Monday 19 March 2018

Dog walking is more than just calorie burning

Dogs love being taken for walks, and not just for exercise
Dogs love being taken for walks, and not just for exercise

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Daily exercise is one of life's essential needs for dogs, yet it's often neglected by owners. As a vet in practice, I often see problems that are directly linked to insufficient exercise. And only very rarely do I see problems caused by excessive exercise.

The simple rule of thumb is that all dogs should have around half an hour's exercise twice daily. People who are considering getting a dog need to reflect on this fact: if you are unable to put aside half an hour, twice daily, then perhaps you are not ready for dog ownership.

Many people try to fudge this issue: "We have a big garden, and he's able to run around there all day so I don't need to take him for a walk". This type of comment misunderstands what "going for a walk" means for a dog: it's far more than just exercise.

"Going for a walk" does involve physical exercise, and this is important, but it also means a range of other essential activities for a dog.

First, the personal relationship between owner and dog is boosted by going for a walk together. It's one-on-one time, with owner focussing on dog, and dog focussing on owner. This is how relationships are built, with mutual admiration and attention. A regular walk together can be the foundation of good owner-dog understanding and companionship.

Second, going for a walk is highly social for dogs: they meet other people and other animals. Dogs are social creatures, with an inbuilt need to meet and mix with other creatures. They sniff each other, run around together, and generally have fun. This is one of the reasons why it's just not the same for a dog to amble around his own back garden as an alternative. Dogs that regularly socialise are happier dogs: they enjoy mixing with others, they burn up energy socialising, and they become familiar with a range of different dog types, so they are less likely to be frightened or aggressive when they meet other animals.

Third, when dogs go for a walk, they experience a range of different places, with new sights, sounds and smells. Dogs love to have some variety in life, and these novel sensations help to relieve boredom. This is one of the reason why even dogs that are unable to go for a walk on their own (eg due to illness or old age) should still be taken out for walks. You can now buy "pet strollers", similar to children's strollers, so that you can push your dog around on wheels. Dogs love to get out and about, experiencing the world, and even if they cannot walk themselves, they like to be taken. Dogs with mobility issues still get excited when the stroller is taken out, and it's obvious that they enjoy this daily routine. Variety is important in life, and a daily trip through different surroundings adds significantly to a dog's daily routine.

Of course, the "exercise" aspect of gong for a walk is also very important: it keeps dogs physically fit, and burns up calories. Obesity is increasingly common in pets, and lack of exercise is a contributing factor. That said, dogs are remarkably efficient at exercising, and they need to keep running for a long time to burn up a bowlful of kibble. I see many obese dogs whose owners shake their heads at me, muttering about how much they walk their dogs. Excessive food intake contributes more to obesity than insufficient exercise. The best answer is to cut back on calories as well as increasing exercise, just as it is in humans. It's common for people to mistakingly think that they can forget about worrying about calorie intake if they are exercising a lot: this is not true at all.

In recent times, I have been contacted frequently by people who believe that some folk are pushing their dogs too hard in exercise. They see cyclists going by with their dogs attached to a long leash beside the bike. They believe that the dogs are being tortured in some way, dragged unwillingly for mile after mile. They also feel that it's dangerous, with the risk of the dog dashing sideways into traffic, causing an accident.

While it's true that there may be some rare cases where these negative aspects apply, most of the time the people who exercise their pets in this way are careful to ensure that it's safe, and that their pets enjoy doing it. Many breeds of dogs have an innate ability to run and run for many miles, and they are happy to jog beside their owners on the bike.

The truth is that if a dog really dislikes something, it will not do it. Many years ago, when I was training for a marathon, I used to take a neighbour's dog with me. He was a fit Doberman, called Diesel, and for the first couple of 10k runs, he happily trotted beside me. But the third time, he stopped after the first half kilometre and headed home. However hard I tried to persuade him, he refused to follow me. It was obvious what was wrong: dogs like to enjoy experiencing their environment on walks, stopping to sniff and explore their surroundings. On a long, steady jog, there's no opportunity to do this. It wasn't fun for Diesel, so he decided that he wasn't going to go, and nothing I could do would dissuade him.

So if you see somebody exercising their dog in a way that you disapprove of, ask yourself: does the dog look like a willing participant? Remember that if the dog is taking part, then nearly always, the dog wants to be there.

Gorey Guardian