Monday, October 1, 2018

Does my Dog Really Need to go for Walks?

When Barley and I first started our reactive dog training, the first thing our trainer told us was that we shouldn't go for a walk for two weeks. I was skeptical. I had a 1.5-year-old border collie mix living in an apartment. We didn't have a fenced in yard where we could play and burn off energy. We were not going to survive two weeks without a walk.


Our trainer told me to trust the process and give it a chance. She wanted Barley to learn to focus on me and to start learning to relax instead of always being on high alert. She explained that those goals would take much longer to achieve if I was exposing Barley to distractions on walks before she had a strong foundation in low-stress environments. She assured me that if I was working Barley's brain, she wouldn't miss the physical exercise as much. I decided to believe her, and I'm so glad that I did.

We immediately got started on mental exercise. We spent most of our time working on the It's Your Choice Game and seeing just how many treats we could get stacked on Barley's front legs. We also spent a lot of time on the one-hour down game. We didn't go for a single walk and the apartment didn't come crashing down around us.


Barley's too smart for her own good, so she caught on to these games really quickly, but our trainer told us to start playing them in areas with more distractions instead of going on walks before the two-week period was up. We played in the backyard where there were neighbors, squirrels, and traffic going by. I was on summer vacation, so we were able to do many short training sessions every single day.

When our two weeks were up, we went back to our trainer and she was impressed with all of the progress we'd made. At our first session, we'd spent a long time waiting for Barley to choose to lie down and she'd never really turned her hips to put herself into a relaxed position. She was ready to pop up and go at any moment. In our next session, Barley settled immediately and by the end of the lesson she was relaxing on the floor while I chatted with our trainer.

We were told that we could start going for short walks. At that point, I wasn't tracking our mileage and assumed we were walking many miles every day--but our longest walking route at that point was probably 1.5 miles and all of our walks immediately after starting training were shorter than that. We wanted to make sure that Barley had success on her walks, so we limited the amount of time she spent being exposed to distractions. We introduced the "What's That?" command to help Barley learn to look at her triggers and then look back at me without having a meltdown. The goal of our walks wasn't to get great physical exercise; instead, we were trying to get more mental exercise by upping the level of distractions Barley was exposed to.

Because she already had a strong foundation in focusing on me and staying relaxed at home and in the yard, Barley did great on our walks. When I said, "What's that," she immediately turned to look for me because I'd built so much value for paying attention to me during our two-week training period. I doubt she would have caught on to that command as quickly if we wouldn't have put in so much work to build a strong foundation before introducing bigger distractions.

Because of that strong foundation, I feel confident taking Barley anywhere that I know there won't be loose dogs running around as long as she can be on a leash at my side. When Barley's on her leash, she knows she's working and she pays close attention to me for cues on what we're doing next. She's perfectly content to settle in next to the table at a brewery. She's capable of walking in a city where there's a lot of traffic, cyclists, walkers, and other distractions. She can stay focused on me if deer bound across a trail a few feet ahead of us. She's unfazed by horses coming down the trail or kids riding bikes and skateboards. She knows that if she sees something weird or concerning, she needs to look at me for direction.


Walking is such an integral part of daily lives now--we average 3.3 miles a day--that it's hard to imagine not walking with my dogs. But my early months with Barley taught me that walking isn't necessary. Mental exercise wore Barley out more than physical exercise ever has. When I can combine the two, life is even better--but the best thing I've ever done for Barley's training was trusting our trainer and taking that time off from walking. With National Walk Your Dog Week occurring this month, there are lots of great reasons to walk your dog--but there are plenty of reasons not to walk your dog, too, so make the choice that's best for your dog's physical and mental health. Sometimes that means staying home.


This month, our theme for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop is Training and Exercise, but we welcome all positive training posts. Be sure to check out our co-hosts Wag 'n Woof Pets and Tenacious Little Terrier as well as all of the other great blogs joining us this week. 

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10 comments:

  1. I can't imagine not walking with my dogs, even with my broken ankle I hobbled around outside for shorter walks. Never had a reactive dog, so that might be different. Walks are one of the most loved parts of the day here.

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    1. It's hard for me to imagine it, too, but it was so important for Barley. Walks were information overload and she'd get over threshold so quickly. She'd snarl and lunge any time we saw another dog--even if it was inside barking through the window--or if was saw joggers, bikes, kids. Taking time off from walks gave us a chance to reset her a little bit and now I regularly get comments on how well behaved she is.

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  2. It is really amazing the progress you made with Barley, and surprising to hear that NOT walking was the way to do it! It all makes perfect sense though, and it's interesting that you had to not walk Barley in order to be able to ultimately walk with her. I'm so glad you found the right trainer to help; this is a great concept to keep in mind for reactive dogs.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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    1. We are so very lucky to have found our trainer! These days feel so far behind us that it's hard to believe there was a time when I couldn't walk Barley without problems. She's so well behaved on walks now that I don't think many people would believe there was a different side to this story. And then there's Rye who is a whole other story ;)

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  3. I'm so thrilled for you. I've opened those other posts you mentioned because....Delilah.

    We do walk every day, with exception to ice. Even in pouring rain, or heavy snow, they get outside for shortened walks. It's more important for Sampson, since he only goes out for walks, and that is when he potties. But on those horrid days, I know I can quickly get him out and then come inside for some games.

    You've done a great job with both your girls.

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    1. Thank you! It was a long journey, but it really paid off and all of the hard work was worth it. Barley hates rain (even just a drizzle), so if it's raining before we had out the door for a walk, I'm off the hook ;)

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  4. Two weeks - you were lucky! Our behavioral vet instructed us to keep Habi indoors, blinds closed, for two months - outdoors only for potty breaks, on leash in the back yard. Our reaction was the same as yours - utter disbelief. But we did it, and Habi gradually unwound (and her Prozac kicked in). You are so right - walks are just what many dogs need, and just what some dogs DON'T need. Eventually we were able to have healthy and very fun walks, but we needed that quiet time to push the reset button.

    It has been so inspiring to watch your and Barley's journey. I really appreciate your sharing the good, the bad and the ugly. And look how far you've come!

    Cheers,
    Chris from Boise

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    1. Thank you so much! I think we only got off with two weeks because Barley's a nerd like her mama and likes to do her homework! If it hadn't been summer vacation, we might have still had a few more weeks after out two week check-in with the trainer :) I'm so glad that you and Habi found what worked for you, too!

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  5. Hmm... we can't really try that out because just going outside of our complex for potty breaks involves seeing dogs (maybe one day when we have a yard). But I can see a good cortisol break doing wonders for reactive dogs. Glad it worked for Barley!

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    1. Thankfully, Barley has always been really good at going potty as soon as she hits the grass when I take her out for potty breaks, so we were able to go out and go back in and keep her exposure to other dogs to a minimum during that time period.

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