Too often, dog owners are told that more exercise and more walks are the solution to many behavior problems including aggression, reactivity, and separation anxiety. While it is true that a lack of exercise can exacerbate these issues, it’s rarely the cause or the cure — although it is part of the treatment plan.
I think that for many dogs (and their people!), leash walks are overrated. If your dog lunges at other dogs and people before you even make it off your block, the walk isn’t exactly “relaxing” for either of you. My dogs rarely get walks through our neighborhood, where we are very likely to encounter off-leash dogs, untrained dogs straining, barking, and lunging on flexi leashes (more often than not attached to choke or prong collars), and unsupervised children. My clients who are struggling with leash-reactive dogs are first shocked, then relieved, when I tell them that we should teach their dogs new skills before going out on any more walks.
Until my reactive Saint Bernard, Cuba, is more comfortable around these things in his environment, chances are high that when we’re out together, he may be put in a situation where he rehearses undesirable behavior and learns that he cannot trust me to keep him safe; not a fun situation for either of us! I know many dogs who are so reactive they are on the verge of a panic attack the minute they go out, and yet their owners are often told they need more walks. These dogs need more training and more options.
I grew up in a rural community where you rarely saw a dog on a leash except at the vet’s office. The dogs I knew as a child were generally well-mannered and friendly and a lot more engaged in families’ lives — they played outside, rode in the car to grandma’s, hiked through the creek with children and other dogs, or ran alongside while we rode bikes or mowed the lawn. These days, dogs spend a lot more time in crates, and many pet owners hire dog walkers because they don’t have time to provide the dog with basic exercise.
There are many alternatives to leash walks that may be preferable for some dogs for a variety of reasons — energy level, training deficits/behavior problems, breed type, owner preferences and schedules. Here are a few I recommend for my clients:
Positive training sessions exercise your dog’s brain and body. Today is rainy, so Mokie, Cuba, and I will be playing a rousing game of hide and seek in the house. This is a great way to get some exercise, improve your dog’s recall, and build a bond through play together.
Cuba gets a “training walk” instead of a leash walk. We go somewhere like a large field without a lot of distractions and work on leash skills, developing a good auto-check-in and reinforcing desirable default behaviors. He is often more tired when we come home than he would be after a regular walk. We practice quick pace changes and interval training (walk very slowly, then jog, then back to slow, then sprint). While we aren’t walking a three-mile loop around the neighborhood, he is getting an equivalent amount of exercise, albeit in a smaller place.
Playing with your dog is great exercise for both of you. (Try an enthusiastic round of tug with a Saint Bernard who weighs as much as you do!) Playing “chase me” games helps build focus and bonding and will get your heart rates pumping! Hide and seek provides training, play, and physical exercise for both of you. A good 15 minutes of vigorous play can tire both of my dogs much more quickly than a walk that is two or three times as long — and also provides ample opportunities to reinforce great behaviors.
Mokie would choose heading to the pond or river for some “swim-fetch” over a leash walk every time. Similarly, Cuba loves a hike through the woods or off-leash time in a safe environment. Herding, agility, roller-blading, bicycling, lure coursing, play with other dogs, and swimming are all great alternatives to leash walks. If you like regular leash walks, consider changing your route at least weekly to maximize the mental stimulation your dog gets from interacting with a new environment.
In my opinion, almost all pet dogs need more exercise than they get, but they also frequently starving for engagement with their owners in meaningful ways. Try to be fully present and dedicated to having distraction-free fun with your dog. It’s a time for bonding and shared exploration, and a chance for you to remind your dog how important he is to you and vice versa. When I’m playing tug with Cuba, I temporarily forget my to-do list and get to just have fun and be silly.
We should strive to integrate our dogs into our lives. Some of the best-behaved dogs I know never go on leash walks, but instead do virtually everything with their owners. They attend baseball games, go to the hardware store, sit outside a coffee shop, hang out at work, or camp or picnic as a family.
If your dog has behavior issues and cannot engage in these activities, find ones you can do together while you work on your foundation training skills and expand the world you share. Finding ways to make your exercise more engaging will make it less of a chore and more something you can look forward to as a way to unwind at the end of a long day.