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To Sniff or Not to Sniff: Are your walking goals misguided?

No matter what a client comes to see us about, one of the many common things we find ourselves taking time to discuss is how much sniffing the dog solicits and how much sniffing they’re allowed to do. Not every dog is going to want to have their nose to the ground at all times, but sniffing is important to every dog.

Most people already know that dogs have an exceptional sense of smell, but not everyone understands how integral it is to their perception of the world around them. It’s not uncommon for us to hear from our human clients that walks are challenging or frustrating because the dog needs to stop every 3 steps to smell something, and when they do, the amount of time they want to investigate is excessive.

This tells us that the dog wants to sniff more, the human wants to walk more and for the dog to sniff less, and that divide is because we are dealing with two very different species with a lot of fundamental differences in how they view the purpose of a walk. For the human and the dog, the walk has vastly different values.

The first thing we need to determine is who the walk is meant to be for. While most of the time if you ask a dog guardian, the walk is for the dog as a means of physical exercise, sometimes the walk is considered a form of exercise for both. Our next aim is to find a way to meet everyone’s needs. In order to get the guardian on board with a shift in goals, we need them to understand why the dog’s need to sniff is so integral to their quality of life and how it will benefit them as the owner.

So let’s talk about that. For humans (with exception of those with moderate to significant visual impairments), the primary way that they perceive much of the world is through seeing. Our eyes spend all of our waking hours processing information about our environment, changes in our environment, and what to focus on versus what is not a priority. Our senses are designed to work in conjunction with our brain in order to help sort pertinent information, and sight is at the top of that list. For dogs, while they do use their eyes to see what’s in their environment, they get a much more informative picture of what’s happening via their sense of smell. For a more comprehensive and fascinating understanding of just how complex it is, check out the book Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz.

Check out this awesome video from Alexandra Horowitz on how your dog's sense of smell works to see the world:

Not only can dogs get interesting information about their environment, but also a ton of knowledge about the human and non-human animals in it. For a dog who’s relatively capable of regulating their emotional state, spending time taking in scent is the most valuable aspect of getting to take a walk. It allows them sensory stimulation, which is extremely healthy for their mental and emotional wellbeing. In fact, for dogs who struggle to regulate their emotions, sniffing may be difficult to focus on with outside distractions and it becomes one of many activities we want to hone in order to help them decompress.

So, we have two beings tethered together who often have entirely different agendas once they walk out the door and that can be frustrating and problematic for both. For a guardian who is taking their pup on a walk for the purpose of exercise, we like to talk about how much their walk may or may not be actually meeting that physical need. Oftentimes, a walk isn’t doing as much in the way of exercise as the guardian is hoping or believing it to. If there is concern about changing the pace and purpose of the walks being a detriment to the exercise the dog is getting, then we discuss other ways to more effectively meet that need, but our main purpose is to talk about how to get the most benefit from the walk so that both parties understand the goal and are happy.

So what do we want walks for our clients to look like? Provided that walks are manageable from a leash skills standpoint, we want to shift the focus to something called a sniffari. A sniffari is a walk where our attention changes from speed and distance to time. The important factor is that provided it is safe to do so, the dog is allowed to sniff and for as long as they want. I would rather see a dog make it 2 blocks in 20 minutes because they were taking in scents than make it 10 blocks in that 20 minutes being ushered and hurried along. It’s likely that the level of relaxation a dog will reach once they come back home and settle in will be vastly different once the change is made. It is one way that we can attempt to enrich their lives in a meaningful way, provided that the dog finds it enriching. Often times, it can be calming.

Furthermore, if you want to take things to the next level, you could take your dog on a decompression walk. Decompression walks are sniffaris where the dog has a “smelly” adventure in a location that is devoid of human-created elements (as much as is possible). To put it more clearly, a more nature-based environment where you’re unlikely to run into other people, dogs, traffic and all of the other things that act as a distraction in our modern world. These walks are particularly wonderful and can be therapeutic for dogs who are reactive or sound sensitive to traffic and other people-related noises as it allows them to enjoy being a dog without the threat of triggers that may create anxiety or stress.

Once we as humans begin to look through the lens of our companions and embrace our differences for the betterment of their emotional and behavioral health, we often find ourselves enjoying our relationships and experiencing happier lives together. If you have any questions about how to improve your pup's walk, feel free to reach out to us!

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