Confessions from a Type A Dog Mom on Learning How to Take Slow, Calm, Quiet Sniffing Walks with Her Dogs
Let’s set the stage, I am the quintessential Type A person. I like to work. I thrive on having a project and setting goals, Excel spreadsheets and check lists make me feel warm and fuzzy. Nothing makes me happier than accomplishing a task and being able to check something off my list. In addition, I am one of those people who cannot sit still and can easily get in 10,000 steps on a non-exercise, stay at home, take a nap kind of day. You get the picture.
Five years ago, I officially retired from nursing and medical meeting management. Found out that retirement was a bit boring and decided to follow my passion and formally study to be a dog trainer (Also had THAT dog who made it essential that I learn more about dog behavior.). While sitting in the first session of the yearlong Dog Trainer Education with Turid Rugaas, we were given a challenge that would completely blow my mind and change how I walked with my dogs forevermore.
We were learning about stress in dogs and how it is imperative to give them opportunities to relax and simply be dogs. Turid asked us to each day do a 20 minute walk with our dogs with the following criteria: let them go where they wanted to (as long as it was safe), stay and sniff at one spot for as long they liked, walk slowly and do not talk to the dog unless absolutely necessary. Wait, what??? My brain could not imagine such a thing. Aren’t dog walks supposed to be structured and about getting exercise? Doing their business? Don’t I have to my dogs where to go?? Sure, we would go for a hike in the woods on the weekends and do some sniffing. But, every day??? How can that be?
But since I was learning from one of the leading experts in the dog training and behavior world (and paying tuition) figured that I needed to give it a shot.
Well, that first walk was excruciatingly painful for me, 20 minutes seemed like an eternity and I was bored. And, the first time one of the dogs stayed and sniffed a spot for 5 minutes it was like watching paint dry. I was not sure what to do with myself…..at all.
At the time, we had two dogs; a lovely 10-year-old, very obedient German Shepherd and a year old reactive and fearful Standard Poodle. I think the GSD felt a bit out of sorts like me. She had been walking with me in heel position for so many years that being given some freedom on routine daily walks was totally foreign to her. She kept looking at me with a “what do I do now expression?”. I would just stand there without talking or leading her because I was not sure what to do either. Both of us were experiencing some learned helplessness at this point.
On the other hand, the reactive poodle embraced his new found freedom of making choices and the ability to use his nose. He decided that daily walks were now awesome. We had always walked him in locales that kept other people and dogs at a comfortable distance but now he was able to use his nose and sniff to his hearts content.
Back to the GSD. Walking with the poodle helped me see how fun sniffing walks could be for a dog and I was determined to help the GSD find her mojo and have fun too. And, over time, she was able to do just that. It was a bit of a slow process and consisted of a lot of time just hanging out quietly while she figured out where she wanted to go and what she wanted to sniff next. This was done at Turid’s suggestion, I had written to her because I was afraid that I was doing something wrong. Old dogs can learn new tricks, it just may take them a bit longer. German Shepherds really like their routines and change can be hard for them, especially after 10 years of doing things a certain way.
Fast forward 6 months – both dogs loved their daily walks and we noticed some other added benefits. The reactive poodle was more relaxed and confident. The German Shepherd was more relaxed too and she seemed to have a bit more pep in her step. She was arthritic and it appeared that doing nice, slow gentle walks with her helped her from a musculoskeletal standpoint too. For me, I was still a bit antsy while doing the walks. Found the walks much easier to do and was good to stick with it because I could see the benefits my dogs were receiving.
Fast forward even further, 5 years later. We still have the same poodle and another German Shepherd (the other one passed away 4 years ago). The German Shepherd has known sniffing walks since she came to live with us as stray, rescue pup almost 3 years ago. Now, the entire family completely embraces sniffing walks. My husband is semi -retired and has joined our sniffing walk team.
The dogs are eager to do their walks each day and we are equally as eager to join them. If we have a day that does not allow us to walk and the dogs to sniff, we are all off a bit. We have been on many adventures together, our walks last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. The dogs get to decide. They stop to sniff and get to stay in that spot for as long as they like. I used to get so bored when they did that, now I find myself watching them have fun, looking at the flowers (really), admiring the view and letting myself be taken away in the moment. And, when we get home, the dogs are all a bit more relaxed as am I and the day starts on a much brighter note.
Granted, it has taken time, but I am now a sniffing walk convert. My most common hashtag is #letthemsniff. Sniffing walks allow dogs to be dogs and use their noses as they were intended to do so. And, the side benefits are that they are happier and more relaxed. Who could ask for more for their dogs?
So, I challenge you, as Turid Rugaas challenged me. Take your dog for a 20-minute walk, go slow and be calm. Do not talk to your dog unless necessary and let them guide the walk; they get to go wherever it is safe and can stay and sniff in a spot for as long as they like.
If this Type A can do it, you can too. Let me know how it goes, I can be reached at email@example.com