I’ve had a post mentally brewing for a while addressing the importance of letting dogs follow their nose. There are a number of stark differences present between the school of people who can be considered legitimate animal behaviorists and experienced, knowledgeable dog trainers, and those who defer to a dominance-based (i.e. Cesar Milan) approach to training and working with dogs. I believe that one of the most stark contrasts between these two groups lies in their understanding of the importance of “exercise” for dogs. Think ten minutes of “fun nose work” versus a 6-mile bike ride with your pup strapped to the handle bars or your waist.
Most folks will concede that exercise is essential for a healthy, happy dog (not to mention a healthy, happy owner)–those who favor chaining your dogs outdoors and dragging them down the street on a choke chain NOT included. But few are willing to pause and consider the possibility that exercise might look a tad different at times for dogs than it does for humans, and that what’s most healthy for humans could also be applied to dogs in certain circumstances, but rarely is.
Alexandra Horowitz points out that “The tissue of the inside of the nose is entirely blanketed with tiny receptor sites . . . human noses have about six million of these sensory receptor sites; sheepdog noses, over two hundred million; beagle noses, over three hundred million. . . . The difference in smell experience is exponential.”
Question: How many times have you taken your dog for a walk and jerked the leash repeatedly, urging him forward every time he stops to smell a spot in the grass or more closely examine the previous spraying of a tree, all because you’re confident that he’ll burn more energy and get more exercise the farther he walks, or because your own neanderthal biology tells you to “keep moving forward”? Can’t let him stop, because you’ve got to get those 2 miles logged . . . because that’s what works for us, humans. After all, what looks better on Facebook or MapMyRun? Taking a 20-minute walk around the block, all of 50 yards, or logging 4-6 fast-paced miles in 45 minutes?
This is the fundamental misunderstanding that most of us have in relation to our four-legged best friends. Refusing your dog the opportunity to indulge her nose is tantamount to asking her to stand in one place without moving for hours on end and saying, “No! Don’t be yourself. Ignore your biology, please.” Sure, taking your dog for a fast-paced, unrelenting walk or run for 3 miles is light years better than leaving them chained in the yard all day or locked in a crate. (And don’t get me wrong, you runners and cyclists out there who are in fact running and biking with your dogs, in addition to walking and playing with them, are doing them a world of good and certainly shouldn’t stop.) But if you really give a damn about helping your dog burn some energy and live a more relaxed and healthy life specific to their dog-selves, you really should consider, literally, stopping to let them smell the roses. Not because the roses smell like roses, but because most likely a raccoon or another dog may have peed on them only hours before.
This is excellent news for those of you who say, “hey, I work two jobs, have four kids and barely have time to sleep, let alone take my dog for a 2-mile run.” If you are really serious about exercising your dogs and helping them burn energy, which ultimately leads to calmer, more desirable behavior, then follow their nose. Each and every day, any given location has been freshly inundated with countless smells ripe for the picking for your dog. And all you need to do is strap on a leash, grab a poop bag and casually stroll while they do all the work. What we see as our dogs stopping in their tracks for an inordinate amount of time to examine a square inch patch of grass, is, for them, an opportunity to linger in the Sistine Chapel and contemplate Michelangelo.
I have 3/4 acres of rolling, fenced in yard that my dogs have access to any time that I am home. They have plenty of space to mill around, take bathroom breaks and chase ball after ball after ball. But what happens 15 minutes after we come back inside from doing just that? They’re ready to go out again. Why? Because they’re bored out of their minds with the unchanging scenery. I don’t care what kind of or how large of a yard you have. Your yard offers nothing but the same ole’ same ole’ for your dog after a few days. Novelty and change of scenery, specifically ole’ factory scenery, is key for a happy, well-mannered dog. Do yourself, and your dog a favor and just make a point of going somewhere new every day for 15-20 minutes, unrushed, and then turn around and come home. Can’t take the car today? Okay, let’s go hunt for treats in the basement! Already played ball today? Okay, let’s go walk to the mailbox and then walk down the street for 5 minutes and come back. Need some milk and beer from the store around the corner? Perhaps some Xanax from the pharmacy? Let’s go grab that and knock out that evening run in the process.
This morning I took two trips to the hiking trails near my house (about 2 miles away), piling my two older black lab mixes into the car at 8am and my two goofy, puppy pit bull mixes into the car at 9am. We took a leisurely stroll around a few mapped out trails at the Discovery Center, going no more than 1-2 miles each walk. We came back home and they completely passed out for the rest of the day, wiped out from the overwhelming assault of every little smell they passed with each individual step, having been given the opportunity to actually stop and linger over a single leaf for 30-60 seconds if that was what they wanted to do. Two hours in the morning, spent enjoying a leisurely hike for myself, and simultaneously wiping out four large-breed, high-energy dogs. If I only had one dog, I could have accomplished the same in 15 minutes with just a stroll down the street or a drive to a local park.
Similarly, I often opt to have my dogs “hunt” for their food in the backyard (meaning I take a huge bowl of their dry kibble and chuck it all over the yard in front of them and holler “go find it!”), when possible. Winter, particularly snow, makes this more difficult, although not impossible. (Some dogs are a bit more winter-hardy than others. My black lab/shepherd/eskimo dog mix, Charlie, can sit in the snow for hours and not get cold, whereas my little hairless, pit mix, Peaches, will slowly sniff for her bit of kibble while shivering furiously.) On rainy days, the same can be accomplished by playing a “go find the treat game” with a cardboard box and a towel for 10 minutes indoors–you’ll do more for your dog with this kind of activity than an hour of playing ball off leash outside if you devote the time to understanding how their nose works. Folks who work with professional scent dogs know this oh too well.
Ultimately, the choice boils down to approaching dog ownership like you do your own healthy living. There are those of us who think that mindlessly running on a treadmill or chugging on an elliptical machine for 45-minutes every morning while staring at a beige-colored gym wall will lead us to the physical, mental, and spiritual promise land. Or at the very least, prevent us from jumping off a bridge after work. And, no doubt, it’s better than riding the sectional sofa wave with a bag of Flaming Hot Doritos and watching Teen Mom and Celebrity Apprentice on cable.
And then there are those of us who realize that fulfilling who we are as a species, as human beings, means indulging those parts of us, including our senses, that crave novelty, demand indulgence, and define who we are as individuals. What an ultra-marathon means for one woman, might be a 6-mile swim or coaching after-school basketball or gardening for another. Honoring your dog . . . as a dog, and as an individual is the surest way to make them happy, and, in turn, to keep you happy.
So while you’re spraying lavender air freshener on your comforter and lighting vanilla-infused candles from Pier One Imports in your dining room after your evening workout, perhaps you might take a moment to appreciate little Buster’s obsession with the deer urine on the maple tree down the street, and his need to linger as though it were a Superbowl party, complete with puppy Budweiser, kitty poop nachos, and an opportunity at halftime to run around and pee on everything.
And yes, I suppose this could be equally helpful advice for acknowledging your significant other as an individual, and a species, too.