- Owner more aware of stressors & triggers on walks
Are Intentional Dog Walks a New “Thing?”
Well, yes and no. Way back in the day when life was simpler and cell phones and internet didn’t exist, I think a lot of people took intentional dog walks. But, in today’s world? Not so much.
It’s surprising, but I haven’t read much about intentional dog walks in my dog training books. At most it gets a general mention in a sentence, but doesn’t make you stop in your tracks and really think about this concept.
Or there are those of us with reactive dogs for whom walking the dog means constantly scanning in all directions so we don’t get “surprised” by a trigger and have our dog go over threshold.
Side note: for those of you lucky enough to not live with a reactive dog, “over threshold” means barking like a lunatic and lunging at a “trigger” (person or dog), thus embarrassing their owner beyond belief while simultaneously squashing all progress you have made with said dog in the last 1-3 months.
Learning how to bond with your dog by taking intentional walks can be a real game changer. Read on for examples.
Examples of Intentional Walk Revelations and Observations
Example 1: “Ohhhhhhh…you did that for a REASON?!!
I used to notice that at random times on our walks my dog, Rose, would start to breath faster and her eyes would dart around.
I remember specifically (with a fair amount of guilt at this memory) telling her to chill out and thinking “GEEZE, she’s so uptight.” Because there was nothing around to get her undies in a bundle.
One day after she did this, I noticed that about 5 minutes later an owner & their dog came into view on our walking trail.
And in that moment I realized that Rose had been breathing fast because she had stellar hearing and she had heard them WAY before I could. Wow. Like, who knew. Not her absent-minded owner.
After that, when I saw Rose’s breathing increase, I would stop. I would notice which way she kept looking. And I would trust her. I’d ask if she would like to go another way and step back to open up a new direction.
Many times she would change course, walking away from whatever she was hearing. And I was OK with that.
Example 2: Dog sniffing subtleties that show me what’s going on in my dog’s brain
Dog sniffs the air: Both ears are relaxed, body seems relaxed and loose, tail is relaxed. His eyes are squinty as he tilts his nose up trying to catch every ounce of whatever smell is blowing by. This is a dog that is soaking in every bit of the moment: the smell in the breeze, the sunshine on his face, and his general happiness to be a dog.
Dog sniffs the air: Both ears are pointed up. His body seems tense and tail is more up in the air. His eyes are wide open and looking in a specific direction or scanning the area. This is a dog that is on alert. They may be ready to bark or take off running towards whatever they smell.
You will become so attuned to your dog that you’ll start to be aware of subtle changes in his body and what they mean. It’s pretty darn cool.
How Often Do I Need to Take Intentional Walks?
This “how often” question is so drilled into our dog-owning skulls. The minute we learn something, we feel that if we don’t do it enough, we will fail.
What if there were no “how often?” What if you accept your life as it is, but know that on days when you can walk your dog, you should set aside the day’s troubles and stresses, your cell phone, and other distractions and be present for the walk.
Stop beating yourself up. You don’t have to make every walk an intentional walk . . . just some of them. If you stop feeling guilty, you can enjoy your intentional walks and the renewed connection with your dog.
What Are the Different Kinds of Dog Walks?
Some days your walk will have a different purpose. For the sake of this article, and to have a little fun, I jotted down a quick sampling of “walk types:”
- The Quick and Efficient Walk:
You don’t have much time, but you are taking a quick jaunt to help your dog get the wiggles out and go to the bathroom.
- The Pretend Walk:
You have an injured or sick dog that isn’t allowed to take walks. They’re depressed about it. So you make a big show of getting their leash out and asking them if they want to go for a walk, and hook them up as if you’re going to take a walk. Then you slooooooowly walk outside, just past the edge of your yard, and let them spend 5 or 10 minutes sniffing some tall grass in a 5 yard radius. Once they’re bored with sniffing, you pretend you’re at the end of a long walk and walk them back inside. Most dogs are cheered up just with the leash on and off part.
- The Training Walk:
You may be working on something specific for training your dog and need to practice it. These are short walks because your dog’s attention span for training is only 2-5 minutes long, so after two or three short practice sessions your walk will be done.
- The Leisurely Exercise Walk:
These are the longer walks you take with your dog to help exercise their brain and their mind. This is where you can be intentional and present in order to strengthen your bond.
- The Minnesota Winter Walk:
You leave your house with plans for a long and enjoyable walk in the beautiful snowy wonderland. About 5 minutes into the walk you turn a corner and get slammed by a blistering wind blowing straight into your face. After 2 minutes the pain of the wind hitting your face becomes unbearable. You abort the walk, waddle home as fast as you can (the snow pant waddle – think Michelin man), and throw your dog’s ball in the family room instead.
How Our Dogs Can Teach Us to Be Present in the Moment
Intentional dog walks are therapy for the human as well. It’s a form of meditation, being fully present in the moment. We can apply it to all areas of life.
Dogs are really good at being present; they are good teachers in that sense. They aren’t out there on the walk planning what they are going to make for dinner that day, or how they are going to deal with a problem at work.
Dogs savor the now. On walks, they are so happy to be with you. They are beyond excited about every little thing they see on the walk, and so utterly content.
We can learn a lot just by watching them be happy, and by watching them live in the moment.
Be Aware of Emotions You May Be Sending “Down the Leash”
Another part of walking dogs intentionally is that we, the owner, need to be aware of our own emotions and “let them go” while on the walk.
If our dog is wild and boisterous on the walk, take a look at how you are feeling that day. Are you in a calm place where you can absorb your dog’s incessant energy and maintain a calm, happy vibe? Or are you in a really stressed out or crabby place in which you are going to absorb and return your dog’s crazy energy, plus some of your own pent-up frustration on top of it?
What I do: if I leave on a walk and I’m stressed or frustrated, I make a real effort to be present as I begin the walk to distract myself from my stresses. I might focus on some wildlife I can see (birds, squirrels) or just gaze at the scenery around me and focus on how pretty it is.
When you focus your thoughts on what is around you and watching your dog (because in all seriousness, they are SO much fun to watch!), it’s easier to let go of your negative or stressful emotions and send positive energy down the leash.
Give it a Try. Bond With Your Dog…Without Saying a Word.
So next time you take a walk, just relax and be present. Watch your dog and see where he leads you for a while. Notice his body language while he’s sniffing, when he’s walking, and when he sees other people or dogs.
If you notice your dog wants to sniff a lot, he may be trying to de-stress. Learn about decompression walks and how you can help your dog be more calm just by letting them sniff and explore.
Do a little for yourself, too. Savor the season – smell the fall leaves in the air or breathe in the delicious smell of soil after a spring rain. Watch the squirrel take a mouthful of leaves up the tree to tuck into the nest she’s making. It’s a great reminder that sometimes it’s the little things that make life good.
When you see your dog relax and just be happy, you will start to feel happier yourself and vice versa. Over time, you will get to know your dog on a more intimate level.
You both will start to trust each other more, and know what the other is thinking.
All right. Go. Yes, like right now. Go take an intentional walk with your dog. Savor it. And feel good about your efforts to be a positive, happy, natural dog owner.